Christmas was never celebrated with any great fanfare in my house. My dad lost his mother at a young age to addiction and was then sent on a train from Toronto to Timiskaming, Ont., to become an unwanted addition to his aunt’s household. So he’s never had much of a sense of family. As the season of lights rolls around each year, he enters his own season of darkness and depression.
In his younger years, his coping mechanism for getting through all the forced joy and conviviality was something from a bottle. Then, as a recovering alcoholic, he learned to numb his sadness with never-ending work. Responsibility for all things Christmasy fell to my mother. With us six kids in tow, she would trek out for the tree, tie it to the car and haul it home to cover it in tinsel. On Christmas Day, she’d make sure there was a humble parcel under that tree for each one of us before dragging us out the door to mass and back home again for a proper holiday feast.
Dad was there in the periphery, doing his best to keep his shadow from looming over us. After coming out for the present opening, he’d retreat back to the bedroom for a mid-afternoon nap, usually with a newspaper in hand. Mom would keep on cooking and cleaning and baking, rolling right along, often teary and exhausted. If company came, Dad would emerge for a few minutes for an obligatory hello before skulking back to bed.
That all changed sometime in my teens. Dad became super involved in Alcoholics Anonymous, sponsoring men whose drinking had destroyed their lives, taking families, jobs, everything. With their kind, haggard faces, these men were welcomed into our home every holiday. For them, Dad would get out of bed and join them on our old flowered chesterfield for long, sincere chats, and his face would light up with good cheer in a way we hadn’t seen in Christmases past.
Of all the men who joined us at Christmas, it’s Steve I remember best. After battling alcoholism for years and finally staying sober, Steve was diagnosed with cancer. It was all through his liver, and he had only a few months to live. Looking at his gaunt face that Christmas, we all knew it. My younger brother Josh, who had his own diagnosis of brain cancer and was puffy and bald from the chemotherapy, sat with Steve on that old chesterfield of ours, but somehow the air was more festive than sombre.
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Steve had his son with him, a boy of about 14 or 15, roughly the same age as my brother. For years, his son had stayed away. For years, he hadn’t spoken to his father. That year, his son was there. And the love between father and son was palpable.
I’d heard people say that joy is never far from suffering, but until then I hadn’t really understood what it meant. That Christmas, I got it. Joy was present. It was there in some vague, hard-to-define way — in the looks people exchanged and the laughter they shared. Steve would die in the spring. But it’s that Christmas, not the news of his death, that I remember.
The following Christmas, we nearly lost my brother. Just as we were celebrating the end of his chemotherapy, he got pneumonia. Christmas Day was spent huddled around his hospital bed. Joy abounded that Christmas, too. It was there in the faces of volunteers who radiated love as they brought the kids their morning presents, and in the humble feast of sandwiches prepared by my sister.
As my mother wandered the hospital gift shop in search of presents that year, the words of a poem came to her, contrasting the trinkets of Santa with the gift of the Christ child. These lines, later penned at my brother’s bedside, still hum in my head when the so-called season of lights is upon us: “So many hearts are hurting, angry, hungry, broken or in pain. / The angels said this Child could bring His Peace in hearts to reign.”
My brother recovered and was released just before New Year’s. The next Christmas, Mom handwrote the poem in her merry scrawl and sent it out in lieu of presents. When I feel the old ghosts of depression haunting me on Christmas Day, her words help me recognize what gift I want to claim — the gift of joy in the face of addiction and depression and sickness and death. Those hard things won’t go away, but joy will persist, too, if we let it.
A version of this essay first appeared in Broadview’s December 2020 issue with the title “Joy in the shadows.”
Julie McGonegal is a writer and editor in Barrie, Ont.
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