My sons and I took turns selecting Christmas carols to sing. I kept mine simple, just some of the basics. Jingle Bells. We Wish You a Merry Christmas. Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. And they surprised me with more complex choices, songs I didn’t know all the words to but they did, songs they must have learned in school or a church choir. I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day. Oh Holy Night.
As we sang, I drove the car slowly and evenly down the mountain pass. It was the day after Christmas, and we had just spent two incredible days together in a mountain cabin near a ski resort, a nice little chalet kind of place with a full kitchen, high-speed internet, a gas fireplace, and a hot tub. We had arrived on Christmas Eve and had had a wonderful evening soaking and laughing and playing. We cuddled together in front of the fire and sang Christmas carols until it was time for bed.
The next morning, Santa Claus arrived, leaving a small pile of gifts for the kids. I told them I had written him a letter, telling him where to find us. There were only 3 small gifts for each of the boys. They had been opening a gift a day leading up to Christmas from me or other family members rather than one massive pile on Christmas morning, and they still had another Santa visit at their mom’s house to get to in a few days. I tried to spread their Christmas out, giving them time to enjoy things. It wasn’t until after breakfast that we had opened the blinds to see the massive piles of snow outside. The snow had been unexpected. It blanketed the hills around us, burying cars and picnic tables, and I couldn’t make out the sidewalk or the driveway.
And so the kids and I had spent one more day in the cabin, creatively finding ways to spend our time. Drawing contests, pretending to be hunters, strapping on gear to help some other folks build a snowman, then switching to swimsuits for more time in the outdoor hot tub. We foraged vending machines for a creative dinner, using the leftover food from the night before along with it. We took a long nap. We watched the same movie in front of the same fire. It was an unexpected and perfect Christmas Day.
As I sped down the hill, singing, a strange terror gripped my heart. Two thoughts cascaded into my brain all at once, out of nowhere. One thought was on the realization that I was blissfully happy in this particular moment, and the other thought was a terrible realization that sometimes people die in these exact moments. My heart rate increased and I gripped the wheel tighter. I steadied my breathing and forced rational thought, still singing.
I spend much of my career responding to the scenes of crises, working with those who have been impacted by tragedy. I have delivered the news to teams of people about the heart attack of a coworker, I have held hands of the widow who found her husband after his suicide, I have born the grief of the grandmother who has lost four family members in in three months time. I’ve become desensitized to death, and I’ve accepted it, and the grief that follows, as natural, normal, happenstance. None of us are immune. Death hits suddenly, and it hits hard.
I suddenly remembered a strange conversation I had had with a client in trauma recently, about the tragic death of her dear friend, a man who had dropped dead of an aneurysm, leaving two children behind, fatherless. I remembered hearing her cry about what a good person he was, about how he made everyone’s day brighter and cared about those around him. And I remembered being with her and saying all the right words while inwardly sorting out how much easier grief is, how much more natural, when the death is medical instead of due to suicide or violent crime. Then I remembered how clinical that thought felt, how dry and sterile and mundane as I sat with this woman in pain.
I looked in the rear view mirror and looked at the faces of my children. We had stopped singing now. My 8 year old was looking out the window at the passing scenery, and I could see his little brain absorbing the beauty of the world around him. My 5 year old was telling a lengthy story about a spider who lived in a mitten and how the spider had killed a woman with a bite before a group of super heroes and monsters stopped it, the story stretching into several minutes as he kept adding more and more details, and I gave half-hearted ‘hmms’, ‘wows’, and ‘whoas’ as he spoke to keep him engaged.
It certainly wasn’t my day to die, not on this perfect Christmas weekend. Yet no one ever thought it was there turn. I breathed deeply at perfect peace despite the morbidity of my thoughts. I am fulfilled, balanced, happy. My sons are thriving and I’m growing into a new era of my life, one filled with power and accomplishment. And life felt wonderful.
And then my brain went two directions again, seamless and at once.
“I miss you, Kurt,” I thought, thinking of my best friend who died in a car accident earlier this year at the height of his life.
And I spoke, “Hey boys, whose turn is it? Let’s sing another Christmas song.”