For those used to checking in on “Rochat, Can You See?”, I’m presently on vacation and will be back to work on New Year’s Eve. So no column this week, but I’ll be ready to return next week with redoubled energy!
A Time for the Innocents
“I love you.”
They’ve always been the last words I say to Heather as I leave. Sometimes whispered into a darkened bedroom. Sometime called over the shoulder in a hurried dash. But always there.
It’s partly an inheritance from my parents, partly a consequence of my job. In 14 years, I’ve covered fires and floods, crashes and crimes. I’ve learned how fast life can happen, how little warning there can be.
How little time to say goodbye.
Lullay, lullay, Thou little tiny child,
Bye, bye, lully, lullay,
Lullay , thou little tiny child,
Bye, bye, lully, lullay.
— “Coventry Carol”
If you study a calendar long enough – a good calendar, anyway – some odd dates start to crop up, each with their own importance. Many of my Welsh-descended friends in Emporia kept March 1, St. David’s Day. Some of my English ones still “remember, remember, the fifth of November” that marks the Guy Fawkes plot.
There’s a day in honor of pi (and probably of pie), a day in honor of punctuation, even a day for talking like a pirate. Between the serious and the silly, there seems to be a time for everything.
Including Dec. 28. The church holiday that used to be called Childermas.
Where it’s observed now, it’s usually named the Feast of the Innocents.
O sisters, too, how may we do,
For to preserve this day,
This poor youngling for whom we sing,
Bye, bye, lully, lullay.
The Feast of the Innocents commemorates a part of the Christmas story that sometimes gets glossed over. It’s a part where Herod, in fear of a king who may supplant him and in rage at his betrayal by the magi, orders the male infants of Bethlehem slain. To escape, Mary and Joseph flee to Egypt with the baby Jesus.
The facts of the story have been debated for a long time, in part because it only appears in the book of Matthew and nowhere else. Still, it’s not hard to see how others could have missed it. Bethlehem was a small town; any such order would have affected at most 20 children.
How familiar, and painful, that sounds now.
Herod the king, in his raging,
Charged he hath this day,
His men of might in his own sight,
All young children to slay.
I still don’t know what to say about Sandy Hook.
How can you?
These are the acts for which the word “madness” was created. Acts that steal words, that rend thought, leaving behind only confusion, rage and heartbreak.
Part of me wants to rage. To argue, to find an answer that will fix things. And I’m human, I’ve had that debate with friends over different pieces of the puzzle: gun control, mental health funding, all the pieces we’ve come to know so well.
Heaven knows we need an answer. We probably need several. None of them simple enough, or pithy enough, to be captured in the too-brief words of a too-ephemeral column.
But I feel, I believe, I know in my heart that the first step has to be to remember.
Remember how you feel now.
Remember the pain of the mother whose child won’t come home with a picture for the refrigerator.
Remember the hurt of the child whose friend won’t be coming over to play.
Remember the helplessness and the desire to do something.
Because only if enough of us keep that desire will something happen.
The feeling will dim. It’s inevitable, probably even necessary. But it can’t be allowed to die altogether.
Not in a world where the choices too often are remember – or be reminded.
That woe is me, poor Child for Thee,
And ever mourn and sigh,
For thy parting neither say nor sing,
Bye, bye, lully, lullay.
One last thought. Please. Remember your own innocents as well. It’s so easy to take them for granted, so easy to forget how quickly normal can turn upside down. Easy to let the wondrous become routine.
Hold them close, this Christmas and after. Always remind yourself how much they mean, how much you’d give for them. Give it, when you have to.
And always, always say “I love you” at the door. Just in case.
A Letter to Gil (or, A Visit Before St. Nicholas)
To my nephew the giggler, known also as Gil,
I know you’re a wiggler, who can hardly sit still,
And hey, who can blame you? The season’s in town,
With the trees and bright lights, and (please?) snow on the ground,
Your momma is whispering to Santa with care,
In hopes that your Christmas list soon will be there
(Granted, you’re two, so the writing’s still tough,
But between Mom and Dad, they’ll note down all your stuff.)
I hope you’re excited. It’s a great time for kids!
You bubble like teapots, near popping your lids,
All your energy focused on one magic day …
‘Til that time when you’re older and start to say “Hey!”
You see, it’s quite odd just how nature contrives
To decide just quite when a new baby arrives,
Which is why, when you look at December, you’re seein’,
Christmas Day, twenty-five … and Gil’s birthday, fifteen.
Just 10 days from your day to the holiday glitz,
That magical moment when everyone sits,
Surrounded by coffee and worn to a frazzle,
From the driving and cooking and holiday hassle,
I know at your age that it hasn’t quite clicked,
But I’ve had a few friends who once felt they’d been tricked,
And believed (while they waited in line at the mall)
That a birthday so close was no birthday at all.
They’d wish for a time that could be just their own,
like October, July, or in March when it’s blowin’,
Or the first day of school, bringing cupcakes to share,
Or any time, really – except for right there!
But I’ll tell you a secret, if you listen close.
The kids in December? They’re luckier than most.
With smart parents (and yours are as smart as can be),
You’ll still get a day to say “This day’s for me!”
Those bright decorations? My birthday won’t get ’em.
There’s smiles on each face (just as long as we let ’em),
Folks want to be happy, they want to have joy,
And that’s where you stepped in, you smart little boy,
Your party starts early, then builds to a next,
By the time that it’s through, you’ll be truly perplexed,
As to why folks would groan to be born on this date,
The whole doggone time is yours! Isn’t it great?
So rest your mind easy and rest your mind still,
There’s enough room to cheer for both Christmas and Gil,
Neither Christmas nor you will be ever forgot,
Never doubt it. I love you.
Your Uncle Scott.
Riley’s two-year old face lit up in delight, as brilliant as the Christmas tree in front of it.
“Oh-kay-kay!” she declared, bestowing her highest compliment.
And with that, the slightly worn plastic tree with its strings of carefully untangled colored lights went from “nice” to “magical.”
The march to Christmas had officially begun.
It’s not the first time we’ve had one of our nieces or nephews nearby as the season got underway. Our nephew Gil was born 10 days before Christmas, after all. But it is the first time we’ve been around one of them at an age where they can begin to notice the change around them, and to start getting excited by it.
I’m not saying the rest of us had become Ebenezer Scrooge, in need of a wallop by four spirits and the crutch of Tiny Tim. Heather and I still love the lights, the music, the people who have clearly not attempted to drive since last December. (OK, maybe not that last one so much.)
But for years, we’ve been the magicians as much as the audience. We’ve got a trick to pull off, and by gosh, we’re going to do it right!
Maybe especially when it comes to lights.
My wife Heather comes by her obsession with Christmas tree lights honestly. It was her father who taught her the importance of making a tree “glow from within,” with the strings of lights carefully balanced and arranged. I don’t know if he also taught her the, ah, special incantations used in achieving this effect, or the ritual invocation of “Next year, we’re getting a pre-lit tree!” but they also seem to be a mandatory part of the experience.
And so, it was with mounting horror that she realized string no. 3 was longer and larger than the first two. So were the others. In the chaos of getting everything untangled, we’d plugged in our two “reserve strands” first, the shorter ones used to finish a tree off without holes.
Apparently this is a sin on the level of ordering Fat Tire at a five-star French restaurant.
“Now it’s going to look all weird!”
“Honey … “
“There are gaps in the lights!”
Oh, yes. I had forgotten the gaps. My failure to pay attention to proper spacing on a rare Christmas when I lit the tree had resulted in an immediate re-decoration that year. (I usually figure that throwing a barrage of ornaments into the branches is enough to paper over any errors, like a freshman pulling his bookshelf over a hole in the wall.)
“It’s going to have too many lights on top and not enough on the bottom,” Heather declared, reviewing it with an artists’ eye. “I’d better unplug that last strand.”
As she reached to unwind the string, Riley protested.
Bring the pretty colors down? Even for a few minutes? No way!
Which, when you think about it, is what this time of year’s about anyway.
Sure, we’ve collectively made it a race to a brightly-wrapped finish line. But that’s not its true heritage. It’s a time set apart, for expectation, for watching, for joy and love and peace of spirit.
And maybe, just for a little while, to stand in wonder and realize the beauty we’re helping to create.
The tree’s lights are still up, gaps and all. Maybe it’s not perfect. But it is magic. A two-year-old told us so.
The same two-year-old who was pressing lights into the carpet as they were plugged in, watching them “glow from within.”
Oh, boy. We may have another artist coming.
But for now, everything is oh-kay-kay.