The week between Christmas and the New Year was always pretty quiet when I was a minister. The frantic holiday activity stopped abruptly on December 25 and I could relax a bit. However, I always stayed in town on the job because authentic moments for ministry often occurred then.
I did a lot of funerals during that week of the year. Some people hold on as hard as they can to make it to one more Christmas before they give in and allow themselves to pass on. Other people give up earlier, or sometimes commit suicide because they don’t have any fight left and they can’t stand facing the holiday again.
One sturdy soul stands out in my memory who ended things a little differently. Earlier that year she had developed a fast growing cancer. As she declined rapidly, the holiday season drew near. She acknowledged that her time was short but insisted that she would not be dying on Christmas Day because she didn’t want to ruin the holiday for the family.
However, no matter how much she protested, it appeared that her last moments would indeed be on Christmas Day.
I made my pastoral call that morning. She lay in the hospital bed in the living room, surrounded by family. I noted her uneven, rattled breathing and I was sure she wouldn’t make it through the day. The family could see it too and they stayed close to express their love and farewells. It was beautiful, really–a fitting end to a life lived well.
She had made a promise to herself and to her family, so this story isn’t done yet.
One little girl–a niece I think–couldn’t be as quiet and dignified as the rest of the family. She knelt by the bed, laid her head on her aunt’s breast and sobbed uncontrollably.
And that’s when I saw… one last time… the amazing quality this woman had always possessed.
She took a deep breath, set her jaw, and raised her hand to stroke her niece’s head. Then she set out to hold the line against her own demise for the sake of this girl as well as the rest of her loved ones.
Her gift that year was two more days of life.
Stories are often told of heroes who do amazing things. Sometimes they’re true, often they’re fictional, and they’re told with drama and action. But true heroism is often acted out with quiet determination by frail people who refuse to give up for the sake of the people they love.
Merry Christmas and happy new year.