Dickens' preface to A Christmas Carol famously describes it as a "Ghostly little book." Scrooge's journey is indeed full of ghosts -- the ghosts of memory, of imagined futures, of symbolic spirits and metaphors come to life. And death. Death is the hidden secret of A Christmas Carol, with all the attendant terror of the powerlessness and isolation of the grave. One ghostly vignette in particular is usually left out of stage and screen adaptations (even the otherwise perfect Muppet version):
The air was filled with phantoms, wandering hither and thither in restless haste, and moaning as they went. Every one of them wore chains like Marley's Ghost; some few (they might be guilty governments) were linked together; none were free. Many had been personally known to Scrooge in their lives. He had been quite familiar with one old ghost, in a white waistcoat, with a monstrous iron safe attached to its ankle, who cried piteously at being unable to assist a wretched woman with an infant, whom it saw below, upon a door-step. The misery with them all was, clearly, that they sought to interfere, for good, in human matters, and had lost the power for ever.
The book is remarkable for presenting many such scenes of tortured regret, but no corresponding images of Heaven. Do good people even have an afterlife in this cosmology? They seem to vanish from the world, never to be heard from again. Only the unhappy and the damned linger in the mortal sphere. A life well lived might bring eternal rest -- but good or bad, death inevitably brings a severance, isolation from warm hearths and loving hearts.
There are more than a few ghostly Christmases in my own past -- such as the one during my first year of college. My mom, sister and myself all came down with a particularly nasty flu, and my dad was in the middle of a lengthy recovery from a hernia surgery the month before. Later we would learn that his immune system was too busy fighting cancer to be able to heal other things, and it's hard not to let the memory of that news color what came before. I remember the four of us prostrate and miserable, variously nauseated or eating microwaveable pot stickers -- the only thing Mom could manage to cook before collapsing back on the couch with the rest of us. I've never quite forgiven pot stickers in all the time since.
A few years later, Christmas again turned ghostly when we lost both my great-grandmother and her youngest brother three days apart, one on either side of the holiday. An entire generation vanished in the blink of an eye. They'd been an enormous part of my entire life -- my grandma had poured me cup after cup of strong black tea, and let me climb all the trees in her yard-that-was-basically-a-farm, and made the most delicious applesauce you've ever tasted. My great-uncle was also the elementary school janitor who played St. Nicholas to all us Catholic schoolkids -- he made me my first hot buttered rum when I was (not quite) old enough to drink them, and was always in the most unfailingly generous humor. By the time this holiday was done, we were on first-name terms with the gentleman at the funeral home. We would see him again when my dad died a few years later.
And now this year came the news that my grandmother had cancer. A different, new cancer -- not the one she managed to fight off two years ago. This one is much worse, caught at a much later stage. She went into the hospital last Tuesday, certain that the doctors would have a treatment plan for her. I walked around for most of a week with fists clenched, absolutely spoiling for a fight. Then I drove down for a day to visit her along with with a broad coalition of family members, who are camping out in Portland the way they camped out in Seattle during my dad's final decline.
My grandmother passed away Friday afternoon.
This weird space of grief is starting to become familiar. I've visited enough times to know the landmarks and mileposts. I know that wine will help but Scotch will not, that watching Game of Thrones will be a solid distraction but watching Lilo and Stitch will leave me a sobbing, snot-daubed wreck. Time becomes an accordion, compressing and expanding unpredictably. Some hours fly by, while other minutes linger long past their usual welcome. I spent the entire trip to Portland and back listening to Welcome to Night Vale, because the eerie tone and portentous language seemed to acknowledge the weirdness and darkness in my own life.
Times like this we cling hardest to the stories that encompass what we're feeling. I keep thinking of the Ghost of Christmas Present -- the pleasant, hospitable, yet somehow fierce second spirit that Scrooge encounters. He's had "More than eighteen hundred" brothers, but he can't have met any of them -- they are born, live, and die in the space of a single night. (The way the Ghost fades away into sparkles in the Muppet version is particularly heartbreaking.) He is the embodiment of human warmth and holiday feeling, and he is terribly, tragically ephemeral. Mortal, even. What does it mean for a Ghost to die?
I think, insofar as I can think these days, that it's about memory. The Ghost of Christmas Present may not have met his brothers, but he remembers them. The Ghost of Christmas Past remembers everything. And one of the reasons death is so frightening is that it threatens us with forgetting. There's a shock that comes when you can't precisely recall the face of someone you've lost -- what was their nose shaped like? The precise color of their eyes? Photographs and home movies are not as much help as you'd think -- they are limited, incomplete. They don't so much fill the void as remind us that it exists.
We have to trust that the important things will still be remembered. The way someone laughed, or smiled. The gifts they gave -- and not just the ones wearing bows under a glittering tree. The inextinguishable light they brought into our lives. On these longest, darkest, coldest nights of the year, we night that light the most.
And we will remember, as best we can.