Biff America column: The lonely lights of Christmas
Mike’s empty home mocked him as he sat in his cold car. The Christmas decorations, hung by his daughter, despite his protest, sparkled in the wet Massachusetts winter. They brought him no joy — his wife was not waiting inside.
When they were newlyweds, Pat would call him on the phone at work and ask for “my hero.” He truly was a hero to her. When Pat was 16, Mike took her from an abusive home, got her a waitressing job and a room at women’s boardinghouse. Four years later, they married. They raised six children, in a crowded house with loud plumbing. There were some bad years, but even during the worst of times they would have gladly died for each other.
It was not long after their 50th wedding anniversary when a spot was found on Pat’s chest X-ray. She had smoked all her life but hoped her prayers would keep her lungs clean. When she told Mike about her condition, she cried more from embarrassment over her addiction than fear. “I feel like a damn fool,” she said.
She went to outpatient surgery for a biopsy, expecting to be home for supper. She never left the hospital. Three weeks later, she died. He turned 80 a few weeks after her death.
During the months following his wife’s passing, he was nearly paralyzed with grief. Even during the best of times he was not a social person. One of his few regular visitors was his cleaning lady.
Carol had made bad choices. A failed marriage to a man (who she thought moved to Texas) left her with two kids and credit card debt. Her staunch Christian parents, who disapproved of her marriage, responded to her abandonment not with sympathy but rather with an “I told you so” attitude. They mostly disowned her and had little to do with her children. When Mike’s wife was still alive, Carol would clean their house once a week. It wasn’t really necessary, but they agreed they could afford her and she needed the work.
‘Seen and not heard’
Carol came more often after Pat’s death and would bring her children along. She claimed her kids wanted to see him; the feeling was not mutual. On the best of days, the children, 8 and 9, were high strung; on the worst they were intolerable. To them, he was a mean old man for whom their mother worked. To him, they were loud, unruly and disrespectful. He didn’t particularly enjoy his own kids when they were that age — and they knew enough to be “seen and not heard.”
“These kids,” he would say, “need a good swift kick in the pants.”
A change took place, over several months. The children became better mannered and he grew more tolerant. They would show him their schoolwork and ask for his help. He attended a couple of school recitals. He said their singing sounded like weasels in a blender, but he would go when invited. He would often get tired of the “brats” but would miss them when Carol kept them away. When I’d called him on the phone, he always had some complaint about them. “Those damn kids spilled milk on my new tablecloth. If they were mine, I’d drown them in the river.” (I think he was kidding.)
No Pleasure in the Beauty
Back in the car, his old Buick leaked heat like a sieve. Mike began to shiver; he questioned the worth of a life alone stuck in a frail old body. Though afraid of death, he saw no reason to live. His house twinkled as if to mock his black mood. He took no pleasure in its beauty.
Just then, the kitchen door burst open and Carol’s kids ran outside. They were dressed in black slacks, red shirts and green bow ties. He later described their appearance as “two elves from hell.” They tugged on his door and yelled, “We have been watching you through the window. Come on, mom is making Christmas cookies and we brought a tape player so we can all sing carols. What are you doing sitting out here in the cold for? It’s Christmas Eve.”
He slowly got out of his car. Each child took a hand and led him toward his house. As he walked in, he noticed how beautiful his home looked.
Jeffrey Bergeron, aka Biff America, can be seen on TV-8-Summit and read in several newspapers and magazines. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.