Christmas treats are cooling in the fridge. Bing Crosby is serenading me with seasonal nostalgia. Two small trees illuminate my small apartment.
Tomorrow is Christmas for my extended family.
Monday is a funeral.
I've always loved Christmas. Any hint of city girl in me vanishes at this time of year, and I revert to the traditional small-town girl with a love of gingerbread, fireplaces and carols. I watch George Bailey want to live again. And then I watch him again, just to make sure he's okay. He usually is.
When I was young, the extended family on my mother's side (the same group that meets tomorrow) would gather in a church basement and exchange gifts. This was before our numbers grew to a more outrageous number and we had to scale back on the gift-giving. And one year, Santa showed up. Unexpectedly. To this day, it is the only time in my short life I can recall meeting the jolly old fellow. Or at least meeting one who brought gifts specifically for me. Who called me by name without prompting.
Not for a minute of my childhood did I believe in Santa. Yet the surprise visit was still magical. Sure, his chuckle was remarkably identical to that of my Uncle Jack's, but I didn't care. Sometimes childhood delight trumps all.
Last night, my dear Santa died.
Tomorrow, as we gather to feast, there will be two empty chairs at the table. Two laughs not heard. Two hugs desperately missed. My grandma will not be there. We were already anticipating the sadness of our first Christmas without her. But neither will her sister's husband. And in our holiday joy, we will grieve.
Since saying goodbye to my grandmother, my life has changed. There is no fear. When you look death in the eye, you can't help but anticipate something greater. So when I shed tears on Monday, they will be for my lovely great aunt. For those left behind. And for the memory of Santa Claus.
Merry Christmas, all.