Surviving Christmas

by Rick Moen

The nights get long; the weather turns bleak (for us North Hemisphereans). Family budgets collapse from travel and gift-giving. Some people are dismayed by weight gain, others by hunger. Many feel lonely and left out, at odds with surrounding jollity. Alcohol makes this worse.

A large minority dip into Seasonal Affective Disorder — periodic clinical depression.

I sail past all those hazards. The season's musical detritus and retail excess don't bother me. Not even the ghastly spectre of television's year-end retrospectives troubles me much.

What gets me down about Christmas season is people freakishly, horribly, and suddenly dying — and my consequent witnessing of other people's grief.


Christmas season was a fun secular festival until I was ten years old, when I had the horror of witnessing a young woman's whole life blighted by a knock on her door, early that cold St. Stephen's Day morning: It was a grim delegation, come to inform her that her husband had just been blown to ashes by a defectively manufactured commercial jet, and their young children left fatherless. My sister and I witnessed this from nearby, about two metres behind, sitting on a traitorously warm stair. In our pyjamas. We had eyes and ears for that young woman, alone.

I hope to never again witness such hopelessness and despair. Imagine seeing seeing a kind, intelligent, brave woman devastated to her core. Imagine caring about her deeply, and imagine being completely powerless to help. Imagine watching a happy marriage and happy family destroyed irreparably in an instant, followed by one long protracted scene of heartbreaking anguish. This was in a previously hopeful and lively suburban house in San Mateo, California. Imagine comprehending all of that fully, and imagine remembering every detail of it.

That was that young woman's, and my, and my sister's, Christmas: the crystal-clear memory of that young wife, suddenly a widow, crying aloud her pain, worry, and bereavement — without hope. That was Christmas.


And, dammit, it's remained my clearest memory, ever since. Some evil god has decreed that I keep replaying that scene in the theatre of my mind, as if it were yesterday, at odd moments ever since — whether I want to or not. There is no off switch. There is no opt-out.

I still remember. I still hear her sobbing, in my mind.

What is worse — or at least more — the same evil god apparently also decided that subsequent Christmases would remain, from that time forward, the characteristic time of year when people known to me should become freakishly, unexpectedly, and suddenly dead: "You aspire not to be superstitious, eh? Well, watch this, boychik."


And so they die, or are irrecoverably maimed — randomly, unpredictably, freakishly — more often than not right near Christmas, many but not all years. Inevitably, I can't prevent what happens, and am powerless to substantively help the survivors. I wonder if it's not some horrible divine joke, at my expense and in execrable taste, in which people who've had the poor fortune to be known to me, near the end of the year, are used as grisly props.

Staying away doesn't help. Being near doesn't help. People associated with me just die.

They die or are otherwise dismembered, felled, struck down, badly hurt. Suddenly. Usually, in the Christmas season. Some (again) in freak airplane crashes. Some in ways I could not have imagined — as if lightning were hitting people around me. Primary-progressive multiple sclerosis. Automobile crashes. Fires. Bad falls. Avalanches. Modern-day, murderous pirates. Cancer. Undiagnosed diabetic comas.

Others suffer. I feel it, and am horrified, and can't do a thing. The lightning dances around me — so I can be spared, and so I can watch, and so I can be unable to help.

I've been known to go out in a thunderstorm and yell: "Missed me again, O Great Thug!"

Among other things, years of this tend to make me feel like a bad-luck charm, someone you don't want nearby if you want to survive.

Political candidates I've enthusistically supported and worked to elect: Representative Leo J. Ryan (assassinated shortly before Christmas, 1978), and San Francisco Mayor George Moscone (assassinated shortly before Christmas, 1978). The exception was my candidate for President in 1968, Robert F. Kennedy, who managed to get murdered in June.


So, I wince when my town's first holiday decorations go up. I worry about my friends and relations, and try, in an unfocused but heartfelt fashion, to keep them safe. I turn grim as I walk past shopping malls' ersatz snowbanks and strings of blinking lights. Others see those and envision feasts, presents, celebration, and family happiness. I see bereavement, horror, and my own helplessness in the face of other people's pain.

I don't in any way begrudge others their holiday cheer — I just can't share in it.

Thus: For me, Christmas season is something to survive, if one can. I feel grateful for those who survive with me; I mourn those left behind. And I live that season in dread, each and every time, bracing myself for loss.

Peace unto the cherished dead. Comfort to those who cared for them. Confusion and destruction unto whatever malign power if any arranged this. I can wish for no more.