One thing I appreciate about December is its decisive, conclusive personality: “Yep,” it says, “this is it, the end of another year.”
The fact that it’s also the start of what we here in the Midwest consider “real winter” just adds more finality — confirmed by a thick layer of snow and ice — to its voice.
Practically speaking, December is a month of battening down hatches, tying up loose ends, and releasing with grace those that refuse to be tied. But it’s also a month of reflection, and in some cases, a time of melancholy.
For many, the winter holiday season brings with it memories both fond and bittersweet. It reminds us of time’s inexorable passing and, perhaps, a heightened awareness of our own and our loved ones’ mortality.
The other night, for example, my husband, Zack, and I were having dinner with my father, who is 81. Dad had been talking about how lucky he felt to have escaped three close brushes with death he’d had over the course of his lifetime to date, and he was relating the dramatic stories of each event.
The first was in the 1940s, when he was a young steelworker building bridges in Gary, Ind., and was nearly knocked from his 60-foot-high perch while operating a heavy drill. In the 1960s, he and my mom survived a terrible head-on collision with a drunk driver while on a road trip with my newborn sister. Finally, just a few years ago, he was struck at high speed by another drunk driver on a rural highway near our family’s farm (an incident I wrote about in my July 2006 column).
That last crash left a big impact on my father. He’s walked with a limp ever since, and has lost a lot of strength in his arms and hands. He has a small surgery wound that refuses to completely heal. He still suffers from posttraumatic stress disorder (loud noises and fast-approaching vehicles startle him badly), and also from a combination of spatial and short-term memory loss that we suspect is at least partially due to his head injuries and trauma.
That said, aside from those setbacks, my father remains active, mentally sharp and physically fit. He still lives on his own. He works out three times a week with a trainer, and is always up for walks and movies, as well as for lunches or dinners out. If anything, he seems happier to me now than ever, and he’s only grown more grateful and loving over time.
Dad often reflects on how much he is enjoying his life now, and how much he appreciates his family and friends. He says he senses “a thinning of the membrane” between him and other people — all life, really — and that it makes him feel both more empathetic and more connected than he’s ever felt to the world around him.
Anyway, as we were talking over dinner, an interesting thing happened. We’d moved on from our “close calls” conversation to other, lighter topics. But at one point I was just sitting there smiling at my father as he and Zack were talking about something entirely different. Dad looked over at me, smiled back, and said with great compassion: “You are thinking about death just now, aren’t you, sweetheart?”
I was startled by his comment, but I had to admit that he was right. What I was thinking, actually, was how happy I was to still have my dad here with us. And my mom, who has long struggled with secondary effects of Lyme disease. And my sisters. And Zack. And so many other people and creatures dear to me.
I was also thinking, frankly, of how lucky I am to be here myself. My existence, after all, is the direct result of my parents having survived various close calls, many of which preceded my birth. And naturally, I’ve had my own fair share of near misses, too. Probably all of us have, whether we realize it or not.
In the rush and muddle of our daily lives, though, we sometimes neglect to appreciate how much of our present reality hinges on the course of events that could have turned out very differently. We may also fail to appreciate just how precious each year, each moment, each relationship and each interaction really is.
As the current year draws to a close, I think this is a great time to express our appreciation for what is, for all that has been, and for the happiness available to us in each passing-yet-present moment.