Space at the table

By E. Adam Porter

Editor, News of SCC & South County

I love Christmas, the entire holiday season. From the moment the turkey comes out of the oven on Thanksgiving until we toast the new year, my spirits are up, and there’s a gleam in my eye.

I love it all: the shopping, the cooking, the friends and relatives coming and going, the gifts, the smiles on kids’ faces, cocoa and cookies, Christmas lights, trimming the tree, getting nowhere near enough sleep on Christmas Eve, and the opportunity to teach my boys about other customs, cultures, and traditions, as well as the chance to learn a bit more myself. I love stringing the lights, cruising to look at others, as well as the movies we watch every year, the books we read, and the music we listen to. Even the Muzak playing at all the stores that I complain about every year secretly puts a smile on my face.

This season, though, my light is dimmed. Earlier this year, we lost my father and my uncle, and each of them took a piece of me with them. As the holidays approach, I think back to the roller coaster of emotions created by disease and the fighting of it. Initially, before bad news became worse news, both men thought they had more time. I called my father on his birthday, and we talked about coming up for a visit. It had been far too many years since we made the trek up to Michigan, and it was way past time. “Wait a bit,” he said, “Come when the snow is on the ground. Your boys will love it, and I’ll feel better then…”

So, we waited… and “then” never came.

My uncle’s doctors thought they found a treatment protocol that would help him beat the cancer. Three days and a few tests later, that all changed. Practical to a fault, he accepted the news with grace, trying to comfort us as we all fell apart.

We held services, shared memories, commiserated best we could in the World of Covid. Talked about how unfair and capricious life can be and consoled each other with well-worn platitudes and ancient truth. Those words, those timeless ideas, are precious and priceless when you need them. But time passes, and another truth invades: those ideas do not replace an empty space at the table. This year, my family in Florida and Michigan will sit down together and try not to look at the empty chair, try not to picture the men who filled them with their laughter and insight and joy. We will walk through rooms in the homes where we always gather, catching shadows and glimpses of remembered moments, snatches of old conversations so real we can almost hear their voice.

This year, in this season of hope and joy and plenty, we will have an empty space at the table and in our hearts. And we are far from alone. Hundreds of thousands of American families will face their annual gatherings with an unexpected emptiness. Pandemic, depression, addiction, illness, accidents, and the inexorable passage of time will all make their presence felt as we gather, or, in some cases, choose not to gather.

In Ecclesiastes, the old wise king reminds us there is a time to weep and to laugh, to mourn and to dance. This year, for so many, our season of joy will be filled with sorrow, empty spaces at tables and in hearts, filled with loss and pain and bittersweet memories.

As I consider the weeks ahead, wondering what it will feel like to experience those dichotomous emotions during my favorite time of the year, I think about all the other people facing a similar emptiness, and I feel a little space open up inside me. A space for their stress and hurt and regret, for their struggles, questions, and concerns, as we all face an uncertain future. It’s not a big space, because I’m hurting too; but it’s there, and I hope it will be enough to bring comfort to friends and family and to share a smile with a stranger.

Grief is a lonely, isolating condition. But this year, I’m reminded more than ever, we’re all in this together.

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