A Turn of Events
An unexpected phone call at a holiday event provides a meaningful reminder of the real meaning of the season
The holiday season is a time for celebration and, recession or no recession, this December has proven to be no exception. It seemed as if the last belch from the Thanksgiving feast was no sooner expelled from my belly than I was flung immediately into the round of parties, lunches and get-togethers that mark this time of year.
This past weekend I was invited to an annual Christmas party, one that I particularly look forward to every year. Hosted by a good friend, a group of women gather in the city to raise their glasses and voices to an impossibly high volume. As the evening progresses conversation cheerfully devolves from polite, to animated, to raucous.
And by raucous, I’m not just defining the style of conversation; I’m describing the actual sound of the conversation. Around 10 p.m., or the fifth case of wine and/or the tenth bag of green and red peanut M&Ms, individual phonetics lose clarity. All dialogue merges into a hum of noise interspersed with brays of laughter that sounds to the uninitiated like, “raucous!...raucous!...raucous!...”
And by uninitiated I mean not tipsy, or female.
The highlight of the evening is a Christmas Swamp Thing gift exchange. In this gift exchange players take turns, choosing to either open a new gift or steal a previously opened gift.
(On a side note, I wasn’t sure of the name for this type of gift exchange and so I Googled it. Wikipedia offered the following possibilities: Yankee Swap, Chinese Gift Exchange, Dirty Santa, Thieving Secret Santa, Parcel Pass, Pollyanna and... Christmas Swamp Thing. That’s right, Christmas Swamp Thing.)
I normally don’t enjoy any kind of group gift exchange, as they tend to be awkward and a bit formulaic. But these women are not your usual hoard (hoard, not whored) and they can turn pretty much anything into a good time.
As usual, I felt myself drawn into the mayhem and merriment, laughing as the meekest among us proved to be the Winona Ryder of gift stealing. As the game went on and the volume of the party approached the sound barrier, I sat back and let the warmth of the women and the wine wash over me. I felt happy to be a part of this holiday fun, so lucky to be included in such a wonderful assembly of kind and intelligent women.
‘This,' I thought. ‘This is what the holidays are all about. Hanging out with friends and family, having a good time and sharing the warmth.’
Suddenly, I felt an imperceptible shift in the vibe of the party. I sensed something was wrong, that someone's mood had changed. I noticed a friend crossing the room with a worried countenance and tracked her movement to the source of her concern. Another friend, Lynn, was standing with the phone to her ear, a stricken look on her face. You see, Lynn's very young daughter is currently at Johns Hopkins receiving her last chemo treatment for a form of lymphoma. That Lynn was able to leave the hospital for a few hours that evening was a miracle, as her concern had kept her glued to her daughter's bedside all week. However, her daughter had been doing really well that night, and she had been able to trade off with her husband for a few hours of fun with us. Lynn has a personality that's about as chill as it gets, and she had been able to shake off her concern for this evening, allowing us the gift of giving her a good time.
Unfortunately, Lynn had just received a call that her daughter's low grade fever had spiked to 104.5F. All the mental scaffolding she had built to convince herself that this party was her reality came crashing down.
Within moments, conversation died down as everyone felt the tangible shift in atmosphere. We gathered around her, trying desperately to "fix" her- offering rides to the hospital and words of encouragement. The friend who had reached her first hugged and patted her, intensely empathetic as she, too, had a child who had already battled cancer twice in his twelve short years.
Lynn stood alone, surrounded by us, fear leaking from her eyes and uncertainty evident in her shaking hands.
In that moment, I felt a love and empathy for Lynn that was so intense it took my breath away. I looked around and saw this love shared by the room, all directed at one person. I realized- THIS is what this holiday is about. Love, real and tangible.
Love so intense it hurts your gut and burns your throat. Love in the tears streaming down a face, love in the helpless gaze of those watching the tears.
Whether you’re celebrating the birth of Christ, the rededication of the Holy Temple, or the winter solstice, it all comes down to the same thing. We are surrounded by love in every form. All of it is heartbreakingly fine and good.
When attending holiday events this month, please remember to look around at your family and friends. Really look. And see the pure love that is present in the room, a love too deep to emerge fully in the lighthearted chatter and good-natured toasts that hint at its presence.
While you exchange gifts, look beyond the gift to the hands that hold it.
And just as a little girl in room 833 absorbed the love that a roomful of women poured into her mother, know that real love, purely given, is the most powerful gift of all.