Thursday, December 19, 2013

O holy night

                  O Holy Night! The stars are brightly shining,
                  It is the night of the dear Saviour's birth.
                  Long lay the world in sin and error pining.
                  Till He appeared and the Spirit felt its worth.
                  A thrill of hope the weary world rejoices,
                  For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn.
                  Fall on your knees! Oh, hear the angel voices!
                  O night divine, the night when Christ was born;
                  O night, O Holy Night, O night divine!
                  O night, O Holy Night, O night divine!

Seven years old, my eighth birthday still a month and a half away, I stood there quietly in front of Grandpa Gorny’s casket where he appeared to be only sleeping—but I knew he was not—and listened to the female opera voice singing ‘Fall on your knees! Oh, hear the angel voices!’ The music was coming from a phonograph player on a folding chair behind a deep maroon velvet curtain that acted as a backdrop to Grandpa’s coffin. It would be years before I realized that O Holy Night! was not a funeral song. I think I was about eleven when I heard it playing as seasonal music in a department store and for the first time actually paid attention to the words.

Death at Christmas. Yes, my paternal grandfather died on Christmas Day. I hardly remember any commotion. We children were too wrapped up in our presents to notice the grownups around us, first grieving, and then breathing a sigh of relief. Grandma, who had taken care of Grandpa for all the years I can remember—he suffered from a debilitating illness that made it difficult for him to walk and move around, and Grandma was there to bathe him and help him from his bed to his favorite chair—yes, Grandma had passed away six months before. She had gone to the hospital for some routine minor surgery, and fell asleep unexpectedly ‘under the knife.’

Grandma had waved goodbye and left the apartment house smiling that morning, and we expected to see her home in two or three days. ‘Take care of Grandpa while I’m away! See you soon!’ A week went by. She didn’t return. I can’t remember how or when my mom and dad told us that Grandma had died. All I remember was that now someone else would have to take care of Grandpa. My parents and my aunts and uncles took it in turns to stay in Grandma’s bedroom—in those days, grandparents had separate bedrooms—and take care of him twenty-four seven. That’s why they breathed a sigh of relief when he too passed away. Now they could get back to their regular lives.

That turned out not to be exactly true. The death of my paternal grandparents changed my whole world, because up till then, my mom and dad, my elder sister and younger brother and I, lived in one of the four small flats in the fourplex they owned, on North Francisco Avenue, in inner city Chicago. It was my world till then, a sheltered garden trimmed with fragrant flowers that Grandma lovingly planted, her wonderful old country kitchen where I helped her make deep-fried rosette cookies by powdering them—and then eating as many as I could! And the mysterious basement where I discovered Grandpa’s hidden liquor cabinet and stole my first taste of crème de cacao.

As often happens when one’s parents pass away, my dad came into a monetary inheritance. That enabled him to buy his first house, a modest three-bedroom brick bungalow on Chicago’s newly developed southwest side under the shadow of Midway’s aircraft flying overhead. A brand new house! And a room of my own—well, sort of, I shared it with my little brother—and best of all, our own bicycles! Changing schools was a trauma, and I missed Grandma’s garden and her wonderful cookies, and oh! The wonderful cabinet on the back porch that was full of scary old sci-fi comics—why didn’t dad bring it along? But life goes on, and I was happy again.

How little we are satisfied with, whether as children or as adults. The whole world goes by, and our lives are eked out to us moment by moment. Loved ones come and go, and we make little of that too. Our lives revolved around small matters, small talk, hedged in by traditions and superstitions, and warmed by memories of times when we really were awake to life’s wonders, and to who our loved ones really were—if only we had had more time to really get to know them! Another Christmas fast approaches in a world I never knew I would live to see. I don’t really like that world, but hidden within it, the Lord who had ‘no place to lay his head’ has still provided me with a home, and I am thankful.

That holy night we sing about will soon be upon us, and all memories of all hearts will converge on the spot where the man-child who is pre-eternal God will rest His head under a star. Again I come giftless, like the shepherds, no wise man with gold, frankincense or myrrh. All I have is my life, and with thankfulness will I lay it down when comes my time. On that day I too, like Grandpa, will meet the Lord who became one of us so that we could become one of His, and finally hear the real song of that holy night, ‘Glory be to God on high, and on earth peace, good will toward men.’

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