Each year, the women in my family gather in Manhattan for a Girls’ Christmas Day. My grandmother, mother, aunts, cousins, and I get tickets to a holiday show and then catch up over dinner. This tradition has become one of my favorite days of the year; it bundles together the two things I love most – Christmas and family.
But this year, we were missing one.
My Aunt Maggie passed away in July. She was only 42 years old and was diagnosed, and quickly overcome, with cancer. It was unexpected, quick, and heartbreaking to watch. In just two months, Aunt Maggie went from being healthy and happy to being taken from her husband of just 6 years and her two beautiful baby boys.
Planning Girls’ Christmas Day was difficult this year. This is our first Christmas without Maggie and it seemed like it would be too hard to carry out the tradition that would only emphasize this shocking loss. But you can’t get past the pain of “first” experiences without your loved one if you don’t force yourself to participate in them. And we knew that Maggie would want us to be together. So we went…
We saw The Pipes of Christmas, a concert in a gorgeous church on the Upper East Side, featuring bagpipes backed by a small orchestra.
I was wary going in. Not because I didn’t think I’d like the music – I love bagpipes. But I wasn’t sure if my heart could take it. Bagpipes remind me of my grandfather, who also lost his life to cancer almost 15 years ago. Grandpa was a cop and played the bagpipes in a band with his fellow police officers in Yonkers. I remember seeing him march in the St. Patrick’s Day parade when I was a kid and being so proud. St. Patrick’s Day was his favorite holiday, and that was the exact day in 1997 that he passed away – right after he watched from his seat on the porch while his former band played a private show for him on his lawn. Poetry couldn’t compete to express the beauty of it.
Being from an Irish family, bagpipes also remind me of funerals. Of saying goodbye. Of knowing you’ll never see someone again. Of wondering what comes next. Of questioning if there is a God.
So, as the first bagpiper made his way down the church aisle, I was sure I’d have to leave. I tried my hardest to compose myself as a blast of tears spilled down my face at the sound of the very first note. My heart actually ached. I felt it pull downward in my chest. The beautiful sound truly hurt.
I recovered by mentally removing myself. I thought about what I’d wear to work on Monday, what I’d do with my upcoming time off, if there were any last minute presents I still needed to get. And I’d come back to the music long enough to enjoy it, then get upset again.
But then, a man with a thick Scottish brogue approached a standing microphone. He read this poem:
If They Could Speak
by Roseanne Pellicane
Please don't be afraid. Yes life is different now but remember when it was beautiful?
Well it will be again, though not the same.
The wounds will heal, your tears will dry and though scars remain
I know you are strong enough to live through the pain.
Do not grieve and linger in the shadows of graves.
Go out into the sunshine and tell everyone that I was here.
Let our enemy know that when we were together we lived and worked and loved.
And though I am gone, you will carry on for me because you must.
Tell my family how much I loved them and still do.
Remember the good we shared, the life we created and walk forward with noble dreams.
God can't fill a shattered heart or a clenched fist.
Let fear die and let love flow again like a river.
So as the smoke rises high above the ash, gather all your strength and rebuild something new, something better.
It's not impossible. It's essential. It's what I would do for you.
Just one last thing, surely you must know, I never wanted to leave you.
I was captured by fate, escorted by angels.
And though you might feel alone, you are not and neither am I.
We looked at each other, through tears and smiles, each of us thinking the same comforting thought that we so needed. Girls’ Christmas Day wasn’t missing one at all. We knew, for sure, that Maggie was with us.
And maybe Grandpa joined the party, too.
The Witty Biddy