This post was originally published by She.ology in December 2018.
The clothes dropped to the suitcase in a flurry. I didn’t know how long I’d be gone, so I just kept piling them in. Clean, dirty, do I even have a bra to go with this? Doesn’t matter. I barely need one anyway.
Zip. Lift. Roll.
In the next room, my husband searched for a hotel.
“Which Scripps hospital is he in?”
“I have no idea. Let me call the number my brother gave me.”
The last time I dialed the hospital, I spoke to my dad, only it didn’t sound like him at all. It sounded like organ failure. Confused. Slurred. Adrift. Something was wrong.
“Scripps Green!” I shouted. “La Jolla.”
“Got it. You’re booked for two nights. We’ll figure out the rest once you know what’s going on.”
My husband left to officiate a funeral; I pulled our kids out of school early.
“Something’s wrong with Grandpa,” I said calmly, revealing nothing of my inner upheaval. “I need to drive to San Diego right now to help him. Dad will be home in an hour. Stay here and don’t worry. Things might not be good, but they’re going to be okay.”
Six hours and 380 miles later, I tucked myself into a corner table at the hotel bar with a glass of malbec, a plate of hummus, and a sinking feeling that a whole lot was about to get worse before it got better.
Across the room, a guitarist strummed the first few chords of Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas. As he did, he explained how the original song, written by Hugh Martin for Judy Garland in the 1944 movie, “Meet Me In St. Louis,” contained these lines:
Someday soon we all will be together
If the fates allow
Until then, we’ll have to muddle through somehow
A few years later, he said, Frank Sinatra wanted to cover the song, but only if Martin agreed to “jolly up” the ‘muddled’ line. “In the jollier Sinatra version,” the guitarist explained, “The ‘muddled’ line was replaced with, ‘hang a shining star upon the highest bough.’”
And with that, he started to sing.
Have yourself a merry little Christmas
Let your heart be light…
Surprisingly, he played through the more melancholy Garland version, and I was there for it. I was clearly headed toward some muddling, and maybe he was, too. The star hoisting, it seemed, would have to wait until next year.
I drained my glass as he finished the last note, realizing for the first time that the song doesn’t promise our hearts will be light; it instructs we let them be. Regardless of which lyrics we hum as we approach Christ’s cradle from year to year, the baby is there and our hearts are his. Our savior doesn’t change, even when the songs we sing at Christmas do.
As I paid my tab and stood to go, I didn’t know my 61-year old father had pancreatic cancer or that over the next eight months I would log nearly 4,500 miles between Phoenix and San Diego advocating for his care. I knew nothing of the pressure or turmoil I’d endure, nor the ways I’d be sustained along the way. I did, however, walk out of that bar aware of something Sinatra may have missed:
Merriment isn’t something that’s handed to us because we ask for it. To the extent that we can, we have to choose it; fight for it, even. Whether hanging on or hanging stars, the heft of our hearts depends on how closely we allow ourselves to get to the cradle. Our peace, in plenty or in want, is made possible by our proximity to the one who embodied it. Emmanuel. God With Us.
If life has you humming Garland today instead of Sinatra, lean in. Christ’s cradle is big enough to hold your troubles and strong enough to bear the weight of your heart. Reach for the cradle’s edges. Stay there and don’t worry. Things might not be good this December, but they’re going to be okay.
(Oh, and don’t forget to store your star someplace safe. Something tells me you’re going to need it next year.)