The day when Christmas stopped

My life was about to change in ways I hadn't even dreamed of.

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Forty-five years ago, the year 1968 was drawing to a close.

It was a turbulent year that saw the escalation of the Vietnam War, the burning of draft cards and American flags by protesters and the assassinations of civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. and presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy.

Feminists were burning bras and protesting the Miss America pageant and race riots were erupting all over the country.

But the year was poised to end on a high note on Dec. 21, with the launching of Apollo 8, the first U.S. space mission to orbit the moon. For the first time astronauts would see the far side of the moon, reading from the Book of Genesis as they orbited.

On that Saturday Dec. 21 as the Apollo mission lifted into the air, I had no idea about the event of 1968 that was going to rock my personal world was yet to occur.

It was the Saturday before Christmas, the house bustling with activity. My sister was in the kitchen making Christmas cookies and my mother was getting my dad ready for a trip to the hospital for treatment for the emphysema he had struggled with in recent years.

I was 8 years old and wasn’t particularly concerned with the hospital visit since my dad had been in and out of the hospital often as far back as I could remember and always seemed to come home feeling better than when he left. I was so excited for the impending Christmas holiday I didn’t think twice when I was asked to go to the store to get more ingredients for the cookie baking and left without even saying good-bye to my dad.

At some point in the afternoon my brother, sister and I started to watch for the adults to return from the hospital perhaps with or without my dad, depending on what treatment he needed. Finally the car pulled up. My mother and uncle got out and started to walk slowly up the driveway.

At first, the sight wasn’t alarming to me. But then I noticed that my mother was carrying my father’s radio. All of a sudden things didn’t make sense. In 1968 the accoutrements in hospital rooms were sparse so my dad always took his radio to listen to during his stay. Why would my mother leave him at the hospital without his radio?

She called us together, my sister, brother and me, and told us that our father had died. His death, despite his illness, was sudden and unexpected. He had a heart attack.

At that moment the bottom dropped out of my world. I realized that sad things could happen at the happiest of times.

Christmas plans were shelved and we started to prepare for a funeral. Sunday and Monday were spent at the funeral home where I remember getting hugs and kind glances from adults I didn’t remember ever meeting before. The funeral was on Christmas Eve. We stood in heavy snow and bitter cold at the cemetery.

Later that day, with the funeral over and the wake disbanded, the house was quiet and sad. But in my sadness was still a child’s spirit. I wondered what would happen to Christmas. Family members were going through some vague motions of the holiday, but things didn’t look too promising.

Then as nightfall came there was a knock at the door. A couple whom I did not recognize arrived at our house with Christmas presents. I don’t remember what anyone else got but I can still see the beautiful doll they brought for me. She stood almost as tall as me and wore a blue frilly dress, It was the loveliest doll I had ever seen.

Christmas had arrived after all, along with the realization that happy things could happen during the saddest of times.

I don’t know if the couple, who owned a neighborhood bar, ever realized that doll not only brought Christmas to me but it also sparked in me the belief that life could go on after a tragedy.

As the years went on, I made a point of celebrating Christmas to the fullest. I didn’t want it to be an annual reminder of the tragedy, though I’ll admit, listening to songs like “Silent Night” and “O Come All Ye Faithful” regularly brought uncontrolled tears.

Decades after my dad’s death, my daughter started to play the piano. In middle and high school she played at Christmas Eve Mass and listening to her to rehearse the songs was sometimes painful. Then one Christmas Eve Mass while she played “Silent Night,” I remembered that my mother told my brother and me that my dad, whose family was musical, had planned to teach us to play the piano before he died. One of the presents he bought the year he passed away was a small table organ we never learned to play.

At that memory, joy once again emerged from my sadness as did the realization that sometimes our pasts are inextricably connected to our futures.

My dad never got to see me play the piano, but the granddaughter he never met was playing beautifully on the anniversary of his funeral.

Mary Niederberger is a staff writer for the Post-Gazette ( 412-263-1590).

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