The last words Dad said to me on the night of Christmas day were, “If it weren’t for you, Rog, I would be dead.” The macabre pronouncement startled me, and I wondered if it bespoke gratitude or chagrin, and whether I should feel satisfaction or dread. I know this: I could not answer him. This one day of all the year’s days had exceeded my strength to generate joy. Still single and alone and clueless about making a change. None of my seven children or four grandchildren with me. A loved one who will not speak to me. Reminders of my life’s great griefs. In response to Dad’s comment, I had strength only to slip from the room and to find my bed and sleep, without saying good-night to anyone. This holiday darkness has been gathering for weeks, and fully came over me on Christmas day. I have been contemplating how to illustrate depression with words. Perhaps this: imagine a claustrophobe tied up and wedged in a magnetic resonance imaging tube with the awful wretched throbbing penetrating shredding noise of a year-long scan. Or: a perpetual myocardial infarction gripping your chest, squeezing hard, and you think you might die, but somehow you do not. Joy eluded me, and happiness fled, and this despite Mom’s and Dad’s cheer and generosity, my siblings’ love and support, and my children’s admiration and friendship. My world had darkened and closed in around me, and I could feel only emptiness. I was in the MRI tube, holding my chest. In the dark underworld of depression, I cannot imagine any other life, in that moment, than a hopeless life. Disabled for a spell, yet I have always had a vague sense of a far-off entity whispering to me, “Hold on,” assuring me I will emerge. I cannot believe it in the moment. But I can keep going through the motions of living, and I can be still and wait. The scripture of my Church teaches that the light which shines in the universe, and the light which enlightens my mind and yours, all proceeds forth from the presence of God to fill the immensity of space and every human being in it. Truth also comes from God’s presence. Light and truth are one. God has put a measure of light and truth in the hearts and minds of all humankind. Through free will I can grow that light and be filled with that truth. That thing that whispers to me is light, dim and distant, but undeniably present. If I can but muster a mustard seed of strength, a farthing of faith, an ounce of compassion for myself, my strength will grow, and I will be able to hold on to the hope that light and truth can chase off the darkness and be mine. Sleep is a great mercy, and I slept, and I awoke the next morning to the fact that I had survived another Christmas, that yesterday’s darkness was behind me, that today I just might possibly find a shimmer of light and hope. I ventured onto the frozen trail, excited to try my new tool, my Kahtoola MICROspikes (pictured above), strapped to my hiking boots. All of the 50 hikers I passed wore spikes—I am very late to the party. But I have them now, the right tool, and I strapped them on and climbed mile after mile on snow and ice without once falling back or slipping up as I made my way slowly and steeply up the mountain.
On Christmas Eve 1941, Dora shooed Nelson (barely turned 6) and his siblings, Louise (7) and Bill (4) up to bed: “Santa will not come until after you are in your beds asleep.” After sleeping for some time, Nelson awoke and, thinking it was morning, woke his siblings: “It’s Christmas morning,” he whispered. “It’s time to go downstairs.” In fact, Nelson had awoken after being asleep for a very short time, perhaps one-half hour. The children stepped quietly down the stairs to see the presents Santa had left for them under the Christmas tree. Instead, they saw their mother putting presents under the tree. The main object they observed was a new Flexible Flyer sled. Dora turned from the tree and saw the children spying from the stairs. “You get back upstairs and go to sleep!” she bellowed. When morning had really come, the children came down the stairs to see their new sled. Christmas night had brought new snow, which the morning’s cars had packed down on the Millcreek Canyon road. Dora bundled the children up and drove them to the top of a straight portion of the inclined road. She instructed the children that she would drive to the bottom of the hill and signal when they could safely launch. From the bottom of the hill, after the several cars had passed, she waved at the children, and they took turns flying down the icy road on their new sled. Whichever child had sledded down would pull the sled back up the road. Bill, being small, had the benefit of sliding down on each run and being pulled back up the hill by his older sister or brother. Sometimes a car would begin to drive up the road after the sled run had begun, and the rider would have to steer off the road to avoid the car. Thirty years later, Mom and Dad bought a Flexible Flyer for my siblings and me, and we passed many shrill happy hours racing down the hill at Johnson Park, in Piscataway, New Jersey. Whether sitting or prone, we could twist the cross-bar to navigate handily around tree trunks, though once Dad took us down the hill on an old wood toboggan that did not steer well and he crashed us into a tree. We all tumbled off, thrilled with the adventure and mishap, but sad for the cracked toboggan.
Pictured above: the Baker Flexible Flyer, still in use after 50 years.