82: The Christmas Card

82: The Christmas Card

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Christmas in Canada

The Christmas Card

Death leaves a heartache no one can heal, love leaves a memory no one can steal.

~From a headstone in Ireland

Christmas was less than two weeks away and I still had no desire to put up a tree and decorate it. Three years earlier my older sister Marie had died of lung cancer and was buried a week before Christmas. Christmas would never be the same again.

Marie had moved from her Prince Edward Island home to Tucson, Arizona where she worked as a nurse for about eleven years. She enjoyed her life in the sunny south, but was often lonesome for her three grown sons and four grandsons back in Canada. She planned to retire when she turned sixty-five, and move back home to spend more time with family. She was four years away from retirement when she died.

We grew up in rural Prince Edward Island with nine siblings. Christmas was always a magical time with massive excitement in the house. There would be one gift for each of us nine kids under the tree, and our stockings were stuffed with fruit and candies, which were rare treats for us.

How I wished I could open a door and step through it back to those simpler, happier days of Christmases long ago. But there was no door to yesterday, just the hard-to-accept reality that my sister, my friend, had been taken from us. I missed her terribly, especially at Christmastime.

On the third anniversary of Marie’s death, my son Joshua called to tell me he was on the way out to the farm with Damian, my grandson. They were bringing a Christmas tree. He told me Damian was bouncing off the walls with excitement about helping Granny set it up and decorate it. I should have been happy and excited they were coming for a visit, but I wasn’t. How could I be happy about decorating a tree on the day that Marie died? It didn’t seem right to be having fun with Damian while Marie’s grandsons would be denied decorating a tree with her.

Horrible feelings of survivor’s guilt churned in my stomach. I didn’t want to celebrate Christmas, let alone decorate a tree. How do you explain the sorrow of a death of a beloved sister to a six-year-old eager to help his grandmother decorate a tree? I didn’t have the heart to say no, nor did I have the heart to celebrate Christmas with joy and anticipation like I’d done in the past.

It would be about an hour before Joshua and Damian would arrive with the tree. That would give me time to find the Christmas decorations and have a good long cry before they arrived. I reluctantly headed upstairs to the room where the decorations were stored. Tears began to run down my face as I dug the boxes out of the closet.

I discovered a stack of old Christmas cards I had collected over the years at the bottom of one of the boxes. Grabbing a big handful, I started reading them. I was about to throw them back into their hiding place when suddenly one of the cards fell to the floor. I was startled when I realized it was the card Marie had sent me the year before she died.

The front showed a photo of Marie and her friend John wearing Santa hats and sitting in front of a fireplace with hanging stockings. She and John were obviously in the spirit of Christmas, laughing with big silly ear-to-ear grins for the camera.

Inside the card it read: “Merry Christmas from miles away in the sunny desert… but… see… I am only a smile away.”

Mesmerized, I sat on a chair holding the card, unable to move for what seemed like a very long time.

Some people might say that finding the card from Marie that way, and in that moment, was just a fluke. But I believe Marie had sent me a message from the spirit world. It felt like she was reaching out to comfort me and help me cope with my feelings of deep sorrow.

Later that night, after the tree had been put up and decorated, I turned on the Christmas tree lights. While sitting alone in the parlour gazing at the lights and pondering the message from Marie I felt a deep and profound peacefulness. That Christmas card from Marie changed my attitude and allowed me to get on with life.

I still miss Marie, and will grieve for her until I take my last breath, but in my heart I believe finding that card was her way of telling me to go ahead and celebrate Christmas with joy. That she was with me in spirit, and in my heart, and that she truly is “only a smile away,” not just at Christmas, but always.

~Stella Shepard

Morell, Prince Edward Island

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