“What the heck is wrong with the tree?”
I stood a few steps down the staircase, pajama-clad and ready to make my Dad regret the hours he spent perfectly wrapping all those presents. I was seven or eight years old, still in love with our new house, and just as excited for Christmas as I was each and every year.
I was excited because Mom and Dad always made Christmas so special. Mom would spend hours unpacking the 37 boxes of Christmas decorations that she had Dad lug down from the spare bedroom (who needs a sibling when you can have a room filled with box upon box of Christmas decorations?!). Mom had a perfect spot for each and every decoration that she owned, and there was no spot in the house that didn’t have a decoration. Even the bathroom had decorations! It’s always a little bizarre to look over and see a smiling Santa while you are….expelling your eggnog.
The kitchen was where my favorite Christmas tradition was cooked up. The house was always filled with the smell of Christmas cookies around the holiday season. Mom would bake. And bake. And bake and bake and bake. Every type of Christmas cookie known to man would be delicately crafted by my Mom’s gentle hands. And Dad and I? Well, we would eat! We definitely preferred the eating over the baking, and we were glad to do our part.
Decking the halls would eventually extend to decking every inch of the outside of the house as well. Dad would spend hours on a usually-frigid November Saturday stringing lights across the façade of our family home. The strand lights eventually evolved into icicle lights. And twinkling lights. And bubble gum lights. It was always interesting (and rather expensive) to hear about the difference in the electric bill for the month of December, but my Mom and Dad always said it was worth it.
And then, there was the tree. A real tree. My Dad absolutely refused to give into the trend and ease of an artificial tree. He wouldn’t even call them trees—it was against his religion. “That’s a fake,” he’d say with a voice of disdain each time he saw one of those holiday imposters. Each year, Mom and Dad would spend hours on the day after Thanksgiving searching for the perfect Christmas tree. For a period of years, we went to a Christmas tree farm and cut our own down. Then, probably during my annoying, “too cool” teenage years, Mom and Dad would go out on their own and find the perfect tree for our home, scouring Lowes after Lowes to find the right evergreen.
The problem with finding a perfect tree? There is no perfect tree. No matter how good a Christmas tree might look, there will always, always be an imperfection. It leans to one side. It isn’t symmetrical. It has a weird bare patch in the back that is eerily reminiscent of Grandpa’s bald spot.
And even the tree that starts out perfect doesn’t always stay that way for an entire month. The best looking trees can be water hogs—always thirsty and unusually dry. The best looking tree might shed its needles faster than a bad gambler sheds money. Or it starts out bright green and turns brown within a few days. I thought pine trees were resilient—how is it they only seem to last a few weeks around Christmas?!
Even after many years of observing the fragility of a real tree, my Dad refused to give in. He accepted the imperfections. He and Mom had fun looking for the perfectly imperfect tree. Any fights over trees (these trees even cause conflict!) always faded quickly when our family started stringing lights and ornaments across this decorative fir.
But this year, as I came down the stairs, something was very, very different about the tree I saw in front of me. The imperfection of this particular tree was a little more noticeable than other years. It was a story our family would tell for many, many years. And the remnants of this particular Christmas morning would be more permanent that we ever thought.
The night before Christmas, Mom and Dad were staying up late wrapping presents for the next morning.
READER’S NOTE: If you are younger than 12 and reading this post, ignore the last sentence and replace it with “Mom and Dad were downstairs waiting to help Santa get down the chimney.”
They sat there talking and wrapping in the glow of our cozy family room, when all of a sudden their conversation was interrupted with a tremendous….CRASH!!!
“Please tell me that’s not the tree,” one of them said to the other.
They stared at each other with wide eyes and open mouths, and eventually threw their wrappings to the side and scrambled up the stairs. They looked in horror at the scene unfolding in front of their eyes: A tree, once standing tall and proud, now lay horizontal and weak across our living room floor. The bright lights had darkened. Family ornaments had crashed and smashed. The water from the tree base now stained the carpet, and I can just picture my Mom, always a meticulous housekeeper, thinking about the hours she would now spend picking ornament shards from the carpet.
“Well, we can fix this,” my Dad said.
I’m sure my Mom could see the wheels turning in his head, growing anxious of the plan he was bound to cook up. No repair job was ever simple with my Dad. His solutions could not be temporary. They needed to be strong and soundproof. My Dad was a builder, and he refused to build anything weak or small.
So, my Dad did what any Dad who has watched too many episodes of Home Improvement would do. He went to the garage, grabbed a (more)power drill and his tool belt, and set out to make sure that our tree would rue the day it had ever began to lean.
Just like one of Santa’s elves equipped with a DeWalt, Dad set to work fixing our family tree. And that next morning, standing at the top of the staircase, I saw the end result of Dad’s overnight labors.
With a premium on functionality and a complete disregard for visual appearance, Dad had taken two thick, black, metal cables and drilled them into the trunk of our Christmas tree. Then, he took those black cables and ran them back to the wall where (I’m sure to the vehement objections of my overly-neat Mother) he screwed the cables into the wall using oversized bolts. Yes, emanating from our Christmas tree were 2 six-or-seven foot black cables that took away the elegant charm of a free-standing Christmas tree.
It wasn’t pretty, but the tree was standing. And I had a feeling we could leave it there for thirty years and it would still be standing tall thanks to my Father’s ingenuity.
When the tree came down that year, the bolts did not. They were actually plugged into the wall for about ten years or so until my Dad decided to paint the living room. Mom, rightly so, would complain about the bolts in the wall regularly. Dad would just smile and say “What if I need them again if our tree ever falls?” You can’t argue with holiday preparedness like that.
This year as Mom and I sat around the tree opening gifts along with her pup, Sadie, I stared at the areas of that front wall and pictured the spots where the bolts used to be. I thought back to that Christmas and the metal cables sprouting from the trunk of that Christmas tree. It made our Christmas tree look like it had arms, and I could picture that morning as clear as any other.
And I sat there, many years removed from that date, and I chuckled.
I couldn’t help but think of that Christmas-gone-by, and laugh about how perfect it was.
Like all of our Christmases, it was perfect. Perfectly imperfect.
The reality is, Christmases are never 100% perfect. Lights would go out, and Dad would spend hours trying to figure out which strand caused the outing. Ornaments and decorations would break. Toys would be bought, but batteries would be forgotten. And oh, the assembly. My poor Dad would spend hours attempting to decipher instructions and put together ridiculously complicated toys so I could play with them for an hour, get tired of it, and move on to something else.
But those Christmases, with all their imperfections, were absolutely perfect for our family. When Christmas trees came crashing down into the floor of our living room, Christmas was still perfect. When bolts and cables had to hold up our Christmas tree, Christmas was still perfect. When my Dad would buy my Mom ugly pajamas that I knew she didn’t like, Christmas was still perfect. When Dad would take forever to come down the stairs and I would have a near meltdown as I yelled up the stairs and threatened to put myself up for adoption if he didn’t come down within the next seven minutes, Christmas was still perfect.
And although Christmas is so much emptier than it has ever been in the years since losing my Dad, Christmas is still perfectly imperfect.
This year, I experienced my fifth Christmas without my Dad. There are more tears than those other Christmases. There are more unexpected moments of solitude where I have to peel myself away from the frivolity of a family function to cry on my own because of the heartache that I feel. There are moments when the pain is almost unbearable when I think about losing my Dad, and there are moments when I wish that I could give up every gift I’ve ever been given if I could just have one more Christmas with him.
But in spite of all that sorrow and pain, there are also moments of tremendous joy that still exist amidst the grief each and every year since losing him. This year was no exception. There was the excitement I felt when I opened a precious and beautiful nativity scene that my Mom gave me this year. There was the fun of getting to spend Christmas with my girlfriend, Paige, and establishing new traditions, like going to see Christmas plays and coincidentally buying each other the same exact book. There’s the happiness of getting to spend time with each of our families and realize how blessed we all are to have one another. There’s still the twinkling glow of Christmas lights, the sappy songs that play on the radio, and the beauty of an Advent candle burning. Yes, Christmas is different now, and at times it’s very sad. But there are also glimpses of the happiness that once was that I realize still exist and always will.
I think that’s the message that God is trying to teach me—the message that he tried to teach all of us two thousand years ago. Think about all the things that were imperfect about the birth of Jesus Christ. “Hey Mary, you’re pregnant. How about a ridiculously long trek on the back of a donkey for a few days?” Hotel after hotel flashes a “No Vacancy” sign until the young, scared, yet faithful couple find refuge in a manger. That’s a fancy was of saying barn. All the usual manger amenities are there—donkeys, sheep, and their “remnants” are scattered across the hay-strewn manger floor. And there, in that imperfect manger, the perfect Son of Man was born, given to the world as a gift—a perfect sacrifice.
Just like that first Christmas, every Christmas that came after was full of imperfection. Trees will tip. Cookies will burn. Toys will break. Family members will fight. The lonely will grieve. And in spite of all that imperfection, goodness still exists. Happiness can still be found. Joy still reigns.
God is using the lesson of His Son’s birth, the tipping Bradshaw tree, and every other unplanned and imperfect moment to teach me that, yes, Christmas will have lots of sorrow without my Dad, but it can never put out the light of love that He has given us.
I’ve done my best (not always successfully) to keep finding happiness in these past five Christmases without my Dad. I miss looking over and seeing him on the couch smiling from behind his glasses as he watched me open gifts. I miss Dad laughing at the same parts of A Christmas Story as he watched it on a loop all throughout the day. I miss how much he enjoyed eating the breakfast quiche Mom always made and drinking a few ice cold Coca-Colas to wash it down. I miss his laughs in the morning, his snores during the midday nap, and his “Night, bub. Merry Christmas” as I went off to bed.
I miss those Christmases because I miss him so.
After losing my Dad to suicide, I think about how Christmas may have helped my Dad cope. I’m sure there were many years when his depression was particularly overpowering around Christmas. I also know, in my heart of hearts, that there were many years when a family function, a beautiful Christmas tree, or some delicious Christmas cookies may have helped him overcome that darkness. That’s how powerful a perfectly imperfect Christmas can be. I bet that’s why my Dad loved Christmas so much.
I’ll always miss my Dad. When I am celebrating Christmases in my nineties, I will still cry whenever I see Ralphie shooting his eye out on the screen because I’ll wish my Dad could be there to see it too. I will long for those Christmases when trees fell over, because even in the disastrous moments my Dad and our family always had the faith to find happiness. His untimely and unnecessary death has rocked me to the core, but it will not defeat me. Like that toppling Christmas tree, my Dad would want me to get back up, find my strength, and shine in the midst of tremendous tumult.
During this Christmas I found my own unique ways to grieve, and in all the Christmases to come, I will undoubtedly grieve, and I will cry, and I will hurt. But I will also smile at the memory of a Father I miss desperately, and a Heavenly Father who still gives me reason to celebrate each and every year.
Dad, Christmas hasn’t been the same without you. I have such wonderful memories of the special Christmases we spent together as a little family. You bought thoughtful gifts for all of us. You laughed as our family pup would open up gifts, just like you always taught them. You put amazing detail into the wrapping and the decorating, and you had a smile on your face no matter how hectic things got. You made us especially happy around Christmas, but you honestly did that each and every day. Now, your memory and your spirit get us through the tough times and remind us to continue celebrating in spite of our grief. Dad, please continue reminding us how we can make the Christmas season special. Continue watching over us as you rest among the angels. I miss you so much, Dad. I know that I still have many wonderful Christmases ahead of me, but I desperately long for that first Christmas with you in heaven. Until that day when we can celebrate together again, Merry Christmas, bub.
“ So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David. He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no guest room available for them.” Luke 2:4-7 (NIV)