This morning I was up early, designing an invitation for an open house we are going to hold on Christmas day. After that, I found myself laying ornaments out on the dining room table.
Some time ago, I got rid of the usual round balls you hang on the tree - we don't do a tree anymore, since when? I wonder. Maybe since we moved here. In the old house I used to enjoy dragging the tree out behind the garage. You could see it from the kitchen table, how the birds used it as a nice snug habitat. But after we got Sherlock, the Bad Cat, having a tree became ever more precarious with Sherlock. He would eat tinsel and ribbon, so you had to be very careful about that. He didn't lie in the branches, though, like my sister's cat used to.
In this house, we put up a three-foot fiber-optic tree that twinkles and change colors. This cost $29 only once, so after the first year, it's gravy, and putting it up is just a matter of plugging it in. It sits at the living room window, where maybe it can be seen from across the ravine. On the kitchen table we put up the lit ceramic tree Tom had made for me one year. I get an unreasonable amount of pleasure from these things.
But I set out to write about getting into the small box that holds ornaments precious to me. Some of them are actually precious, I suppose, sterling ornaments from specific years when my mother worked in a jewelry store. Several crosses, and a sterling silver bell. Then there is a golden winged horse she gave me at a time when I liked unicorns; not a unicorn, but good enough - maybe better.
I took out two felt doilies, I guess you'd call them, that I'd embroidered on my sewing machine. It was an entirely manual machine back then in the sixties, and I'm impressed that I did the scrolls freehand, how pretty these red and green things are.
Felt ornaments patterned on Czechoslovakian style. Two that I made, one that Aunt Eileen made and gave me, a cluster of felt scraps that Cassie made, all this when Cassie was just three. The instructions for these ornaments had shown up in a women's magazine, so I formed this party of the my mother, Eileen, Cassie and me. It's been many, many years since Eileen fell down the basement steps and suffered such severe brain injury that she no longer knew any of us. I look back on that ornament party now and know some things I didn't know then. For instance, that none of us had a creative outlet in her life. That my life was sadly empty of friends, so that they were actually my best friends - and that our three-generation friendship was a good thing for all of us.
I came to the cluster of half-inch square packages wrapped in foil and gold string, and smiled. You could not have them out anywhere Sherlock could reach, or they would be batted all over the house, to end up eventually way back under the couch. Worse, he might eat them. Holding those packages in my hand, I missed him in a physical way. I remembered him with love, thirteen years of a bad cat who just got worse. And we thought everything he did was remarkable.
The ornaments come out year after year, and each year has brought fresh loss. Tonight, in fact, we are going to visiting hours for our old friend, Mary Smith. Like Eileen and my mother, Mary had a aging process, leading her further into dementia and a life empty of friends and pleasures. I happen to know quite a few people who have had bad deaths. They don't have to be slow. My father's was sudden, a cerebral hemorrhage when he was alone down in the cabin.
Who has a good death? There are stories told about Zen masters, who seem to see it coming and write a death poem, or maybe produce a poem they have ready and waiting. A good death is one in which you accept the inevitability of this process, a change of state, when all the parts that make up you fall apart and go on to make up something else. When someone is willing to give up this body, this self, I imagine they can be peaceful at death, and grateful for their life. So many people I know have gone unwillingly, sometimes angry that this should happen to them no matter how hard they tried to keep living.
But I honestly do find that in the face of death, it is consoling to affirm the good moments in the life. So we stand in a funeral home and talk about how valiant Mary was, raising her children alone, how creative she was, her little sewing room stuffed with hundreds of scraps, how happy she was to buy her own house late in life. So, in the words of J. Donald Johnson, "In the presence of death, we say yes to life."