First Christmas Without Dad – One Process for Handling Holiday Grief
For 64 years, every Christmas my dad has been there. I really do not remember Christmas in New Orleans. My family lived there until I was almost eight. Christmas in Detroit was always exciting. My little brother Emory and I would wake up early and tear into our gifts. My first Christmas home as a freshman from Boston University, Emory announced that he had taken over the bedroom he and I had shared until I was 17, so, I slept in a guest room that was adjoined to a back room over the breakfast room where Steve, who was just a little boy, slept. Steve made the mistake of announcing that he was going to wake up before our parents and open his gifts. My dad, being my dad, installed an alarm between the door from the guest room I was sleeping in to the outer hall way. Steve, unaware of the alarm on the door, went to bed breathing threats of waking up before everyone else. I always have been able to wake up early and that Christmas morning was no different. I heard Steve climb out of his bed in the back room. With each sneaky step from his little feet, I heard him leave his room and stealthily try to get past my bed to the door. With one eye open, I watched Steve take his little steps towards the door. As he opened the door, the alarm went off blaring as though a crook had made it into the house. Steve’s eyes opened like Reece’s Buttercups free from their wrapping and he raced back to his bed! I almost fell out of the guest bed laughing. My dad woke up and he too had a great laugh.
One Christmas, my dad became angry with me because I found our Christmas gifts and made the mistake of telling my younger brother, Emory. My punishment was waking up on Christmas day and learning that I had no gifts under the tree. I think I may have cried. After an acceptable period of tears, my dad told me to go to the basement. There in his study were my gifts. My dad met me in the basement and told me he hoped I would never ruin another child’s Christmas.
We have all gotten older. My mother died about 23 years ago, but Nathan and Noah were so young and full of excitement about Christmas, we just moved on. Emory and Sarah are dead. This past April, my father died. His death was slow and progressive. He drove his car up until a year ago, December. My father wanted to live, so badly. For about ten years he worked out at the same gym where I work out. Before that, he and his friend, Mel Jefferson sr. would walk around the grounds near the Riverfront Apartments where they both lived. Each year the walking slowed down and eventually my dad could not walk from the valet at the Braza Health Center to the gym. I knew it was only a matter of time before the chilly fingers of death would put him in a choke hold.
When my dad died in April, I was caught off guard, but I was also ready to release him from his suffering. My dad and I were close. I would take him to lunch every opportunity I could. Most of the time we would eat at the Traffic Jam and Snug Restaurant. Every now and then I would take my dad to some of the more fancy restaurants in Detroit. He always seemed so fascinated to go to a toney restaurant, and that I would pay. For me, it was a delight because for so many years as a young adult, when I worked with him at the church, he would take me to lunch.
In his old age, my dad and Doris, his second wife, would drive to our home for Christmas dinner. He could barely walk up the steps to our home. Often my brother and I would have to help him get up the steps. At dinner, he was classily funny with a sly sense of humor that would often catch the unsuspecting off guard. Last Christmas, he gave Maleah, his first great-granddaughter, a drone airplane. My dad would give Steve books on physics and sometimes a subscription to Wired magazine. For each of us, the gifts he gave us were appropriate to where he thought we were in life.
This Christmas was different, because he was not at the table. A few days before Christmas, our sons, Noah and Nathan and Sharla, Nathan’s wife, and great-granddaughter, Maleah, along with Nancy Page, Denise’s mother, joined me and Denise and my dad’s apartment with his wife, Doris. Doris made gumbo, along with cornbread. We took a family photo with the camera on a tripod. I set the photo for light and composition, then turned on the timer and ran to get in the picture. I was the last to get my plate and realized that all the seats were occupied, so I ended up sitting in my father’s seat. At first it was a little odd, then it dawned on me that I was the third oldest at the table and the oldest male present.
I do not know if I am handling the death of my father so well, or if I am in denial. I have not yet broken down in tears except last week I went to make remarks at the funeral of Mrs. Ollie Woods, who was a prime tenant at the Nicholas Hood Sr. Apartments, which was constructed by my church for low to income residents. As I was leaving the church, several tenants and former tenants came up to me to express how pleased they were that I had shown up to say a few words on behalf of Mrs. Woods. One of her children told me that my father had personally handed her the keys to her apartment. This housing development was constructed in 1967, the same summer as the riot in Detroit. The first tenants moved in during 1968. In my third and fourth year of college at Wayne State University, I lived in the Medical Center Courts Apartments and became close with several of the residents. The mortgage on the development was paid off in 2008. As I walked to my car, I started to tear up. It finally got to me that my father’s death was touching me.
Perhaps there is someone reading this piece who is having a tough time with Christmas, or maybe just life in general, because a holiday reminds you of good times with someone who meant a lot to you, and now you know that they will never be with you again.
Yes, I believe in the salvation from death that only Jesus Christ offers to all who believe. But, the reality is that death still stings. I cannot call my father to talk about politics, the church, and the events of the world. He no longer is at his place at the table on Christmas or any other day. I guess I am sad, but I am not torn up in his death. I move forward with a certain numbness. I have not found anyone with his political perspective and faith in Jesus Christ and experience as a pastor, which have been so helpful to me through the years.
So, now I pastor with no one to talk to. I program for the church without his watchful eye, always telling me when he liked my jokes, or thought they were over the top. I feel like I am swimming in deep water or sailing in uncharted waters. Even so, I move forward – not like those without hope, but full of hope because of the death of Jesus, the life of Jesus and the salvation of Jesus. I will make it through Christmas, but it will never be the same.
For those who are having a tough time this Christmas, please know that I am praying for you. Make the most of every moment you have with the people who mean the most to you. When someone dies, I encourage you not to become superstitious, but move forward with the faith, hope and love that the good Lord has provided to each of us through his promise of everlasting life.
Prayer: Lord, help me with my grief. I thank you for the memories. I thank you for the good days. Remind me that death is not the end of life, but the beginning of everlasting life with you in that kingdom which has no end. Through Jesus Christ our Lord and Savior I pray. Amen.
Written by Rev. Dr. Nicholas Hood III
Photo by Rev. Dr. Nicholas Hood III
Additional Prayers Photos and Meditations from Rev. Dr. Nicholas Hood III at https://nicholashoodiiiministries.wordpress.com/