WAITING FOR THE LIGHT
(for SJG, who helps me with the obvious)
My neighbor Bill across the street puts up outdoor Christmas lights the day after Thanksgiving every year and promptly takes them down on New Year’s Day. I’ve begged him to leave them up a little longer, at least until Epiphany, when the Magi reach Jesus in Bethlehem. But he doesn’t see the logic in my reasoning and climbs up on his aluminum ladder every New Year’s afternoon to take down the lights while his wife disassembles the artificial Christmas tree indoors.
I’m always saddened to see Bill’s lights come down. At this time of year in the Upper Midwest, with only seven or eight hours of daylight, the ropes of light strung along gutters, draped over bushes, and placed in windows are testaments of faith, of awareness that the darkness is only temporary. Light, and the life it brings with it, will return.
Two years ago, SJG slipped on ice and tore the quadricep muscle of her right leg right off the knee. The diagnosis was slow to come, and in the period between the accident and the surgery to reattach the muscle, SJG spent many days at home, unable to bend or raise her leg unassisted. One evening, to lift her gloom, we drove slowly through the neighborhood to see the holiday lights. Our favorite display was a large house by the park, the house with the “Protect the American Family” sign on the front lawn that summer. Every bush and tree was strung with cream-colored lights; giant red plastic candles glowed from each window; and all the gutters, downspouts, and porch railings shown like green frames into the night. We returned home feeling hopeful.
Like many people in our neighborhood, that family leaves the lights up well into the spring, as a sort of insurance policy against eternal darkness. They counterbalance Bill and his eagerness to get his lights back into their box in the basement. And they are reminders that light can be a kind of choice, an act of will.
My siblings and I cleaned out our mother’s apartment together after her death. At first, we were frightened to enter her apartment, fearful of what we might find there, the memories, the forensic detritus, the mountains of possessions. Yet, over the days ahead-- a kindly neighbor bringing coffee and treats each afternoon--we fell into a routine, laughing one minute, weeping the next as we made our way through the layers of our mother’s life. One afternoon, the music blaring at full volume, we came together in a desperate clutch, like magnets, my sister in the middle, my brother and me on either side. We went wordlessly back to our tasks, and eventually, we’d emptied the apartment—dropped off charitable donations, placed mounds of trash curbside, loaded the rental truck with precious items to bring home. As I took a final swipe of the wet mop across the kitchen floor, the sun began to stream into the room, filling it with a golden glow. My mother had spent years filling every corner of her apartment with belongings, blocking the light with plants and window coverings. It had always seemed such a dark place, and in that moment, I realized, with surprise, that it was not naturally so.
In the years since that day, I’ve come to think that we make our own light, and it takes care and attention and a good dose of faith to maintain the flame through the dark hours until the morning comes.