I’ve been thinking about Christmas ever since the funeral. More precisely, the life celebration. For my husband’s grandfather. His name was Virgil, and he died seven days into his 88th year. The holidays didn’t actually come up during the various eulogies. In fact, the running theme was adventure. Virgil is . . . was . . . was still takes a second . . .Virgil was an adventurer. He was well beyond outdoorsy, he was Daniel Boone. Fishing was his sport of choice, but he was without a doubt also a hiker, a backpacker, and a genuine explorer. He wrote of his tales in magazines like Fishing World and Outdoor Life. He read topography maps and in doing so, discovered a remote stretch of uncharted land that includes a small lake, now dubbed Hosses Pond. We have pictures, thousands upon thousands of Virgil’s original slides. My father-in-law told a story at Virgil’s memorial about a backpacking trip with his dad when he was a kid. His little brother, Virgil’s youngest, was three at the time, and as three-year-olds do, he wore out. Fortunately his father was no stranger to long walks under the burden of heavy loads. Unfortunately, there were still seven miles to go and Virgil already carried a large pack. No matter, though. Virgil hoisted up his son, his son's pack, adjusted his own, and got moving. He later said it was one of his favorite hikes. This was him. This was no big deal.
If a stranger sat in on the service they would have had no choice but to leave with a clear understanding that Virgil didn’t miss much by way of outdoor offerings. And in the middle of all the tales of Virgil, his daughter said something that brought to mind Christmas, and my kids. She said, “And now dad is on his greatest adventure yet.” Simple words: his greatest adventure yet. But they set in motion a train of thought I haven’t been able to stop. Virgil never got to summit Everest. His backpack never saw the hills of Europe. He never pitched his tent in the Andes. For as many mountains as he conquered, there were more literal stones left unturned. And that didn’t bother him.
I sat in the front of the church, off to the right, with Virgil’s white pocket knife in my diaper bag, and I wondered, Am I teaching my son and daughter to love the adventure they find themselves in? Am I preparing them for the greatest adventure yet? I wondered how we should celebrate Christmas this year.
For our ten month-old daughter, it won’t matter. She always parties the same: boobs, bananas, and a rubber giraffe. She’s wild like that. But our son is two and a half. He’s paying attention. And like a lot of kids, he’ll certainly be paying extra close attention to the adventure we make of Christmas. He’ll marvel at the snow we find after a car trip to the mountains, and he’ll run through the maze of Christmas tress in the little farm down the road. He’ll touch as many branches as can. He’ll probably try to climb one.
I’m glad for this. I want him to do all of these things. I want him to know this means something to us. We are going to listen to the Christmas stations on Pandora and drink hot cocoa while we decorate the tree. We will bundle up in that adorable way southern Californians do (My, it’s chilly outside, can’t be more than 60 degrees.) and stroll through neighborhoods to hunt for the best lights. There will probably be more hot cocoa. We are going to celebrate and have fun. We are going to revel. But I am afraid that somewhere on the road to making things merry and bright, I could accidentally teach him this is as good as it gets. That Christmas is the warm and cherry climax of the entire calendar year and that once all the gifts are unwrapped and the batteries are installed and the toys and the jams and the carols are novel no more, that he should cry and ask for more, more. That when the sun rises on December 26th he should mope around and throw a fit maybe because his birthday is still four months off and grieve now that Christmas is a whole other year away.
What hit me in the church where we celebrated Virgil’s life was fear. Not a fear that my son will fail me and act like a brat who throws his half-opened present behind him in search of something newer and better. I was hit with the fear that I will fail him. What a tragedy it would be if I failed to teach him how to enjoy all the goodness and bright lights we find here because we know it’s like a thousand slides, but just slides, from the place we’re really longing to go.
That’s how Virgil lived, my children’s great grandfather. He reveled, and he longed. He saw vast amounts of nature’s beauty, but he never got lost in it. He never lost himself in it. He took so many pictures and amassed so many stories of mind-blowing places. He published them in magazines. But he didn’t let it go to his heart.
The second to last time I saw Virgil, I brought my kids with me. He was confined to a hospital bed, and perhaps worse, stuck inside. He sighed a bit about it. My husband remarked it was the first time he’d ever seen Virgil look his age, but all I saw was the face of a grumpy adolescent who thinks another rainy day just straight up sucks. He was ready to go and tired of waiting and almost comically bored of the whole dying thing. He told our son, “If I could get out of this bed, I would take you fishing.” And then I swear he tested his legs under his sheets. Another sigh. My husband raised the car seat where inside our daughter slept through her only encounter with her great grandfather. Virgil nodded at her tilted face. He didn’t say a word, but he chuckled. I memorized this moment. And thinking about Christmas in the church, it came back to me, his nod and his chuckle, the image of his son on his back. I thought, I hope he knew we are going to raise her, both of the kids, to be a lot like him.
For a man who loved to live, he was sure unafraid to die. He didn’t dread the buzzkill of the day after Christmas. He wasn’t afraid to come down from the mountain. Virgil was a December 26th man. His once unfaltering legs didn’t work anymore, and that was okay. He knew the greatest Adventurer was scooping him up and putting him on his back and walking with him toward the greatest adventure, the one laying in the hills just ahead.