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Salvo 12.08.2020 8 minutes

Nightmares Before Christmas

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Advent Misadventures

Last year I did not send out Christmas cards for the first time in ten years, and look what happened. Sorry about 2020, everyone.

Greetings again from sunny California, where the fun never starts! Christmas was just cancelled by hapless Governor Newsom and his feckless henchman, Eric Grinchmas. The Los Angeles County Supervisors, some obscure panel of nincompoops who really run things around here, voted to shut down walking, biking, outdoor dining, and everything else pretty much, except “protests.” Those are still allowed! We’re not allowed to leave the house, but peaceful looting will be tolerated. Meanwhile the playgrounds stay closed and they won’t even put the basketball nets back on the backboards at our local park. My (five-foot six-inch) teenager is watching his NBA dreams fade away.

Happily, a counter-revolutionary movement has sprung up to fight back. Groups of unemployed and absolutely furious small business owners now regularly protest outside councilwoman and preening nitwit Sheila Kuehl’s house in Santa Monica. 

Silver lining: This is all very good preparation for Advent. What is Advent, you ask? Growing up a secular heathen, all my knowledge about Christmas came from the Charlie Brown Christmas and Grinch cartoons. Linus was my first Christian pastor. The Whos down in Whoville, the tall and the small, knew some big secret about Christmas, but I had no idea what they were singing about. My deep theological knowledge remains thin to this day, since I am a product of the weak-ass RCIA programs they put us converts through, but I am trying to learn. 

Advent, according to a very wise liturgical living expert I know, is the four weeks before Christmas that is like a “little Lent” — a somewhat pensive time of waiting, fasting, and anticipating the good thing coming our way; and no, I don’t mean the PlayStation 5 or the COVID vaccine or the Dune movie, which frankly I don’t get at all.

Steering into the Skid 

Advent is a season of great hope and shimmering candy cane flavored gossamer fantasies-—the kinds that vaporize the instant reality pokes its icy nose into your cozy Christmas refuge. Even without COVID, this time of year can be pretty fraught. Through the cinnamon and balsam scented air, you can still smell a “whiff of death,” as the screenwriters say. 

It’s a time of grief and mourning for many. I lost a baby through miscarriage this time of year once. A family I know was once involved in a horrific fatal DUI accident a few days before Christmas. Winter is positively littered with anniversaries of our grandparent’s deaths. Just last week I attended my first Zoom memorial for a friend who passed away. 

What is it about winter that is so cruel? Maybe it’s just that bad things happening this close to Christmas feel so discordant, so wrong.

We mortals spend our precarious lives dancing around the edge of a gaping chasm of doom. We don’t know the precise moment we will fall screaming and flailing into the hole; all we know is that one day, like it or not, we’re going in. 

“We dance round in a ring and suppose. But the secret sits in the middle and knows” is the Frost poem that perhaps refers to this conundrum.

The chasm awaits! But how to prepare? How can you ever be prepared for catastrophe? There is no life jacket that will preserve you when The Bad Thing comes. Or is there?

The same day we brought this year’s Christmas tree home, our new nativity set arrived. After years of not being able to decide on one, we found an acceptable set on Etsy. Not too babyish, not one of the modern horror Nativities where the holy family is represented by abstract rectangles, and not too expensive. I was setting the figures up on the mantle when I noticed one of the children had already placed an old St. Joseph figurine there. It was from a kit for Catholics who are selling a home: you take the cheap little plastic St. Joseph and you bury him head down in your front yard. 

Our house sold fast (thanks, Joe!) and we dug him up to take to our new home. Alas—his head had broken off his body. Oh well! I told the horrified children. Lots of saints lose their heads, he is just fine! 

He then vanished for years, lost in one move and then another—until this weekend when he reappeared on the mantle next to his decapitated head. I used to pray for St. Joseph to carry me when I was overwhelmed by life, and here he was, ready to check out the new nativity set and greet his old lady (me).

Saints are strangely powerful, even when they’re just a pile of broken bits and pieces. 

Advent Angels

Now please brace yourself for a gut-wrenching story. Something terrible happened last week to our friends’ 26-year-old nephew. He was skiing in Lake Tahoe the weekend after Thanksgiving when he had a catastrophic accident that shattered his pelvis, hips—and part of his spine. Franz Wall was in his last year at a top dental school, for which he won a special scholarship from the Navy in exchange for some years of service as a Naval dentist. He is now paralyzed from the chest down. The second oldest of nine children, Franz grew up on a 40-acre sustainable farm in Mariposa County California, near Yosemite. His family of devout Catholics raise horses, goats, cows, and lots of other animals in an Edenic spot that I admit to secretly coveting. Franz is, according to everyone who knows him, an absolutely wonderful guy in every way. Fun, athletic, hard-working, and always cheerful, he’s been a role model to his siblings and cousins. Handsome, blonde, and with a perfect grin, he’s the kind of guy you root for (dental pun not intended). 

I’ve been following his mother’s posts online. He almost just died from pneumonia, I learned, but didn’t, somehow. He can move his arms, but as of now he can’t move his hands. Her description of his anguish at that realization is heartbreaking. Her riveting reports from his bedside are more spiritually gripping and inspiring than the hundreds of insipid homilies I’ve had to sit through.

Here is one of her reports:

Day 6 Evening Update:

I go to my afternoon visit. My slow shuffle to sorrow. My time to prepare myself, to reflect on what my son might need from me. My long walk down many halls that are only slightly familiar because I am so internally reflective that I notice little. I arrive at the ICU, out of breath from emotional exhaustion. I take a deep breath, square my shoulders and announce my name. With a buzz I am in the inner sanctum.

The nurse comes to me. “So the vacuuming this afternoon went great. Earlier this morning we had to stop because his heart stopped beating.”

The room spins. And I decide in that moment if the Lord takes Franz, then I am at peace. Franz’s soul is ready and that is all that matters. The nurse continues, “his legs are swollen, but not his feet.” She looks at me. “His body is so strong. His fever is 104.5 and his lungs are tired.” Basically they are letting him flirt with death in order to keep the swelling off his spinal cord- which is the most important thing. And it’s working—slightly improved range of motion, no swelling. All good. If he doesn’t die first! I nod and smile and cannot believe the world I live in.

We are saying a novena to St. Gemma, my favorite saint, my sister saint. And by an amazing miracle, someone somewhere in the world has a First Class Relic—her BONES!  It arrives today and I plan to tape it to his chest. Over his lungs. Over his heart. Over the place where paralysis starts. Over his soul, which matters most.

When I try to explain this to the nurse, thankfully she says “oh, I used to be Catholic, I know what this is.” So we put the relic in a bag and tape it to his chest. I press on that miraculous conduit of grace and beg for God’s healing. He is drugged out of his mind. His eyes open when he hears my voice. His eyebrows move when I pray and otherwise he is still. I am saying my goodbyes and ask the nurse if she saw our family picture. He is single, I say.  “Really?” she asks. “But he’s so good-looking and amazing.”

I laugh and say, “he’s really picky.” And that son of a gun literally turns his head, opens his eyes, looks her directly in the eye and nods his head vigorously!! Nurse and I bust out laughing and darn if that boy didn’t just make both our days!!! Good night y’all—I expect miracles!

Christmas Miracles

Because of Franz, and everything else, I have never been more committed to observing Advent—waiting and preparing for what is to come in ways that don’t just involve shopping and cookie making. Franz Wall and his family await something else this season, as they gaze into an uncertain future. Some of you might be wondering what next year holds, and if grave and looming dangers may threaten our country and our way of life. 

The baby Jesus arrived in the piercing cold, as the wonderful St. Andrew novena tells us, surrounded by gentle farm animals. The Whos down in Whoville woke up to the aftermath of their Grinch-looted village, and yet sang their hearts out on Christmas morning. 

Because it had come. Christmas came, just the same. Until then, we’ll have to muddle through somehow.

After all, where there’s a Wall, there’s a way. 

St. Gemma, pray for us, and pray for Franz!

To read more about Franz or to donate to his recovery, please go here

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