Christmas and Family

Our first Christmas together was right after our wedding that occurred on December 20, 1975. After honeymooning in Gatlinburg and enjoying its perfect Christmas atmosphere including snowfall and St. Bernard puppies for sale, we went back to Cindy’s Nana’s house to celebrate the 25th with extended family of Godwin’s and Burch’s.

I was adopted by a wonderful family. Christmas with Cindy’s family has been made rich with memories of gift swapping, carols sung, games played, all-night barbeques, and tons of sweets. But, by far, the best thing about my in-law’s and extended family is their gift of relationship. They exhibit love on a grand scale but without pretense. The gifts aren’t elegant or measured one against the other. The main gift that is passed from one to another is family.

This is key for me! I also dearly love my own biological family and have marvelous memories of Christmases past when we all gathered at our house, which, by the way, was also home to my grandparents. We cousins and kin celebrated on a huge scale. After all, December 25 was my grandparents’ wedding anniversary, and my own parents were married on December 23. Nevertheless, with all of its hoopla, Christmas with my family of origin hasn’t compared with the reality of familial love that I’ve witnessed with Cindy’s relatives.

Maybe part of the problem is that my parents were older when I was born, fortyish, and might have been too tired for a newcomer. They even let my two brothers have the honor of naming me, I surmise to help extend my life. My first name “William” was my maternal grandfather’s name. My middle name, “Timothy,” came from the bear in the “Dick and Jane” books. My brothers and I are eight years apart in age. When I was two, my oldest brother went off to college. I really don’t remember living in the same house with him. He was a celebrated visitor. My middle brother was just becoming interesting when he got hooked on cars and girls. So I became another one of the independent agents of our household, fending for myself, except for the gracious tutelage of nursemaids and kind aunts. The yo-yo between closeness and distance has been a family trait. My family has always been a three-ring circus with everyone going off in his or her own direction. Therefore, maybe it was the whole family’s penchant for doing your own thing that led me to give much of my Christmas holidays to selling fireworks in partnership with one of my uncles.

Therefore, learning to do family has occurred mostly after marriage for me, and I haven’t been the greatest student of the art. It is an art to be in relationship with other people. The eagerness to be with family and the Christmases we have shared is what makes Cindy’s family so dear to me. They haven’t just adopted me. There’s a host of others who have been included, too. The inclusion of so many is what makes Christmas, or any other time with them, so special. Rather than a disjointed make-an-effort family system, theirs is as natural as breathing.

As much as I miss my deceased parents and desire to have closeness with my living McClendon kin, I made a choice a long time ago. I’ll always love my brothers and their families and my extended Jackson cousins from my mother’s side, but for all practical purposes I belong to another family now, my wife’s. I love them, and they have taught me how to love better. I just wanted to say, “Thanks.” With Cindy’s mother’s death a couple of months ago, Christmas will not be the same. Our parents are all gone now and that reality hits me in my gut sometimes. My folks have been enjoying Christmas together in heaven for years now, but this will be the first time in 9 years that Mr. and Mrs. Godwin will spend it together. They will be in our hearts all day, too, and we will forge new family traditions, but after it’s all said and done, it will be Ganny and Gandaddy’s life and love that will hold us together.
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Christmas Tree Merry-Go-Round

We don’t have our Christmas Tree up yet. It has been musical chairs or trees for us. With Ganny’s death Christmas preparations have changed more than a bit. Oh, we’ll still barbeque a hog and gather at her house, but she would have already wanted Narcie, her official Tree Decorator, to have already put everything up. So… plans change. Without anyone at her house and fear of a fire if the tree isn’t watered consistently we’ve decided to switch some things up. Narcie and Mike get our tree with colored lights so Enoch and Evy can enjoy the myriad colors, and Ganny’s house gets Narcie’s tree with white lights and no need for watering. She and some of the students from Winthrop Wesley will go down this weekend to set it all up, and I’ll go to Lowe’s or Home Depot to find a tree for us. We’re the odd tree out, but that’s okay. Simple problem, simple solution. Decorating for Christmas is a joy not a burden. The same should be true for all of our Advent/Christmas preparations.

This reminds me of what former CBS News Anchor Dan Rather writes in his book, I Remember, about watching the Flying Valentis while growing up. He writes, “Walking past a vacant lot on our way to school early in the morning, we would come across the Flying Valentis practicing in their long tights and tank tops.” The Flying Valentis were a troupe of circus acrobats who traveled and performed throughout the United States.

“Although we were used to their art,” Rather recalls, “the Flying Valentis never ceased being the wonder of the neighborhood. Every morning it was like getting invited to a great show without having to buy a ticket. They did triple somersaults above their practice nets and caught each other by the forearms while swinging from the trapeze. We’d gasp when they missed connections and fell into their nets.”
From watching this family work out, Rather and his friends discovered that practice meant a lot of hard work. It might have looked like a lot of fun, but it was work. Rather writes, “From this hard-working family with its specialized brand of togetherness, we learned that even life in the limelight was no cakewalk. When we traipsed back from school in the afternoon the Valentis were still swinging away from their nets, and when they returned from a tour looking banged up and limping with limbs in casts we could see that a price had to be paid for fame.” Rather learned a valuable lesson from watching the Flying Valentis, “Their vicissitudes would have been good preparation for survival in the acrobatics of network television.”
Advent is our time of holiday preparation. It is a time when we look back, examining Israel’s expectation of the long-awaited Messiah. It is also a time to look forward to the day when Jesus will return. We do not know when that long anticipated event shall occur, but we try to stay prepared. Like flying a trapeze, Advent/Christmas season often looks like a lot of fun with all of the tinsel and lights. However, without the disciplines of reflection and preparation, this season can make us end up looking as battered as working without a net.

Advent season gives us the spiritual net to help us survive the hurriedness of Christmas. With great panic we can either say that there are only 4 Sundays until Christmas Eve and we’re not ready, or with the right amount of spiritual preparation we can say that we’re looking forward to it. With adequate reflection, we can celebrate this special season with all the wonder and poignancy that it deserves. Don’t miss the net!

Ganny & Gandaddy

My mother-in-law, Dixie Godwin, died Sunday and was buried yesterday. My two children, Narcie and Josh, who are both United Methodist Ministers did the service. My youngest, Caleb, was a pall-bearer. Ganny, as Narcie named her years ago would have been so proud. The service was perfect! Ganny has been at Agape Rehab 3 miles from Cindy’s school since the first of February. They were marvelous to her and I cannot thank them enough.

Ganny was a wonderful mother to Cindy and Guyeth, and mother-in-law to Rob and me. There could not have been a better grandmother to Narcie, Josh, Caleb, Lindsay, Doug and her great-grandchildren, Enoch and Evy. She lived her faith and enjoyed life. She had so many friends and a colony of “lost boys” to whom she was a surrogate mother. She was extraordinary in so many ways. As much as we will miss her, her decline reminds us how blessed we were that she was still “with it” until she died suddenly on Sunday. They had told her Friday that she had some form of leukemia and were preparing her for treatments. We wouln’t have wanted her to suffer any more, but she lived life to the full until the end. She made friends out of every nurse and adapted to life’s changes with a God-given grace that was amazing.
Two weeks ago tomorrow we took her to see the movie “Julie & Julia.” She loved it! She was a story-teller and librarian. She and Gandaddy were truly educators. They both taught us how to live and die. They’re together again as they should be. They have left a legacy for all of us, and we’re thankful.

Determination

My mother-in-law is doing so much better. Thank you for all your prayers. Please keep praying for her, and, especially, Cindy. Cindy gets up at 5 am, has her devotion and breakfast, heads to the Agape Transition Care facility on her way to work, and stops back by on her way home. She usually stays until after Mrs. Godwin eats dinner. I usually go every day, too, and often meet her there in the evening. It’s been interesting getting mail changed to our house, figuring out her taxes, meds, and going to Walmart, etc. to get the essentials for her to survive therapy sessions. Thank God she is responding. A week ago we didn’t know if she would live. Determination is so huge in our will to live.

My dad was 48 when he was given 6 weeks to 6 months to live because his prostate cancer had metasticized to his bones. He lived for 38 more years and even outlived his doctor! Why? God’s grace and his determination were key. When he lost both legs to diabetes at age 80 he showed us all how determined he was when he walked and drove on his artificial legs. He was an amazing example of determination. When he finally died we sang “Lord of the Dance” per his request and we could all visualize him with his new legs dancing a jig. I cried for sheer joy.
I sometimes wonder if I have that kind of determination. The struggles are great and I often want to crawl into a hole and turn out the lights, but God’s grace empowers me and you to get up and keep at it. May it ever be, please, Lord, please!

Instincts Are the Enemy

My mother-in-law’s tenacity is phenomenal. Her will to live has brought her back from the brink. She is still clinging to life in spite of a broken back, kidney failure, congestive heart failure, and a hemoglobin level half of what it should be. I don’t know about you, but I hope that I would be ready to pack it in, fold up the tent, and go see Jesus. Now, I don’t mean that Mrs. Godwin is not ready to go see Jesus. Frankly I think that with all the morphine and every other pain killer they have thrown at her, she is just simply living at her instinctual level rather than at her faith level. She even bit a nurse last night! That isn’t Mrs. Godwin.

This reminds me that I often live at my instinctual level rather than relying on faith, and I don’t have a broken back for an excuse. I preached from Mark’s lectionary text last Sunday, Mark 8:31ff, and used a Staples “Easy” button. Staples may say “That was easy” to our problems, but Jesus, however, says deny yourself and take up a cross. Unfortunately our basest selves are self-centered and cling to life to the end. If Mrs. Godwin were her unencumbered self, she would have already checked out of here. To be sure, however, I hope she bounces back to who she was both physically and spiritually. We don’t want her to die, but we don’t want her to live like a person she hasn’t been. This whole drama makes me stand amazed at a Jesus who had, in his dying moment, the spiritual strength to “commend his spirit” to God and just give up his ghost and die. I might have been kicking and screaming for life. Who wouldn’t? Maybe that’s my qiestion to answer for Lent. Which is more important: my instinctual desires or my spiritual ones?

Being in Sandwich Generation is Tough

Cindy’s mother, Dixie Godwin, has been in three different hospitals in as many days. She has osteoporosis and has broken her back again. The first time was 5 years ago when she was making up her bed. She was in a brace and rehab for months. This time it just happened, no warning, no reason. First she was in Williamsburg County Hospital; then tranferred to Roper Hospital in Charleston; then to East Cooper Hospital in Mt. Pleasant where her orthopedic doctors have privileges.

They still haven’t been able to do an MRI to ascertain the best course of action. The problem is multifaceted. Her heart is acting up. Her kidneys are functioning at about 15%. Her hemoglobin is extremely low, and her pain is terrible. Hopefully today or tomorrow they can do the MRI and do what needs to be done. They have told us to be ready for rehab decisions which means moving her away from her doctors to be with us or near us in Columbia.
 
It’s a tough situation. Ever since Mr. Godwin died suddenly with a heart attack it seems that her warranty on her body ran out. He was her Knight in Shining Armour. He had his first 5 bypasses done when he was 52, then 4 more at age 56. He made it to age 64, which for his family was a feat. His Dad died of a heart attack at age 43; mother of heart attack at age 52; brother of heart attack at age 39. Their heart history is terrible.
Mrs. Godwin or “Ganny” as the children have called her is a strong willed independent woman so this has literally altered her life. Please pray for her and us, especially Cindy, as we make decisions in her best interest. Life is a challenge and never easy, but thank God for mercies beyond our comprehension. Being a part of the “Sandwich Generation” isn’t easy when you are concerned about your children, even grandchildren, plus your parents. My Mother died in 1993 when I was 37. Daddy died in 2000, 2 months before Cindy’s Dad. Life is tough, but God is tougher.