The Hardest Day of the Year
Christmas Eve is not when you expect to stand at the cemetery. I’m here with my friend, Julian Campbell. We’re selecting a gravesite for his sister Kathleen, who died yesterday after a brave ten-year battle with cancer.
It’s fitting I’m with Julian. He and his family helped bury my dad. Now I’m going to help him bury his sister.
I hate death. I especially hate it at Christmas. Death and this holiday shouldn’t go together, but they often do.
# # #
As a teenager, I learned a lasting lesson about Christmas and death. A member of our church, George Forbes, was dying of cancer. I was home from college and volunteered to sit with him at night.
He’d been insistent that he die at home surrounded by his family. I arrived late on Christmas Eve and his wife said, “It won’t be long. They don’t think he’ll make the night.”
Every breath seemed as if it’d be his last. During the night, he roused and whispered, “I’ve got to stay here to see my boy get his new bike.”
The next afternoon, his son got his bike.
An hour later, George Forbes was dead.
# # #
When I was two years old, a tragedy occurred in my family. My dad’s youngest brother Clint. a first-grader, was run over and killed as he left school. It happened right in front of the family home on Bon Ami Street in DeRidder.
Clint, age six, was the youngest of the six Iles siblings. His short life and sudden death affected and shaped our extended family and does to this day. Clint lived among grandparents, parents, and five siblings in an extremely close-knit family.
He died on December 3, 1958. Only three weeks before Christmas. I was nearly three and don’t remember the details. I only have a vague memory of knowing something terrible had happened among the people I loved deeply.
I’ve wondered how Christmas 1958 must have been for our family. How can presents, eating, and singing be done in a time when your hearts been ripped out
My Uncle Bill, who was especially close to his younger brother, later painted a large mural about the day of his brother’s death. It shows all of our family in their respective manners of grief. I’m moved beyond words when I see the abstract images of my grandparents, great grandparents, dad and his siblings as they process the news of Clint’s death.
My earliest Christmas memories are joyful—fiddle playing, games, laughter, opening presents from the youngest up. Christmas in the Iles family was a time of great celebration and family.
Knowing how painful those Christmas’s must have been only deepened my love and admiration for my family.
At age six, I started first grade and was given a set of engraved pencils. Clinton David Iles. They were a gift from that terrible sad Christmas of 1958. My mother had saved them for me. I didn’t realize what they meant but would give a king’s ransom to hold one today.
Uncle Clint’s death affected our family greatly, but in many ways the effect was positive. I grew up in a nest of four generations of love, surrounded by doting great grandparents, grandparents, uncles, aunts, and cousins. It was as if the older family member had channeled their grief to love.
When our second son was born in 1984, I asked my grandma Pearl the question I’d longed to. “MaMa, would it be okay if we named him Clint?”
I’ll always recall the instant stream of tears that flowed from her clear blue eyes. “I’d love it.”
# # #
In 2003, my father, the oldest of the five Iles siblings, died. Hundreds packed our church for his funeral. At the conclusion of the service, the Southern tradition of passing by the casket to “pay final respects.” began.
As the line snaked around the aisle, I saw Mrs. Heard and her husband. She was the driver of the car that struck Uncle Clint on that fateful December day forty-five years ago.
The accident was not her fault and our family had reached out to her immediately. I’ve always cherished the story of my grandmother, mourning in bed on the night of Clint’s death, sending my aunts to console Mrs. Heard.
As she and her husband approached, I felt movement behind me. It was Uncle Bill, Aunt Lloydell, and Aunt JoAnn joining Mrs. Heard at the casket in a show of support.
She cried and so did I. Our families have been intertwined since that sad day in 1958 and it was borne out again on this day. I’d never been prouder to bear the Iles name.
This Christmas, you’ll be surrounded by hurting people.
Many are hurting due to the loss of a loved one.
An empty seat around the table this year.
One less present.
One less memory.
For others, it’s been decades since the death of a spouse, child, or parent. Regardless, each Christmas re-opens the wound.
Many others are hurting due to other deaths:
The death of a marriage.
Maybe the death of a dream.
The loss of a job… and a nagging hopelessness for the future.
The demise of a dream.
The distance of a child.
Let’s be looking for those hurting folks this Christmas. Sadly, they don’t wear a placard saying, “I’m hurting. I’ve had a loss.”
Many times they reveal their pain in the strangest of ways.
Rudeness in a shopping line.
A shaking fist at a stoplight.
A cold stare on a sidewalk.
They’ve got a rock in their shoe. You can’t see it, but it’s very painful.
Give them a gift. Cut them some slack.
Return a smile for the stare.
A kind word for the gruffness.
The most stressful, and sometimes saddest, season of the year.
It’s the longest day of the year for many folks.
It can also be the loneliest day of the year.
Be kind. It may be the hardest day of the year for someone you meet.
In my recent novel, A Spent Bullet, a young boy named Ben dies in an accident similar to Uncle Clint’s. I’ve felt the wrath of my readers. “How could you let that sweet boy die?”
I reply, “In real life, even sweet boys die. It happened in my family.”