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Christmas Eve Blues

Your best friend is dead. Your mother is bi-polar. And you've lived your life as a fake Catholic. Where do you go from here?

By Ondine Galsworth

I am braced for Christmas. I call a friend, a serious Catholic whose only plan for the Christmas season is to go to Midnight Mass with an ex-nun. Suddenly, I long to be there with her, on the other side of the country, weeping and pulsating to God’s love, whatever the hell that means. Not being a Christian myself, I want it anyway. I’m hoping that any lack of faith on my part will be joyously overrun by the hardcore Christians around me. I would rejoice, in spite of it all, eating flesh, drinking blood, before the night was over. But, alas, I cannot leave town, or can’t get it together to leave town, and will have to wing it on my own, alone, in New Jersey. I have to find a church.

It’s Christmas Eve and I’m feeling homicidal. It’s been less than three months since my closest friend, Loren, has died and I’ve been reduced to a life of bare necessity—a slow walk with the dead. I actually want to kill something. My cat irritates me. I shove the cat with my foot. I throw a full glass of water in his face and run out of the apartment. Shit, I’ve lost it. Despite the freezing temperatures and my seriously out-of-shape body, I run along the river, desperate to release some of this violence in my veins. Soon I am standing on the steps of Saints Peter and Paul, a small church by the Hudson River in Hoboken, N.J. It seems the obvious choice.

Rarely can I stroll by Saints Peter and Paul without the urge to write a fat check in order to compensate for all that my dear mother desecrated or nicked from its sacred confines. The church used to be a regular stop for my bi-polar mom on one of her stealing sprees. Food, bags of clothing, money, anything she could get her manic little hands on. Thus, I feel a certain tenderness towards the little church, because, after all, it was connected to my mother, whom I love, kleptomania and all.

A few months earlier I’d walked into the empty church to light a candle for my dying friend. Sitting directly in front of a statue of Mary, I knew I wanted her love. I felt as if someone was worrying about me, watching over me. Suddenly I felt what seemed like a large hand clutch my head, forcing me to be still and offering a few moments of safety in the midst of the nightmare of my life.

Now, on this cold night, I try the church doors. Closed. Nine p.m. Too bad. They really should be open, so that I can sit in there for hours and pray like a fiend. I would pray for Loren, for her kids, for my cat, for my mother, for the hatred inside me to dissipate. I just want to sit there and burn a hole in the pew with my heart. Jesus, things are not good.

I take off running again. Now I am in front of Grace Church in the center of Hoboken. Closed. I want to faint. I want to crumple on the stairs and be found, held, like Mary holds Jesus. I want to drape the dead in me across the lap of the Holy, someone, something that can bear it. If God can’t take it, then let it kill me. Screw it. I’ve had it. Taking Loren to years of chemotherapy, walking her dog, getting pregnant a week before she died, giving her eulogy with morning sickness and a broken finger. Then the miscarriage, a long month of sickness, and my poor lunatic mother closing off the year by breaking her hip. Fuck this.
Two weeks before Christmas and just months after the death of my best friend, I began to go to Mass almost daily. Here I am again, I thought, pretending to be Catholic, not knowing when to stand and sit, or what to say, where to bow, what to look at. I’m sure I’ll get tossed out, or better yet, struck by lightning, a long overdue blow. After all, I’d been a bogus Catholic ever since I faked my First Communion.

* * *

At six years old, I saw them, the First Communion girls parading around the neighborhood like little brides. I inquired and was told it was what Catholic girls do at seven. I had a year to get it together. Not being Catholic was only a minor obstacle. I was always missing out. Not this time.

My mother and I set to work, staging the mission carefully. I needed a dress, clean white socks, patent leather shoes, and most importantly, accessories - a veil and a patent leather purse stuffed with mysteries. With our best game faces on, my mother and I walked into a tiny shop full of white objects made especially for First Communion. The old man behind the counter asked if he could help us. We asked for a few minutes, needing to case the joint so we would know what to buy. He knew, I was sure of it. What if he threw us out? In hushed tones I instructed my mother to grab a purse, crucifix, veil, and mini bible. “Mini bible?” she asked. I glared at her; she was going to blow it. “Of course,” I hissed.

When the day came, my parents set up the basement like a church. A hallway was constructed out of curtains, there were candles lining the way, and my Jewish father sat behind a sheet, acting as priest, so I could honestly say I had gone to confession. For the rest of the day, I walked around advertising my Catholicism. For once I was just part of the neighborhood. There were a few close calls; some girls asked what Catholic school I went to, since they hadn’t seen me around. I lied and quickly removed myself. My psychoanalyst finds this story particularly appalling and it has helped her understand my inability to feel legitimate anywhere. It’s true, I live mostly in disguise, and when I look at the pictures of myself on my First Communion I know exactly who that girl is, the one holding on tightly to her purse, her hair in ringlets under a tiara and veil, her eyes never looking at the camera but always sideways. I wore that communion dress for every birthday until it became too small.

* * *

A year after my First Communion I met Loren, the girl who was to become my sister, the person so close to me it was like we were leading one life, always choosing opposite paths as if to embrace all experience. She announced that she would become a doctor when we were still kids. I thought it was a lousy idea, kind of disgusting really, but felt sure she would wise up before she grew up. She did not, and in spite of my protests, she went to medical school, became a doctor and truth be told, I found it all terribly exciting. Her life began to look much better than mine--brilliant student, swim team, college in Paris, doctor, mother of three. But she never discounted my quirky existence.

Recently, before she became too sick to work, I met her at the hospital before she finished her rounds. I wanted to go with her, peek in on the gory world of medicine, but I was not allowed to wander around with her as a pedestrian so she grabbed an extra lab coat and threw it at me, “Here put this on and just don’t say a lot.” I didn’t think much of it until we were speeding down the halls of NYU Hospital. People regarded me with a strange new look-- solemn respect accompanied by slight intimidation.

I pulled Loren aside. “People think I’m a doctor!” I felt giddy. “That’s the idea,” she whispered back. I was nervous now. What if someone needed my medical assistance? Loren shoved me into the elevator. It was full of doctors. They all nodded to each other, some said hello to Loren, I gave a tight smile and stared at the floor, trying not to cast haughty looks at the lowly non-doctors who were staring at me warily. After an hour, I had the hang of it. It was so exciting! I was exhilarated and for a moment I thought I had made a terrible mistake in not becoming a doctor, even though I am extremely phobic about anything cardiovascular, cannot say the word “vein” out loud, and find sick people deeply aggravating.

While I hated my life, flailing about in the murky quagmire of self doubt, Loren always loved it, following my adventures like a true fan, She said I was authentic. “Really?” I would scoff. She would stop knitting, wave a needle in the air, grab a handful of whatever crunchy snack we were sharing, and say, “I meet so many people who are full of shit, Ondine—doctors who are so full of themselves, you have no idea.” Nonetheless, I was fascinated by her glamorous inauthentic world. I would beg her for doctor gossip, the affairs, the hissy fits, their spoiled, charmless children in pricy summer camps. And then the fun of meeting them at a gathering, “Is that the one fucking the nurses?” I’d nudge her “Yeah,” Loren would whisper. “Is that his wife?” “Yeah.”

But Loren found me thoughtful, kind. These words, these opinions, after the death of our favorite and dearest people, become like a collection of gems, our private stash to hoard and guard, to get us through the months of hollowness that follow great loss. She left me with her love of me, with her joy of me.

Life without her is a life without vigor. In fact, I am dead. She would be dead too if she had lived and I had died. She would be distracted by her kids and her job and her doting husband, but for all moments in between she would be dead. We shared life on earth, a VIN diagram, two circles, with our common space bigger than our individual areas.

Without me, she could not know the stark blue black details of the South Pole I gave her, of the rainforest in New Zealand, of my crazy affairs in Europe or what it is like to love a man who’s too young and then one who’s too old and then one who’s both – old and immature. I lent her the lab coat of my experiences and she donned it eagerly, hungry to crawl into my life.

Although she could not know what it is to crave a child, to love that non-existent child, to plan for that child, to name that child, but to still love the sound of an empty house, she felt it through me. Without me, she could not have been able to offer her own gleaming strength in the grim dealings with my mother. Without me, she never would have laughed as much as she did for over three decades. If I had died, the world would look blank. She would have to carry the burden of emptiness throughout her day. It would exhaust her, and those around her who didn’t understand would fall away. Because the emptiness would come first, something to protect, to honor, until it too could be set down gently alongside all loss and all in life that is truly a gift.

* * *

On Christmas Eve, I’m listening to a soprano sing in a big beautiful church right in the center of Hoboken. Her voice cuts my heart in half, and as usual I’m crying from the second I walk into the church until I leave. Much to my surprise, there is a 10 o’clock mass and the church fills a little. This is a church of pain; I can feel the wounded hearts of many around me. A serious church, unlike many I’ve encountered that I find a bit too friendly for these dark times. This is a place to weep. There are many statues and they are all looking at me. Some of them move. I love that; I don’t care if it’s just a hallucination, let them take me. The pain inside me is like a body, heavier than my own.

For the first time in two weeks, I can pray. Until now I was just grateful to kneel, to put down bravery and hope, to just surrender my small structure to something other than the facts. But suddenly, on Christmas Eve, a prayer comes, from way inside my gut, I pray for my mother. It’s been a year since I’ve seen her. I had to make a choice, see Loren through to the end, or hear my mother’s weekly reports from the gates of hell. I did not have the strength for both. It is in praying for my mother that I understand what it is to ask God for something, because I can’t do it. I cannot affect her; I cannot heal her psyche. Only God can lend a hand here, and I need his help so much my forehead falls to my hands. Please God, help my mother. And of course it is a prayer for myself, because when she feels well, which has only been for a few weeks since I’ve known her, when her spirits lift, my sadness falls away. I would like to share some good times with her; that is what I want from God, the rest I can figure out myself.

By the time the Mass has begun, many are weeping. The top of my head has begun to swirl, chakras loosening, I am being pulled out of my skin. The entire year starts to crash inside me and I want it to melt away. I start to crave the blood of Christ, but I want it around me, I want it boiling around me, reducing my sorrow, scalding me back to life. The unbaptized outsider, I sit and watch the real Catholics walk up and get their wafers and wine. That’s okay, I’d rather simmer with Christ off to the side anyway. I leave in tears.

* * *

Now I’m off to Midnight Mass at a church packed with Italians. Hundreds of them, genuflecting around me. Everyone looks happy. I don’t like it. A big, jolly priest walks around holding up the baby Jesus. Men in leather with slicked back hair bow and make the sign of the cross as the baby Jesus doll goes around again. I am fascinated, a little jealous. Why can’t I love him too?

But I love something. The tilt of Mary’s head as she observes her newborn child. Her outstretched arms. Her gaze is long and deep, inward, but right at me. I am compelled to move towards her, I want to walk into her statue, be in her safety, fall off the edge of my life and rest in her. Over and over again, in churches in New Jersey and New York City, downtown on 5th Ave, I want to fall into murals, be pulled into statues, drape myself across the altar, even though the priests are on the annoying side, often too aware of themselves, too eager to please, and the people around me often seem so frail, sometimes ridiculous. But occasionally I’ll stand behind someone who just is. Just so still and so willing to be no one before God. It helps me blend back into the universe, snapping me out of a lifetime of noise for a perfect half hour.

The Italians respond to the priest on cue. They are confident Catholics. They love God, Mary and Jesus and all the saints, unabashedly. They treat the church like their home, like they belong. It’s all a bit weird but I really love watching them kiss statues and light candles, begging for mercy before the saints. They are all busy knowing God. I start to relax, to digest the previous mass, soothed by the happy Mediterranean faces around me. Then, because it’s Christmas, a time for magic, a small glimmer of a miracle occurs.

I’m here because of Rosetta, a genuine Italian from Naples and my father’s secretary. A few days earlier, I had asked Rosetta about Midnight Mass and she suggested I come here. Rosetta is one of the few people who understands what losing Loren really means. Her sister died of cancer nine years ago at the age of thirty-two, leaving a little boy and girl whom Rosetta now takes care of, along with her own two children.

She knows it’s not something to get over, to get used to, and she knows it will get worse before it gets livable. We’ve never spoken much, which has been a relief. Her eyes tell me she feels my sorrow through and through. Last week she confessed to me that around Christmas she can barely keep from crying all the time. She misses her sister so much and is so sad for her motherless niece and nephew.

I think of her, wondering where she is in this bustling church, wishing she would appear next to me, a wingless angel, ready to share my heavy cross of grief. Mass is just beginning when a woman scoots into the pew beside me, out of breath. I turn--it’s Rosetta! We gasp, then laugh with delight. The baby Jesus makes another round. Rosetta makes the sign of the cross and kisses her fingertips. I have been heard. It is enough, for now.


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Ondine Galsworth has written for Salon,com,, and A native New Yorker, she now lives in Hoboken, N.J., and belongs to Manhattan's Grace Episcopal Church, where she and her two-year-old son got baptized last year.

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