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Christmas, and Completing the Circle

The best gift I received today was one I never expected

So, my mother and my nieces — Hannah, Claire, and Rebekah Leming — just left our Christmas dinner, logy and needing a nap in the way all of us do by sundown on Christmas day. They left with a plate we put together for their dad, who had to work at the fire station all day. Now the house is quiet, and I am full of rum cake and contentment, and probably headed to bed soon. The kids woke Julie and I up at six a.m.; you would think that the end of the Santa Claus era with our kids would have bought us more time to sleep in on December 25, but no. We have been cooking all day, and need … a … nap.

But it’s a good tired. I can hardly tell you how good, but I’m going to try.

For most of this year I have expected my dad not to make it to Christmas, and, sadly, I was proved right when he died in August. But this is not the Christmas I expected to have with him gone. If you read my book How Dante Can Save Your Life, or have been following this blog for the past few years, you know how hard I have struggled with family issues, how physically ill they made me, how spiritually oppressed and emotionally depressed I have been by all of it. You know how much God helped me through reading the poetry of Dante, through the spiritual guidance of my pastor Father Matthew Harrington, and through the counsel of Mike Holmes, my therapist.

What God did for me was to allow me to be completely broken by rejection, and to become so lost and confused that I humbled myself, against my nature, to follow a Tuscan poet through the dark wood of my own heart. There were dragons there, and I had to do battle with them. Through divine grace, through repentance, through prayer, through dying to self, and through the love and help of others, I overcame them, and found my way back to the straight path. I told that story in the book and on this blog, and I won’t go into it again here. This is what I said the day Daddy died. What I had dreaded for decades turned into one of the most beautiful days of my life, because holiness and harmony filled all things, a holiness and a harmony that I would not have been able to see or to participate in had it not been for the terrible, glorious, miraculous journey with Dante.

In His will is our peace. I don’t believe that. I know it, because I saw it, I lived it, and I bear witness to it.

I thought being able to hold Daddy’s hand and be at peace with him when he breathed his last was as good as it was going to get for me. But I also believed that when he died, our family was going to dissolve. There was no peace between the Leming girls and us. With Hannah, yes, but not the two younger ones, despite all our efforts. I had accepted that the family bonds had frayed to the breaking point, and that because Daddy was the keystone that kept the whole thing from collapsing, his passing would mean the end. It made me sad, but I had accepted that life is tragic, and some things are beyond one’s ability to control.

And then Daddy entered the last week of his life. Claire was off at boarding school, and we called her, telling her to come home, because Paw was dying. Here, from a post I wrote that night in August, is what happened next:

Claire arrived, and was grieved to the point of sobbing that her Paw could not be awakened to talk to her. But later in the evening, he came around, and they spent time together. After supper, I asked her if she wanted to pray at his bedside with me. “I was hoping you would ask,” she said. And so we went into his bedroom, shut the door, and began our prayers.

Claire Leming reading the Psalms to her dying grandfather

After we prayed for a while, I asked Claire to forgive me all the things I had done to her to cause such hard-heartedness in our family. Claire is a serious, observant Christian, and asked me the same thing. We talked about why our family is broken, and how neither one of us wanted to live this way. It was such a moment of healing grace. Paw was in and out of consciousness, and murmured that his legs hurt. I retrieved a bottle of lotion, and each of us took one of his bare, cool feet, and rubbed the sweet-smelling ointment into his skin.

“Ohhhh, that feels so good,” he said.

We sat with him a while longer, telling him how much we loved him, and thanking him for all he has done for us. Claire held his hand, which he squeezed tightly. I am fascinated by his mottled, craggy hands. “Daddy, I bless your hands,” I told him. “Those hands built this house. Those hands tilled the soil on our land. Those hands split the wood that kept us warm in the winter. Those hands held Ruthie and me when we were little, and they have held all six of your grandchildren.”


His eyes did not open, but I am sure he heard me. At one point, I had to stand at the head of his bed and reposition the oxygen tube in his nose. As I leaned in close, I said the psalm in his ear: “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want… .” I continued, and saw his lips moving as I recited. Claire’s eyes widened; even through the fog of death, Paw was praying the 23rd Psalm. The grace of that moment! I cannot do it justice.

He opened his eyes at last, and we talked a little bit about Ruthie, whose photo sits beside his bed. “What are you going to say to her when you see her?” I asked.

“Hello, sugar, how you been doin’?” he rasped. “What can I do for you?”

Claire nearly laughed out loud. “Isn’t that just like him?” I said.

“It’s just like him,” she agreed.

It finally was time to let Paw rest, so we stood, and embraced at his bedside, vowing to let Jesus Christ be the mortar that holds us together, and to walk out of this room starting anew. Such a blessing, I can’t even tell you.

He died four days later, with all of us at his bedside. We buried him a few days later, Claire went back to school, and we all returned to our lives.

But something was different. As the summer turned into fall, Claire and I were communicating better, and Rebekah followed her lead. She started coming over to spend time with us more. And we loved it! Especially Lucas and Nora, who think she hangs the moon. Rebekah began to drop by on her own, and even called once to ask if she could spend the night. I was astonished. We moved here hoping for this, and now, at last, it was happening. She’s such a great kid, and now we were getting to know her.

Eight days ago, with Hannah home for the holidays from California, and Claire home from school, Rebekah texted and invited us all to spend the late afternoon and evening at her family’s house, eating and drinking and playing games and watching movies. Just being a family. It was the most ordinary text in the world, but if it had been delivered by the Archangel Gabriel, I could scarcely have been more grateful. We did this on Sunday, and it was great, just great. Just like things are supposed to be.

I’ve been thinking the past week about how this all happened. What opened the floodgates of healing grace for our family? How had we been at an impasse for so long, and suddenly, we were not?

It was Dante.

I remember sitting at Daddy’s bedside, moments after Claire and I finished praying, and he had fallen asleep. I thought about how Dante said in the Commedia that there is no spiritual progress without humility. I was afraid to break the ice by talking about what was on my heart with Claire. It had never amounted to anything. I felt hurt by her actions, but at the same time, I had to concede that I had possibly caused her pain without being aware of it. What did I have to lose by asking her forgiveness? There was my father, her grandfather, dying in front of us. Time was passing. Who knows how long any of us have on this earth? Get over your fear, I thought, and get over your pride. Just say you’re sorry. 

Because I am a vain and proud man, like my father, I did not want to do this. By force of will alone — not my will but God’s, to which I yielded for a moment —  I forced myself to take Claire by the arm, and say I was sorry.

That did it. Claire is fierce like her mother and grandfather, and unyielding in her judgments. At that moment though, by the bedside of her dying Paw, she opened her heart and heard me. She poured out her emotions, telling me things that helped me understand why she and her sister had done what they had done.

And she said that she too was sorry. This was the difference that Jesus Christ made in her life. She knew what forgiveness was, and how Christians are supposed to live. I think that both of us in that moment were aware of how weak we are by nature, and how defeated by our pride. But the way of Jesus — the way of humility, of forgiveness, of love — conquered us both, and in so doing, gave us victory. Daddy was a great man, but a man who could not admit wrong. It was his great weakness. Maybe I’m wrong about this, but I think somehow, Claire and I, sitting at his bedside praying for him in his final days, grasped the futility of pride. Certainly not consciously, but it is hard to watch a man as wise and strong and  accomplished as my father reduced to radical feebleness, and not to sense that some great and terrible truth about life is being disclosed to one.

My heart took delight in all my labor,
    and this was the reward for all my toil.
   Yet when I surveyed all that my hands had done
    and what I had toiled to achieve,
everything was meaningless, a chasing after the wind;
    nothing was gained under the sun.

That is from the second chapter of Ecclesiastes. My father cared about nothing more than his family — the family as he thought it should be — and yet the particular form of pride he took in his family and passed down to my sister, threatened to destroy it. The ferocious and unyielding nature of it. This was his tragedy, a tragedy magnified by the greatness of his spirit. It was a tragedy we were all caught in, because he was such a binding force among us. That pride worked on us all like a spell.

What broke the spell was humility, Claire’s and mine. I think she would agree that the humility was no virtue of ours, but it was a function of our shared Christianity — and for me, retaining the lesson I learned from reading Dante. Neither one of us understood it at the time, but the family was saved that night at Paw’s bedside. This is clearer to me now, four months later, especially after this holiday we have spent together.

I’m speaking of this to you in an unusually intimate way, because I’m so grateful for this gift that I want to encourage you to offer and to accept the free gift of forgiveness to those from whom you are estranged. In Canto XVI of Dante’s Purgatorio, the pilgrim learns that our fates are not written in the stars, that as long as we have free will, we have the possibility of change. In this is our hope. I had resigned myself to the fact that our family was going to dissolve, that after Paw died, the Lemings would go their way, and we would go ours. Hannah and I had talked about this on several occasions, and she agreed that this was our fate, as much as we both hated it.

It was not our fate after all. Because of humility, and forgiveness, and love.

That photo above is of my mom, me, and the Leming sisters (left to right, Rebekah, Hannah, Claire) on Saturday, after we had a birthday dinner for Mam. Mam and the sisters came over today for Christmas dinner (Mike was on duty at the fire station), and we had a perfectly ordinary, lovely time. Which was, given our tumultuous and unhappy recent history, extraordinary, and a very great blessing.

As I saw them out, I told my mother, “We’re all going to be okay.” It wasn’t an attempt at encouraging a widow at Christmas, but rather a statement of incredulous gratitude. Gratitude for Claire, gratitude for her sisters, gratitude for my family, gratitude for Dante, and above all, gratitude to God for His surprising and tireless goodness. Did I see this coming? No, I did not. Glory to God for all things!

I’m thinking just now about this passage from The Little Way of Ruthie Lemingin which I write about the days leading up to our move from Philadelphia to St. Francisville:

I hadn’t been sleeping well in the nights leading up to the move. One night, just before dawn, I dreamed that I was standing in the living room of our Philadelphia apartment, surrounded by boxes, wrapping paper, and all the accoutrements of our impending move. I heard the door open downstairs, and someone walking up the stairs. It was Ruthie. She was wearing a white sweater with a collar gathered close around her neck, and carrying a tin of muffins.

“I thought you were dead!” I said.

“Oh, I am,” she said sweetly. “I just wanted to tell you that everything is going to be all right.”

“Thank you for saying that. Will you stay for a while?”

“No, I need to get on back.”

Then I woke up. The dream had been unusually vivid, far more intense than usual. When I woke up, I wasn’t sure if I was still inside the dream, or not.

At breakfast, I told Julie about the dream. “Of course she brought muffins,” Julie said. “That’s just like Ruthie.”

“Maybe it really was her,” I said. “But I know how much I need to believe everything is going to be okay down there. I might have imagined it. I probably imagined it.”

For most of the past four years, I have been certain that I imagined it, that the dream was not a visitation of my sister, but a projection of my hope and fear.

I don’t think that any more. I believe she did come to me, and that everything is going to be all right. We are fine now. And by the grace of that baby born in a Bethlehem barn, we are going to be fine.