Christmas without Grandma Kay

I was still grieving myself. I didn't feel I could be responsible for the emotional atmosphere on our first holiday without her.

Robin Jones Gunn keeps busy taping a new program from KNIS, a local Christian radio station near her home in Reno, Nevada. Virtue, November/December 1993

"Ok," I agreed with my husband, Ross. "We'll invite your family here for Christmas. But you know it's going to be hard for everyone since your mom passed away."

"I know," he said. "That's why we all need to be together."

I sort of agreed with him. But I knew I couldn't take Kay's place as hostess. I was still grieving myself and didn't feel I could be responsible for the emotional atmosphere on our first holiday without her.

I made all the preparations--cookies, decorations, presents—then welcomed Ross' family on Christmas Eve with open arms as I braced myself for a holiday punctuated by sorrow. That evening at church, our clan filled the entire back section. Afterwards, at home, the kids scampered upstairs and Ross shouted, "Five minutes!" The adults settled in the living room and Ross began to read from Luke 2.

At verse eight, our 6-year-old, Rachel, appeared at the top of the stairs wearing her brother's bathrobe, a shawl over her head and carrying a stuffed lamb under her arm. She struck a pose and stared at the light fixture over the dining room table, as if an angel had just appeared.

My father-in-law chuckled, "Look at her! You'd think she could really hear heavenly voices."

Next came Mary, one of my nieces who'd donned the blue bridesmaid dress I wore in my sister's wedding. I knew then that the kids had gotten into my closet. The plastic baby Jesus fit nicely under the full skirt of the blue dress. My son, appearing as Joseph, discreetly turned his head as Mary "brought forth" her firstborn son on the living room floor, wrapped him in a dish towel and laid him in the laundry basket.

We heard a commotion as Ross turned to Matthew 2 and read the cue for the magi. He repeated it, louder: "We saw His star in the east and have come to worship Him."

One of my junior high-age nephews whispered, "You go first!" and pushed his older brother out of the bedroom into full view. Slowly the ultimate wise man descended with Rachel's black tutu on his head and bearing a large bottle of canola oil.

The adults burst out laughing and I did, too, until I realized what he was wearing. It was a gold brocade dress with pearls and sequins that circled the neck and shimmered down the entire left side. Obviously the kids had gone through the bags I'd brought home after we'd cleaned out Kay's closet. Bags filled with shoes, hats, a few dresses and some scarves that still smelled like her.

The laugher quickly dimin­ished when my father-in-law said, "Hey! That's Kay's dress! What are you doing wearing her dress?"

Rachel looked at Grandpa from her perch at the top of the stair­case. "Grandma doesn't mind if he uses it," she said "I know she doesn't."

We all glanced silently at each other.

I didn't doubt that Rachel had an inside track into her grand­ma's heart. Kay had been there the day she was born, waiting all night in the hospital, holding a vase with two pink roses picked from her garden. She'd carried the roses through two airports and on the hour-long flight, telling everyone who she was going to see: "My son, his wife, my grandson and the grand­daughter I've been waiting for."

I'd slept with the two pink roses on my nightstand and my baby girl next to me in her bassinet. When I awoke early in the morning to nurse my squirming, squalling infant, noticed a red mark on her cheek. Was it blood? A birthmark I hadn't noticed before?

No, it was lipstick. Grandma Kay had visited her first grand­daughter sometime during the night.

It was Grandma Kay who taught Rachel the three silent squeezes. A squeeze-squeeze-squeeze of the hand means, "I-love-you." My introduction to the squeezes was in the bride's dressing room on my wedding day. Kay slid past the wedding coordinator and photographer. In all the flurry, she quietly slipped her soft hand into mine and squeezed it three times. After that, I felt the silent squeezes many times. We all did.

When we got the call last year that Kay had gone into a diabetic coma, Ross caught the next plane home. Our children and I prayed this would only be a close call, like so many others the past two years. But Kay didn't come out of it this time. A week later, we tried to accept the doctor's diagnosis that it was only a matter of days. The children seemed to understand that all we could do was wait.

One night that week, Rachel couldn't sleep. I brought her to bed with me but she wouldn't settle down. Crying, she said she wanted to talk to her Grandma.

"Just have daddy put the phone up to her ear," she pleaded. "I know she'll hear me."

It was 10:30 p.m. I called the hospital and asked for Kay's room. My husband answered at her bedside. I watched my daughter sit up straight and take a deep breath.

"Ok, Rachel," my husband said. "You'll have to talk loud because there are noisy machines helping Grandma breathe."

"Grandma, it's me, Rachel" She shouted. "I wanted to tell you good night. I'll see you in heaven."

Rachel handed me the phone and nestled down under the covers. "Oh," she said, springing up. "Tell daddy to give Grandma three squeezes for me."

Two days later, Grandma Kay died. She had left clear instructions to the family: she wanted to be cremated and her ashes scattered over the Pacific Ocean, whose waves she had gazed at every day from her kitchen window.

Rachel sat with her cousins during the memorial service and I couldn't help but notice her unusual calm and poise. She told everyone, "Grandma is going to see Noah and the real Rachel and David, but not Goliath, I don't think."

When we boarded the chartered yacht in Newport Beach to carry out Kay's wishes, the cousins all sported pudgy, orange life jackets and nibbled chips and M&M's. It was a painfully gorgeous summer evening and I missed Kay so much. But saying goodbye to her as the sun set and the brisk ocean wind flew against our faces was much sweeter than huddling around a sealed box. In her death, as in life, she thought first of what others would enjoy.

Earlier that afternoon, with a dozen flower baskets sitting all over, Rachel had secretly instructed her cousins to "pick a bouquet for Grandma to take on the boat." As the yacht sped out to sea, the cousins retrieved their flowers and tossed them into the water in turn, saying goodbye to Grandma Kay that sun-kissed Southern California evening.

I bit my lower lip when I saw Rachel's bouquet. It was centered with two pink roses. She tossed it overboard, the last one to say goodbye.

Now, Christmas Eve, in our snow-covered house, Rachel was the first to welcome Grandma's memory into our celebration.

"Really, Grandpa," she continued to plead, "Grandma wouldn't mind."

We all knew Rachel was right. Grandma Kay wouldn't have cared if her grandchildren found delight in anything that belonged to her. if the dress had been embroidered with pure 14-karat gold, Grandma Kay wouldn't have minded a bit.

Grandpa nodded. The pageant continued. The next wise guy paraded down the stairs, stumbling on his too-big bath­robe, a towel wrapped around his head and bearing a jumbo-sized Lawry's Seasoned Salt. He laid it at the laundry basket.

My husband read about the shepherds returning, "glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen, just as they had been told."

Then the cast took a bow and scrambled for the kitchen where they fought over lighting the candle on Jesus' birthday cake.

When we started singing Happy Birthday to Jesus, I looked down at the little shepherdess standing next to me. Maybe Grandpa was right. Maybe she really did hear heavenly voices.

Then Rachel's small, warm hand nuzzled its way into mine. I knew Grandma Kay was there, too, when I felt three silent squeezes.