The Season of Giving

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I was lying awake at four AM, as I often am these days, thinking. My thoughts at that hour are, more often than not, anxious ones, my mind roving over the landscape of the past and future, making sure I didn’t leave any metaphorical windows ajar or doors unlatched.

I spoke with my father late last night and, as a result, this morning’s early thoughts were of his sister-in-law, my aunt, whose cancer, after a break, has returned. Her prognosis is not good: this will be her last Christmas.

Family matters being what they are on that side of my family, I have not known her well, have maybe met her six or seven times, but she has always been very nice to me and I know the outlines of what has always struck me as her difficult life. I am so sorry that she will not live to old age, to enjoy the smoothing out of those wrinkles.

Early this morning, I stuck on the “last Christmas” part of the sadness. Somehow, the stretch of illness, however inevitable its end, is not as hard to imagine as a stretch of “lasts.” How would I approach this Christmas if I knew it were my last? For what future would I be storing up memories or requesting gifts? Wouldn’t the terrible knowledge of my near and unavoidable demise undermine the acquisition and metabolism of anything, from knowledge of a nephew’s sock size to material I might use in my writing? How, without a future, would I store anything for use – emotional, mental or literal?

Four AM is not the time to consider these questions. The rainy pre-dawn does not lend itself to clarity of thought, (unless of course you’re one of those people who gets up at four all the time, in which case, I think you might need professional help). But I did have a thought and it was this: having things – slipper socks, successfully produced plays, time with grandchildren, memories – was never the point. Giving them – using them, handing them on – is.

The point of my aunt spending time with her new granddaughter goes beyond the joy of the moment: she is giving the child affection on which she will thrive and which she will go on to offer to the world around her. The reason you acquire knowledge – reading books, learning – is so that it is of use to others when you expand their thinking or fix their drain, not so you just “have it,” whatever that means. You take your slipper socks and…well, I’ve got nothing there. They’re slipper socks. Enjoy them.

When I’ve been uncomfortably confronted with mortality before, I’ve always thought of my work. What writer or artist doesn’t? We are, as a whole profession, looking to leave something of ourselves behind, hopefully something substantive and permanent. In the absence of understanding – or being able to value – what I have personally brought to my immediate world, there would be comfort and structure in knowing that, say, like Philip Roth, I had contributed a book a year (are you kidding me? the man is a machine), or like Salinger an influential masterwork, or like Tracy Letts a masterful production, or like Nora Ephron a career of rational perspectives. That knowledge would, I think, free me up, give me some peace: if nothing else, I had made good on my potential and would leave something concrete behind.

I took that road this morning again, but, when pushed, even that path ended in giving. Why, after all, do we publish or produce or show our work? Even the most egomaniacal artist is giving his work to the world. Perhaps charging them $125 a seat or $4 million a painting or $24.95 in hardback, but giving it to someone nonetheless. If the work goes unseen, un-given, it may still have value, yes, but its value is unrealized, its natural journey incomplete. It’s all a gift.

I am grateful that I do not know that this Christmas will be my last, that I have an unknown stretch of time ahead of me to give more, to create more to give, to see and shape what I do as a gift rather than just a thing. Or a slipper sock.

That, in itself, is an amazing present. Thank you, Aunt Julie, for that. And Merry Christmas.

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Categories: News, Nuisance, Miscellany

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One Comment on “The Season of Giving”

  1. M
    December 17, 2009 at 6:04 pm #

    This is beautifully, beautifully put. C’s own aunt, to whom she was very close, did not make it to this Christmas, victim of the same terrible illness. I’m similarly grateful to have met her.

    And yes, couldn’t agree more that if the work goes unseen, its value is unrealized. While it remains hidden, its only value is the inevitably lowball kind we preemptively delude ourselves into thinking we can “assign” it…

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