[Note: This post discusses the death of loved ones.]
The winter of my junior year of high school, my grandfather — my mother’s father — was diagnosed with lung cancer. Sometime during the following summer, he decided that chemotherapy was hurting more than it was helping, and he set up in-home palliative hospice care. The rest of us — dad, sister, neighbors, family friends, me — organized and shared what household chores we could so that my mom, my grandma, and my uncle could spend more time with my grandpa. While I assume that dealing with the physical and emotional reality of dying or losing a loved one are never easy on or happy for anyone, we had a strong support system. There was a sense of… well, ‘peace’ sounds cliched, but… understanding and acceptance, maybe, that this was the best way to be with this, both for my grandfather and for the rest of us.
My grandfather died the following March.
That last Christmas was hard.
Grandpa knew, I think — or maybe just believed — that he wasn’t going to be around for one more year. My uncle was having trouble admitting that to himself, and my mom, whatever she was admitting to herself, was definitely not okay with anyone else hinting at that prospect aloud. My sister was in the worst part of her recalcitrant teenager phase, and I wasn’t much better. My grandma still smiled a lot, but she’d grown very quiet, like making small talk was too painful.
My Christmas cheer was stretched thin. Grandpa was getting steadily worse, slowly and painfully, and we were supposed to have the holiday spirit because — what? Santa Claus and Baby Jesus and fruitcake?
“I’m not cooking dinner this year,” my grandma told me a few days beforehand, in a burst of words that had become unusual for her.
“Good,” I sighed with relief. I hadn’t known how much I was dreading it, the facade of a fancy holiday meal, until then.
“We can just get a pizza,” my mom smiled. “It will be fine.”
“Will they even be open?” my uncle worried.
“Of course they will,” Mom asserted. “I’m sure it will all be fine.”
“Someplace will,” I agreed. “We might need to call one now to check, and they’ll probably close early, but I’m sure we’re not the only people who plan to order pizza on Christmas Eve.”
“I had to order early because they closed at seven,” my uncle told us as he walked in the door. We had also just arrived, our arms full of scarves and presents. “I figure we can just warm it in the oven.” He turned the oven on and slid the cardboard box inside. “Ma’s getting Dad ready.”
My sister and I were at the front of the group, in the entryway between the living room and the kitchen. We stood there awkwardly, unsure if that meant we were supposed to wait or if we were supposed to go in and proceed like everything was normal.
“Come in, come in,” Grandpa said, emerging from the bedroom with his walker. “Don’t just stand there. Take off your coats and sit down.”
We piled our presents under the tabletop tree, the one my grandparents had used since my sister and I had grown up and since setting up the larger one had grown too difficult. Then, because it was Christmas and because there were more of us crowded together than usual — instead of bustling from room to room, doing things, being efficient — we hung our coats in the hallway instead of piling them on the couch.
“Merry Christmas!” We went around and kissed everyone on both cheeks. Then we sat down.
I do remember that we talked. I don’t remember if it was a lot or a little. I don’t remember what we talked about. I do remember that it felt comfortable, not strained, like this was any other happy family gathering, any other Christmas.
The conversation was sufficiently engaging that we didn’t notice the scent, at first, that was creeping into the air. Dry, bitter, acrid —
“Is something burning?” my grandma asked.
“What could be –”
Everyone save my grandparents, I think, rushed to the kitchen. My uncle opened the oven a couple of inches and peeked in.
“Get out of the way!” He waved his arm toward the outside door.
I was on the inside part of the kitchen, toward the dining room, so I felt free to stay where I was and gape. A decade and a half later, I’m still glad I did. The pizza was quite on fire.
To be fair, all I could see was that the pizza box was on fire. But it wasn’t just the start of smoldering embers; these were joyful, leaping flames that would have felt right at home on a Yule log.
“Open the door!”
Someone on the other side of me — I think I was standing with my sister, so it may have been my mom or my day — complied. With a potholder, my uncle grabbed the pizza box by one non-flaming corner, and flung it out the door into a snowbank. Somehow, we all fit into the doorway — or onto the front porch — to watch it extinguish.
“Is the pizza okay?”
“I didn’t exactly wait to find out.”
“Is it going to get soggy, sitting in the snow like that.”
“Better wet than on fire.”
“What happens if we can’t eat it? What do we do for Christmas?”
“We go to the 7-Eleven and buy Doritos and Slurpees.”
“One thing at a time; we don’t even know that it’s burned yet.”
“Kick a little snow on it, to put out the flames on top — not that much snow!”
We brought the pizza back in to discover that the box wasn’t very wet at all, though the outside was rather charred. I stood next to my uncle as he opened the box.
“Doesn’t look like it took too much damage. Looks okay, really.”
And it did. One corner — that had probably been in contact with the side of the box — was definitely on the crispier end of the spectrum. But most of the pizza emerged unscathed by the fire, the snow, or my uncle’s box-flinging.
“What do we do with it now?”
“What do you think we do with it?” In our commotion, no one had noticed Grandpa shuffle into the kitchen. “Merry Christmas and let’s eat!”