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ADVENT AND THE EMPTY CHAIR

November 27, 2016

The headline caught my eye, “Man Spends Christmas Eve in Septic Tank.” In an article dated December 26, 2007, the Associated Press carried the humorous and frightening story.

Robert Schoff, a 77-year-old man from Des Moines, Iowa, spent part of Christmas Eve stuck upside down in the opening of his septic tank, with his head inside and his feet kicking in the air above.

“I don’t think I could have stood staying in there much more,” he said as he recovered from his ordeal. “It wasn’t good! It was a stinky holiday! I’ll tell you what,” Schoff said on Christmas Day, “It was the worst Christmas Eve I’ve ever had.”

Schoff reached into the tank on Christmas Eve in an effort to clear a clogged drain. He lost his balance and became wedged in the opening. The elderly Schoff shouted for help, but in this upside-down position his voice was muffled.  It was more than an hour before his wife, Toni, walked by a window and noticed his feet flailing in the air.

“I saw these kicking feet. I ran to him, but I couldn’t get him out,” Mrs. Schoff said.

She called 911. County sheriff’s deputies arrived and yanked her husband out of the tank.

“I thought it was the end of my life,” Schoff said.

What a way to go that would have been!

The season of Advent has begun. For all of our careful planning, the holidays often confront us with unexpected crises. I spent most of one Christmas Eve in the surgical chair of an ear, nose, and throat specialist. I had a hemorrhage resulting in a severe nosebleed. The physician cauterized and packed my sinuses with gauze for well over two hours. It was not the best Christmas Eve for me, for the physician, or for our families. Still, it was not as bad as Robert Shoff’s plight.

The heightened stress of the season seems to make some folks more accident-prone. I have a friend who spent the last two weeks of December on crutches after stepping in a hole while caroling in his neighborhood.

By far the most difficult holidays are those times when we are separated from loved ones. The painful absence is symbolized by an empty chair at the family table.

I vaguely remember Christmas 1948 when I was four years old. The entire Neely family gathered on Christmas Eve for our annual Christmas dinner. Following the meal, we recited the story of Jesus’ birth from Luke 2.  We sang Christmas carols, Pappy led a prayer, and we exchanged gifts. That night my little sister Beth and I stayed with Mammy and Pappy.

Mama was at the hospital giving birth to her third child. My brother Bill was born on December 24 that year. According to my aunts and uncles, I spent much of that Christmas looking for Mama. Jesus was born, and Santa Claus came, but Mama was not there.

The holidays are frequently tinged with grief.  The season has often been a bittersweet experience for our family, a mixture of joy and sadness. In fact, when you are a part of a large family, you learn that life itself is a dichotomy. Ambivalent feelings about any event abound. Humor and sadness, laughter and tears, mingle on many family gatherings.

In the Neely family, it is rarely possible to have everybody together for any occasion. I remember a birthday party for one my brothers-in-law. Most of the family was present except for the honoree. He had suddenly come down with the flu and was confined to quarters while the rest of us partied on.

Some of us who are physicians and ministers are frequently called away from family events to fulfill our responsibilities in the community.  So, we have learned to be grateful for those who can gather. Celebrations still happen even when there are empty chairs at the table.

In my grandparent’s family, there were several holiday seasons when three sons and a son-in-law were serving in World War II. At the same time, another son and his family were far away on the mission field in South America.

At almost every celebration, a few are absent. An expectant mother and her family may be unable to travel during the holidays. Sometimes a student is traveling on foreign study. Our son Scott spent his junior year at Wofford College living with a family in France. The next year he was in India during the holidays. The Christmas after our son Erik’s death, our son Kris traveled aboard a hammock boat on the Amazon River.

I will never forget the December when three different times in three consecutive weeks I stood beside an open grave with grieving parents as tiny caskets were lowered into the ground. The deaths of those children meant that their bereaved families would mourn a painful absence during the holidays. One of those tiny coffins was for our infant niece, Katherine. Our entire family was affected by her death.

Clare and I have experienced some of the joy and the sorrow that Christmas can bring. Our oldest child, Mike, was born on Christmas Day in 1970. As we awaited his birth, the season of Advent was filled with anticipation and hope. The uncertainty and apprehension of becoming new parents was part of our emotional mix. Christmas was a day of fulfillment for us.

Thirty years later, our second son, Erik, died two weeks before Thanksgiving. Christmas that year was a season of deep grief for us. Still, we were able to find a measure of peace and joy mingled with our tears.

November in South Carolina is usually a mild month.  Not until after Thanksgiving does the weather begin to really feel like winter. Erik died on November 15, 2000, in Charleston.  The temperature in the Lowcountry was warm that day.  We returned from Charleston to our home in the Upstate with the sky bright and sunny.  But the day of Erik’s funeral dawned grey, cold, and damp.  Temperatures continued to fall through the day.  By the time we arrived at the church for the funeral, light snow was falling.  When we went to the cemetery for the committal service, the ground was covered with snow.

Some expressed regret that the weather was inclement on the day of our son’s service.  We felt differently. In our imagination, we thought that Erik had put in a request to the Almighty. “Lord, you know this will be a hard day for my family.  Could you do something to surprise them?”

We viewed the snow as a symbol of hope. We interpreted the snow as a gentle touch from God, a gift of grace in our grief.  Many of the Christmas cards and Christmas presents we received that year included a snow theme. As Christmas approached, we decided to decorate our Christmas tree with only snowflakes and snow ornaments.  Hand-cut snowflakes adorned our windows.

One of the truths that Clare and I have learned is that grief, especially following the death of a young person, casts a long shadow. Our grief for Erik lingers and is heightened in every holiday season.

But there is another truth.

Our widowed daughter-in-law, June, majored in art at Furman University. She is an accomplished artist. After Erik’s death, June painted a stunning watercolor. It was a table set for a party, but it included an empty chair, a poignant reminder of absence. The painting is also a vivid depiction of hope. On the table are party hats. Streamers and balloons adorn the room.

The chair is empty. The celebration continues.

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