A very messy Christmas
He’ll wake up on Christmas Day the way he now does every day – without his Daddy. He’s just four, a little nugget of a boy. In years to come, he may remember the time he stood between Mummy and the Prime Minister, as the big coffin with the flag drove past. But, for now, something’s missing: there’s a hole in his family where his dad used to be.
“They’re tough little buggers,” his mum, Reigan Langley, tells me, her words fading to tears as she, her three daughters and her son face their first Christmas without the man around whom their lives pivoted. Todd Langley, the 28th Australian soldier to fall in Afghanistan, won’t be home for Christmas.
As the rest of us fret over the turkey or fuss over finishing touches, for Langley, this festive season is one of aching loss. Houses festooned with fairy lights, shopping centres tinkling with carols, even a nativity scene with its complete family must rasp like an untuned violin against her heart.
“When people go on about trivial things, I do find it upsetting and get angry,” she says. “On Christmas Day, I’ll be very torn. I’ll want to be joyful for the kids, but it’ll be hard, even though I know Todd will be watching over us.”
Christmas isn’t just the season of goodwill; it’s a day of pain, ugliness, hurt, regret, guilt and loneliness. The writer A.A. Gill says it’s a season “woven with the gold of guilt and the silver of resentment”.
Listen carefully –behind the chink of glasses and the pop of crackers, people are hating and hurting: the mum fighting with every cell to beat cancer; the couple whose marriage won’t last another year; the gay teenager wondering how long he can keep up this silent charade. “Merry” isn’t everyone’s adjective for Christmas.
Two years ago, at a lunch for “Christmas orphans”, the mood turned maudlin as we sheltered from rain on the deck. “What’s been your worst Christmas?” asked James. Everyone had a story: a young man realised the woman he was engaged to wasn’t the woman he wanted to marry; a teenage boy learnt his dad was living a double life; a young wife wrapped presents for her toddlers as her husband was shot full of more chemo.
At a party recently, I heard more: a nine-year-old who spent an entire Christmas Day in the car due to her infectious chickenpox; a nurse – happier in hospital than with her dysfunctional family – called to emergency to help with two elderly people who’d been dumped in their wheelchairs by families who could no longer cope.
Literature and movies are full of messy Christmases – poignant moments where there’s not a jot of joy in the world: the girls in Little Women lament a father fighting in the Civil War; the devoted wife’s pain in Love Actually when she discovers her husband has bought a special gift for someone else. Even “White Christmas”, written by Irving Berlin after the death of his baby son on Christmas Day, hints at the season’s inherent sadness.
This year, our nation has lost 11 more men to a distant and questionable war. Their wives and families are as honorable as those they’ve lost, soldiering on in their absence. Grief grabs Reigan Langley in the most unlikely moments, but she feels “lucky” they had the time they did.
“Life isn’t measured by the number of breaths we take,” she says. “It’s measured by the moments that take our breath away.”
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