Visiting the Dead at Christmas: The Fight to Forgive Family

He was going to visit the dead at Christmas, Manuel was. So he told me. He’d unloaded a pallet from my truck, eased himself off the forklift, and limped over to sign the ticket. Manuel is not that old in years, but aging doesn’t follow strict mathematical rules. His home—if you can call it that—is an old Ford pickup; there he sleeps every night. The streets in his part of San Antonio are crawling with hookers and pimps and potheads and gangs, but they never bother him. At least, not yet. He wraps his zacchaeus-like body in blankets and snoozes to the music of diesel engines and catcalls. Then he gets up, hobbles across the parking lot, and clocks in at the plastics business where he’s labored for years. But he wasn’t there Christmas Eve, or Christmas Day, because then, he traveled south to Laredo, to the cemeteries.

Manuel grew up in the kind of family that makes a man value the dead over the living. Because the dead don’t drink too much tequila on Friday nights and come home eager to beat the first child that dares glance into their red, raging eyes. The dead don’t seek out every tiny treasure that you call your own and rip it from your hands for the sheer pleasure of hearing you bawl. The dead don’t trip you, kick you, belittle you, and make you curse the day of your birth, along with the mother that conceived you and the father that knocked her up. The dead have been tamed. They’re nice. They listen as you talk, without interrupting, without insulting. You can come as you are—a small, broken, lonely, tired man—and they are happy you came to see them at Christmas, to lay a small gift atop their grave, to tell them of your life and what it has, and has not, become. The dead are everything the living should be.

Manuel’s is a biblical family. The first blood that soiled the earth spilled from a brother murdered by a brother’s hand. Daughters whom their father was willing to cast to a rape-hungry mob later get him drunk and conceive by their own conceiver. Husbands lie about their wives to save their own necks. A father’s selfish theft results in he and his whole family being executed. On and on it goes, these ugly stories of ugly families whose sole focus in life seems to be making everyone else in the family as unhappy, mistreated, or dead as possible. And on and on it goes still today. And that’s why many would rather be anywhere but a reunion with those who are their own flesh and blood. People take off their public masks when around relatives. They let their darkness shine. That’s why Manuel spends his December 25 in the graveyard, talking to the dead.

And that’s why forgiveness in a family is so hard, because the sins are so calculated and callous. The ones from whom we expect the most, are the ones we are most hesitant to forgive. The wounds are deeper, and many of them have been there since childhood.

One way of dealing with those wounds is the way of Manuel, the way of the Christmas graveyard. Another way is also a graveyard way, but it involves a different kind of death.

While Manuel visited his cemetery, another friend of mine visited hers. And she took a shovel with her. And she sank that steel in the soil. Six feet down she dug, then two more just for good measure. Beside the gaping wound in the earth she stationed herself, and she began filling it with all the corpses of unforgiven sins that had rolled and rotted inside her for years. She parted her lips and began pouring out the anger and bitterness and disappointment and grief and shame. A deluge of curses and tears and blood and bile spewed out. And when she thought she was empty, still more kept coming, and more and more and more, until she thought she herself would plummet into that morbid abyss. But finally it was over. She stood there, staring down at the pool of death that teemed in that dank, dark hole. And then the shovel went back to work, reversing its earlier labor, each falling clod of earth covering the death that had ceased to kill her.

Over the mound of dirt that she heaped up over that grave is a simple wooden cross. On it a man died who, even while being executed, forgave those who were murdering him, including her, including me, including all those whom we have hurt and who have hurt us. His blood reddens the soil with which she covered the grave she dug and filled. It is the seal of healing, for by it, and by it alone, is there restoration for broken lives. He against whom all have sinned, forgives all for everything. And he suffuses himself into our weak and weary bodies, that in us we too might forgive others.

I pray that some Christmas, my friend, Manuel, will visit that kind of cemetery, and dig that kind of grave, that the dead might have less of his heart than do the living.