“Oh, you lucky Henry.” –The angel to the Bishop concerning Julia, The Bishop’s Wife
It’s been a little over six months since my wife Carol passed away. Carol and I were married for 42 years and spent nearly every day together. She helped me found The Rutherford Institute and worked alongside me, never more than a few feet away. Unlike many couples whose outside interests take them in opposite directions, Carol and I were joined at the hip. We did everything together. Thus, when she passed away, I was devastated and more alone than I’ve ever been in my life.
Every occasion that Carol would have delighted in has become a little death for me now–Thanksgiving and Christmas and New Year’s and Valentine’s Day–all those occasions she fussed over and planned for endlessly, for weeks on end.
Now with Christmas approaching, my heart has that sinking feeling–like a dying sun at sunset. Everywhere I turn, I am accosted by reminders of the season–and the delight Carol took in them: bell-ringing Santas on the sidewalk, colorful displays in store windows, Christmas commercials and movies every time I turn on the television, carols on the radio. The memories, at once precious and painful, come flooding back.
You see, for Carol, Christmas was much more than a mere holiday. It was the ultimate holiday, something that could and would bring the family together even when our five children grew up. And she was right. It was the one day when we all gathered to open presents, laugh and eat dinner together–a feast that Carol joyously planned for weeks and cooked all by herself.
There were times when there were so many Christmas lights both inside and outside the house that I actually wondered whether we wouldn’t cause a blackout from all the electricity we were drawing off. Carol even ran lights down both sides of the driveway and along the eaves of the house, sometimes hanging off the roof to get them just right.
Then there was the Christmas tree. Each year, we loaded the kids up and drove to the tree farm, in search of the perfect tree. And each year, we drove home with a tree that was somehow larger than the one from the year before. Without fail, by the time we had trimmed the tree with all the decorations the kids had made over the years, we would have to anchor it to the wall to keep it upright. When our children were small, a toy train circled the Christmas tree stand.
Even when we had little money to spare, Carol always managed to make Christmas a celebration. My parents never really celebrated Christmas, but Carol turned me onto the magic of Christmas, and I found myself responding with the eagerness of a child.
Every weekend, for weeks leading up to Christmas, I would take the kids out shopping, helping them search for just the right present for Carol. Then Carol and I would shop for the kids, taking pains to sneak the packages in and hide them from their eager eyes. Finally, on Christmas morning, when the kids were small, I would disappear, only to reappear to their wonder and amazement as Santa Claus, with a bagful of presents.
One year, as a tribute to Carol, my very own “Christmas Carol,” I greeted her every morning with a drawing of one of the “Twelve Days of Christmas” and a personal serenade, with the kids providing a choral backup. Carol kept the drawings and hung them up in our kitchen every Christmas after that. And for years afterwards, in the days leading up to Christmas, I kept up the practice of serenading her for twelve days, beginning with the first verse of the song: “On the first day of Christmas, my true love gave to me, a partridge in a pear tree…”
Even when the kids were all grown and out of the house, Carol and I still celebrated Christmas in a special way. Over time, we established our own traditions. One of those traditions involved our annual Christmas moviefest. We’d turn the lights off and curl up on the couch together, warmed by the glow of the Christmas tree, and we’d watch Christmas movies–especially the old black and white ones: Scrooge,It’s a Wonderful Life, A Holiday Affair.
Carol’s all-time favorite was the 1947 Christmas movie The Bishop’s Wife, starring three of her favorite actors, Cary Grant, Loretta Young and David Niven. The film is about a preoccupied young clergyman (Niven) who, in his quest to raise funds for a new cathedral, loses sight of the important things in his life, the most important being his marriage to a wonderful woman, Julia (Young). Only divine intervention can save his marriage, and help comes in the form of a charming angel (Grant), curiously named Dudley, who falls in love with Julia.
I wasn’t oblivious to the parallels. All too often, I played the part of the distracted bishop, so focused on work and deadlines that I neglected the best thing in my life–Carol.
Carol loved this movie so much that one year, hoping to amuse her, I planned a “date” in which we reenacted three scenes from the movie–eating at Julia’s favorite restaurant, visiting her friend the professor and going ice skating. We ate at our favorite restaurant, visited the professor (our son Jayson unknowingly stood in as the professor), and then we went ice skating. Since neither of us could ice skate, we stopped at our pond, which was frozen over at the time and touched the toes of our shoes to the ice. Then we kissed.
It was one of those perfect days. Carol laughed and smiled, and I joined in, happy to have pleased my Julia.
I hold fast to these memories, precious glimpses of my life with Carol–one that ended all too soon. But, like all of us who are left behind, I continue to hold onto the hope that one day I’ll be with Carol again–in heaven, of course, because that’s where she’s at righ
Constitutional attorney and author John W. Whitehead is founder and president of The Rutherford Institute. His new book The Change Manifesto (Sourcebooks) is available in bookstores and online. He can be contacted at [email protected]. Information about The Rutherford Institute is available at www.rutherford.org.