God rest ye merry, gentlemen
Let nothing you dismay
Remember, Christ, our Savior
Was born on Christmas day
To save us all from Satan’s power
When we were gone astray
O tidings of comfort and joy,
Comfort and joy
O tidings of comfort and joy

From “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen,” traditional Christmas carol

I could bring you tidings of comfort and joy from our Christmas at my mother and stepfather’s house. My sister and her boyfriend Dune came east for the first Christmas in four years so we had a full house. We made gingerbread cookies on the morning of Christmas Eve, which June decorated so thoroughly with raisins that Dune asked her if she’d like some gingerbread with her raisins. That afternoon we went to Longwood Gardens (http://www.longwoodgardens.org/) and toured the conservatory, which was full of poinsettias and Christmas trees as well as the usual flowers and plants, and we walked through gardens at dusk, winding our way through the trees strung with Christmas lights and stopping to watch the light show at the fountain while music from The Nutcracker played and the lights turned the snow every color of the rainbow while we stomped our feet to keep them warm.

On Christmas morning the kids were thrilled with their presents. Santa came through with the pink princess tent and Clara (who is now called Violet) was waiting for June inside it when she came down the stairs. June’s been toting the doll around with her and sleeping with it ever since. June was almost comically gracious while we opened presents, telling each person who gave her a gift, “It’s just what I wanted,” as she opened the stuffed ladybug, unicorn slippers, magnetic dress-up doll, etc. Noah, remembering the pirate treasure hunts Jim used to organize for him when he was younger, organized his own for Jim, complete with a rhyming poem to lead him to the treasure he’d buried in the woods near their house. (I helped him pick a hiding spot and gave him some advice on the poem when he was worried about the meter being off.) Noah got several games for Christmas and enjoyed playing Sleeping Queens (http://www.gamewright.com/gamewright/index.php?section=games&page=game&show=140) with Beth and Quirkle (http://www.boardgamegeek.com/boardgame/25669/qwirkle) with Sara and Beth in the days immediately after Christmas. He’s looking forward to jumping on his mini-trampoline, once we set it up, and to playing with the baking-soda-and-vinegar-fueled rocket and making pizza with the pizzeria kit. We had a delicious dinner and June charmed my mom by telling her that the table was “beautiful” when she saw it set with the tablecloth, pink candles and pine needle-and-flower centerpiece. The children were preternaturally well behaved, leading my mom and Sara to ask why on earth I say they fight all the time and June has temper tantrums (though Dune did witness one when a raisin fell off a piece of gingerbread).

I’m not going to write at length about any of that, though, partly because I wasn’t there for a lot of it, and partly because I have other tidings, sadder ones. The day after Christmas, on a cold, rainy morning, I took the train up to New York to visit my father, bearing presents from my sister and myself and from the kids and some of the freshly baked gingerbread. Beth and I had discussed going up together with the kids, but since it would be the first time I’ve seen him since I learned of his cancer diagnosis in late August, I decided it would be better to go alone so we could spend some time together without the distraction of the kids. My sister spent Thanksgiving with him at his vacation home in Key West, so I knew he was not well, but soon after I arrived, Dad took me to his bedroom and told me that his cancer has returned and it’s more widespread than before. It’s back in his throat where it started, and it’s also in lungs and, well, it doesn’t look good.

We all thought he had it beat, so I’m still reeling from the news. When he told me I was too shocked to even cry, though I’ve cried plenty in the past few days. I spent a lot of that day staring out the window at his neighbor’s Christmas lights and at the people walking through the streets of the Upper West Side, four stories down, when we weren’t talking, or trying to read or eating (he ate a misshapen gingerbread man with relish, being sure to tell Ann that June made it). I found myself looking frequently at photographs of my children—on our Christmas card on my dad’s bedside table or in framed photos on the mantle in the living room. It was comforting to see their faces looking back at me. I know people my age who have lost parents, but that doesn’t stop me from thinking he’s too young—only sixty six—and I’m too young—forty two—for this to be happening, but of course, we aren’t. No one is too young.

Not that he’s dying right away. In about a week and a half, he and Ann are heading for Key West, where they will be spending the rest of the winter and part of the spring. It will be a better place for him than their apartment in New York, a fourth-floor walkup. He can sit in the sun and swim in their pool. They have friends nearby. I’m glad they’re going, although it will make it harder for me to see him. I’m considering a short visit and my sister, who’s childless and self-employed, is considering a longer one.

The next day was warmer and sunny. I left about a half hour earlier than I needed to so I could walk around and get some fresh air before descending into the subway. I ended up sitting on a bench in the little park outside the 72nd Street subway stop, absently sipping a coffee I’d picked up along the way, telling myself he’s not dying right now. We could have years even, time enough for the kids to get to know their smart, funny, interesting grandfather better than they do now and for him to get to know them.

Overall, though, I am more dismayed than comforted or joyful right now.