The Morgul Blade
Keith Lowery on Experiencing Grief at Christmastime
Early every December, I find myself climbing into the attic and handing innumerable boxes and tubs down the ladder to my wife. The boxes contain, by now, the decorative accumulation of forty years of Christmases past.
Stockings and garlands. Wreaths and lights. Table runners and hot chocolate mugs. All of these things are found where they were carefully packed away the year before. But when we unpack the decorations we're not just unpacking things; we're really unpacking memories, aren't we?
I was caught off-guard this year when, going through the boxes, I came across my daughter's stocking. My daughter won't be with us this year. In fact, truth be told, she'll never be with us again. On January 10th, just after Christmas last year, she unexpectedly died.
For forty years we have accumulated stockings to hang on our mantel. Each one has a name embroidered at the top. Sons and daughters, grandchildren, wives and husbands. Everybody is represented by a stocking on the mantel. But until this year, we have never needed to discuss whether to hang anyone's stocking. Now, though, someone we loved is gone forever. She is no longer someone actually in our lives, but someone who is from our past. The whole thing feels obscene.
We've been hanging the stocking with her name embroidered across the top every Christmas since her birth in 1988. The need to decide whether to hang her stocking this year was . . . unexpected.
Grief flows like a river immediately following the death of someone we love, but then it slows to a kind of continuous trickle, punctuated by periodic but unexpected flash floods. And for a long time it seems that you continue to step on these little landmines of unexpected reminders. Like Christmas stockings. Or accidentally retained old voicemails. Or pictures you stumble across that you can't remember ever having seen before.
J. R. R. Tolkien knew at a deeply personal level the permanence of such losses. He, along with his three best friends, went to war. Two of his friends never returned, and the one who did return was so altered by the experience that he never psychologically recovered.
Years after the war, Tolkien wrote his monumental trilogy, The Lord of the Rings. The hero of the story, a hobbit named Frodo Baggins, is at one point stabbed by a magical knife wielded by the evil witch-king of Angmar. The knife was, as described in the story, a "Morgul blade." It was inhabited by dark magic, which caused a wound administered by such a blade never to completely heal.
I have always suspected that such an ingenious plot device could only have been invented by someone who was himself the recipient of such a wound. Deep and permanent wounds are not just the stuff of fantasy. There are wounds in the real world from which we can never fully recover without some kind of supernatural intervention.
American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow was another writer all too familiar with permanent wounds. His first wife died in childbirth. His second wife, to whom he was very devoted, died in 1861, succumbing to burns she received when her dress accidentally caught fire. Less than two years later, in 1863, at the height of the American Civil War, Longfellow was distraught to discover that his son had snuck away to join the Union army. His son was soon badly wounded in battle and only just clinging to life as Christmas neared.
Keith Lowery works as a senior fellow at a major semiconductor manufacturer, where he does advanced software research. He worked in technology startups for over 20 years and for a while was a principal engineer at amazon.com. He currently serves as an elder at Lake Ridge Bible Church in a suburb of Dallas, Texas.
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