Thursday, December 26, 2013

Thank you. I love you, whoever you are.

It is said by the likes of Sarah Palin that there is a War on Christmas.  It turns out that Caribou Barbie's right, though the War's not in this country, not sponsored by the ACLU, and hasn't got shit to do with whether some underpaid greeter at WalMart says "Happy Holidays."  

To experience the actual War on Christmas, you have to go to Somalia.
A directive released on Tuesday by the Ministry of Justice and Religious Affairs stated that no Christian festivities could be held in Somalia.
The Director General of the ministry, Sheikh Mohamed Khayrow Aden, and the Director of the Religious Matters, Sheikh Ali Sheikh Mohamud alias Sheikh Ali Dhere, held a press conference in the capital Mogadishu, to make the announcement.
The ban came just hours before Christmas Day, when Christians celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ, their spiritual saviour.
“We alert fellow Muslims in Somalia that some festivities to mark Christian Days will take place around the world in this week,” said Sheikh Ali Dhere during the press conference, adding: “It is prohibited to celebrate those days in this country.”
Mr Aden, on his part, stated that all security and law enforcement agencies had been instructed to counter any such celebrations.
I provide this news (h/t Eugene Volokh) not because I want either to encourage the War, not because I want to bring it to these shores, and not to smear Muslims but to make the point that as an atheist and civil libertarian I am appalled.  Of course, I'm appalled a lot, so you can make of that what you will. 
But, and now I'm actually pointing toward where I want to get, although I am an atheist and committed secularist, I believe deeply in the idea of Christmas.  

Not the Jesus in the manger part, nor the miracle myth of virgin birth (gimme a break).  What I believe in is Santa Clause and children and the all-too-rare spirit of generosity amid the commerce.  I believe in the warmth and companionship of family and friends (and taking in strays who have none).  And I believe, as any of you who've been reading this blog for a while know, in mercy and grace in this season which brings them forth.  At least occasionally.

Mercy and grace, I like to say (frequently speaking of commutations of death sentences or forgiving those who do unforgiveable things), are not about the recipients, they are about the givers.  And so I tell stories.

It is Christmas night.  It's been a long few days for the FortheDefense family traveling back and forth from state to state, driving, flying, driving.  Family gatherings here and there.  Gift exchanges and meals and gift exchanges and meals and back in the car and then gift exchanges and meals.  And hugs and laughs and some tears.  For there's always someone too young dying and someone else who might be and there are uncertainties and risks and problems and . . . . 

But as I told a friend the other day, if your holiday isn't at least sometimes wretched, you're not doing it right.

Anyway, this isn't about me, any more than it's about Somalia or the War-that-isn't on Christmas.  It's actually about this woman.
Photo from
She's Brenda Schmitz of Des Moines, Iowa.  Or she was.  She died a couple of years ago, ten days after her son Max turned two.  Max was the forth child Brenda had with her husband, David.  And the last.  As I said, she died just ten days after his second birthday.  Ovarian cancer.  For the last month or so of her life, she stopped treatments except, I suppose, for palliative care.  Enough.

No body should die that young, body ravaged by disease.  No family should suffer that loss.  As I said, I"m an atheist.  If I weren't, stories like this would tend to make me one.  What god (at least what god that purports to be benevolent) would allow such pain?  Not inflicted by someone alleged to have free will but only by god herself.  

Sorry, I got carried away there.  This isn't about me.  It's about Brenda Schmitz.  Who listened to the radio over the years.  Who, as Lillian Schrock put it in her blog for the Des Moines Register
had always been touched by the “Star” 102.5 Christmas Wish program that a Des Moines radio station runs each year.
You know how those things work.  People write in with pitiful stories (please help my sister buy a new pair of shoes for when she walks to school; the old ones have holes in the sole but both my parents have been unemployed for over a year and can't afford new shoes and now they're cutting off unemployment insurance) and the station picks a few and finds ways to grant the wishes.

So, knowing she would soon be dead, she wrote the station a letter, a Christmas wish.  She gave it to a friend to mail.  Not right away.
She asked a friend to wait until Schmitz’s husband, David, had found a new love to marry before delivering the letter.
When they read the letter, the station's Christmas wish vetters knew they'd make this one of the chosen this year.  Frankly, they'd never had a letter like it.  

Station officials told David Schmitz on Thursday that they were granting a Christmas Wish for him. But he didn’t know about Brenda’s letter until he was in the studio and on the air — hearing host Colleen Kelly read his wife’s words.

He spoke of just how wonderful, what a special woman Brenda was. He didn't yet know the half of it.
“I have a wish for David and the boys and the woman and her family if she has kids also,” she wrote. “I want them to know I love them very much and they always feel safe in a world of pain.”
And so her first wish (she had three, but really, all you need to know about is the first, you can learn about the others, and be as repeatedly moved to tears as I was, here)
For something that would pamper David’s new partner (Jane, to whom David proposed this past summer).
“She deserves it,” Brenda Schmitz wrote. “Being a step-mother to all those boys, and especially giving little Max a mother’s love that only she can give. Make her smile and know her efforts are truly appreciated from me.”
Schmitz adds: “Thank you. I love you, whoever you are.”
And then there are the Howe's, Allen and Jeanne.  They're the hard-looking couple in the middle in this photo from the LA. Times.  And they're simple people.

The day before Thanksgiving, their son, James Marcus was shot to death on his front porch.  His wife was wounded and sent to the hospital.  Their son was traumatized. (Ya think?)

Sandy Banks, writing in the L.A. Times, tells of the funeral.
The Howes were overwhelmed by the funeral for their son at a Presbyterian church in South Pasadena 10 days ago. It drew more than 400 friends and co-workers, many sharing stories of how much and how often Marcus had reached out to help others.
"It was kind of over the top for people like us," Jeanne said. "We were expecting to hear respect and loyalty and kindness and things like that. But I had no idea so many people felt such love and appreciation for who he was and what he had done."
Most of them had no idea about Allen and Jeanne, either, I'd wager.  There's a surveillance video that apparently shows a getaway car with "two young men and a woman" in it.  There was a press conference to publicize the case (and the $75,000 reward for information leading to).
Howe's parents — here from Chicago to bury their youngest child — extolled his virtues. They challenged witnesses to come forward and wept at the thought of him bleeding to death "right on the front porch of the house he was living in."
Then came the proverbial question some reporter always asks: How do you feel right now?
"Angry," his father said, gripping the lectern and swallowing hard. "I am angry that the people that did this did not get enough love in their lives."
And then, again, the funeral.
The homily at the funeral was delivered by Mennonite pastor Sally Schreiner Youngquist. She explained that their faith requires prayer for Marcus' killers — the surveillance tape shows two young men and a woman driving the getaway car — in hopes they'll come to understand the wrong they have done and experience a transformation in their thinking and their lives.
It's a tall order that seems to me both impressively noble and incredibly naive. I can't imagine absorbing the loss of my child with such grace and dignity.
The Howes don't see any other route to take. Nothing will bring their son back. But if his killers can be redeemed, some good may come of his death.
* * * * *
My favorite of all Christmas songs, heartbreaking when it was first sung - by Judy Garland in Meet Me in St. Louis.

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