In December of 1998 my father made an unusual holiday journey. Less than a year earlier he’d been diagnosed with melanoma which eventually laid siege to his brain. After fruitless rounds of chemotherapy and gamma knife treatments, Dad had a hunch that this would be his final Christmas. So a week before Dec. 25 he announced to my mother that he had decided to take a road trip. “I don’t know exactly where I’m going,” he said, “and I can’t say for sure when I’ll be back — I just know I need to do this thing.”
My mother, a strong-minded woman in her own right, informed him that he certainly would not be going by himself, then rang my brother and me with the news that they were hitting the road for Christmas and didn’t know when they’d be home.
Dad was feeling drawn to his Alabama roots, so in the pre-dawn hours of Dec. 19, 1998, they headed north from Orlando, Fla., tooling along back roads, using only their memories for a map. They strolled together around Auburn University, now deserted for the holidays, snapping pictures at Mom’s old dormitory where Dad had picked her up for dates. At a rustic fish camp near Talladega, Ala., she addressed Christmas cards in the car while he caught bass and crappie from a tiny boat in the middle of a frigid lake. They visited North Birmingham Elementary School, peering through the familiar windows, then drove to the top of Red Mountain to gaze up at Vulcan in all his iron glory.
At around noon on Christmas Day, they drove out to Walker’s Chapel, the cemetery in Birmingham where many of the Pennington clan — mostly coal miners and farmers, with a smattering of gamblers and moonshiners — are laid to rest.
It was a brutally cold day, the sky waffling between sleet and snow. They wandered among the granite markers until Mom retreated to the car for warmth. Dad stayed on, lingering at some of the ice-encrusted tombstones for more than half an hour. When he eventually returned to the car, his eyes were as red as his frost-bitten nose. But his face wore an expression of peace. “I’m ready to head back home,” he said.
It’s ironic to me that after so many sumptuous, annual holiday celebrations, my father’s last Christmas dinner on this earth was a ham salad sandwich and a moon pie from a gas station somewhere in rural Alabama. My mother still describes it as one of the most meaningful Christmases of her life.
While it isn’t exactly a Currier and Ives Christmas card, my father’s story reminds me of the nativity accounts in the Gospels in at least this way: It tells of a journey. It’s about leaving home and finding home. In the birth narratives of Jesus, practically everyone involved is on pilgrimage — physically, emotionally and spiritually:
Mary, in addition to the ill-timed donkey ride in the ninth month of her pregnancy, is still grappling with the angel’s earth-shifting news of God in her womb.
Joseph, while trekking on foot from Nazareth to Bethlehem, is also making a journey in his heart, from incredulity to acceptance, as he ponders the birth of a child who will share his name but not his DNA.
The shepherds, as they high-tail it to the manger, are also experiencing the existential odyssey of being catapulted from their home at the bottom rung of the ladder, to their new identity as firsthand recipients of the glory of God.
And at the heart of things, of course, we have God hitting the road — tooling along the backroads of the universe with a baby in the car seat — all the way to Bethlehem.
I guess that’s why, as I listen to Bing Crosby crooning again, I’ll Be Home for Christmas, I find myself half-wishing for a different song. Maybe along the lines of I’ll Be Somewhere Else for Christmas. Has an authentic gospel ring to it, don’t you think?