Jacob Marly was dead
Every year I reread Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. It is the one holiday tradition that I consider mine and mine alone. The rest of them, obviously, I share with family and friends. Though I enjoy all of my traditions, I am leery of holding any sacred. What I have seen of sacred traditions makes them more frightening than inviting. This one, however, is sacred to me. Even during a pandemic while I recover from open heart surgery, I find time to read what is absolutely my favorite Christmas story — maybe even my favorite story — of them all.
My affection for it starts with the first line: “Jacob Marley was dead, to begin with — there’s no doubt about that.” The tone this line sets is irrevocably one of terror — not something you get in your average Christmas story. You read it and you have an inkling that this, then, is one of those “scary ghost stories” Andy Williams claims to share at Christmastime. The more you read, the more you realize that this is not one of those scary ghost stories; this is the scary ghost story. Yes, there are more. There are those that came before it, such as tales of Krampus, Lussi, The Karakoncolos, Frau Perchta, the Yule Lads, the Yule Cat, etc. There is also an assortment of more modern frightening movies and books. Black Christmas, Better Watch Out, and Anna and the Apocalypse are among my favorites. However, none of them have the power and range of Dickens’ simple Christmas horror.
It has been remade more times than I can count. In 2019, in fact, BBC released a film version that leaned heavily into the horror elements… to mixed reviews. There is, of course, everyone’s favorite, The Muppet Christmas Carol. And who can forget that Bill Murray classic, Scrooged? There are retellings, remakes, and rewrites too numerous to count. But again, no version is as poignant as Dickens’ original, simple, scary tale of one old miser’s change of heart.
If legend can be believed, and I think in this case it not only can be but should be, Dickens was up against a wall when he wrote this story. He had suffered writer’s block and was feeling down on himself because his previous book did not do so well with not only the critics but the masses. Thankfully A Christmas Carol struck him like lightning, and when it was published, it changed Christmas. Incidentally, The Man Who Invented Christmas, the film version of this account of how A Christmas Carol was written, is well worth your time.
But I digress. There is really only one reason I’m writing about A Christmas Carol in “The Recovery Chronicles.” It’s not because it’s scary and I’m fond of horror. It’s not because is poignant and I’m fond of poignancy. It’s not even because I like it.
I’m writing about A Christmas Carol because I was not sure I’d make it to December this year. This year, it’s not that I like it, which I do. It’s that I like that I get to read it.
When the doctors first discovered my infection was something I needed to worry about, I didn’t think death was possible. When I was placed on three different antibiotics, I didn’t think death was possible. When I was led to surgery three times before the year was half over, I didn’t think death was possible. When a pandemic ravaged the world, I didn’t think death was possible. When I was told I’d need my gallbladder removed and three different doctors agreed that I also required open heart surgery, I still didn’t think death was possible.
In fact, I didn’t take the time to process the fact that my death was possible until, during one of my several appointments, my cardiac surgeon said, “If this is not fixed, Mr. Stueve, you do not have 10 more years.” And before my heart was fixed, they had to get my infection under control. Who knew how long that would take? Less than ten years I hoped. Then there was the matter of my gallbladder. Would taking that out first be bad for my bum ticker? Or would taking it out after my arteries were fixed be worse for my healing heart? When I left the hospital that day, though I had doctors I trusted, I was suddenly and irrevocably terrified.
In many ways, up to that point, I was like Scrooge as The Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come leads him through the future constantly pointing toward a coffin holding a man no one is sad to see gone. If you’ve read the book or seen any of the numerous film versions of A Christmas Carol you know who is in that future coffin. It is more than obvious to every reader that it is Ebenezer Scrooge. Scrooge, however, can’t seem to figure it out. This, dear friends, is not only a bit of clever dramatic irony from Dickens, but evidence that our own death is very, very difficult to fathom. Logically we know it’s bound to occur someday but staring the reality of it square in the face isn’t something we’re all that good at.
But I, at least, am learning to be… sort of. Let’s be honest, I am still am trying to process all of this and that is, frankly, what “The Recovery Chronicles” is about. But I made it to the end of 2020 and was able to read A Christmas Carol once more. If I never get to read it again because I don’t make it to another Christmas, then in the meantime, just like Scrooge at the end of the book, I promise to “…honour Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year. I will live in the Past, the Present, and the Future. The Spirits of all Three shall strive within me. I will not shut out the lessons that they teach.”
For when I die, whenever that happens, I want to be remembered not for the pain I’ve caused but the joy. Reading A Christmas Carol once a year at the end of the year reminds me of this. It helps me reflect on the good and the bad I’ve caused as I wandered around a small section of the world for 365 days.
And it helps me be better as I go forward… no matter how far I’m going.