I’m often reminded of a story my father told me about the last days of my grandfather–that is, his father. I asked him to tell me the story again for the sake of my project. Here’s what is said, more or less:
By late 1997 it was clear my father was dying of colon cancer. By mid-December, after two surgeries, the cancer had metastasized into his hipbones, pelvis, and his entire backbone. He was in terrible pain, on morphine. We were told to handle him carefully or his skeleton might break into half. He said his doctors had told him he could drink some alcohol if he wanted—we understood it to mean that he could do anything really if it was to make him feel good or comfortable in any way. He didn’t have to be concerned with his health anymore. My idea was to get him some beer for Christmas—I thought it would cheer him up and raise everybody else’s spirit. Tragically, everybody else in the family had the same idea and pretty soon beer bottles, with fancy beer, were everywhere–on his bedside table and on the floor by his bed. It was the saddest thing of all; it was obvious that we all knew, and he knew that we knew, that there was no future for him. He was dead three months later.
I always thought it was very poignant and moving. But I realized in a way it belongs to a genre of families in crisis. All family members assure one another that their family is still whole, that it does not disintegrate, and that it will last, despite all the evidence to the contrary. My father’s story also belongs to a sub-genre of families in crisis especially during Christmas time. My research will focus, first, on other representations in Western culture–that is, in movies, literature, drama–of this universal tendency within families to turn a blind eye to all the evil and dark things happening in a family. Everybody so much craves stability and permanence–in short, home–that they will pretend forces pulling at it don’t exist. Second, my research will consist in reviewing other examples of Christmas time spent with families.
I was thinking, for instance, of Eugene O’Neil’s famous play Long Day’s Journey Into Night, which shows a family consisting of four members–a mother (who is a drug addict), a father (who is an alcoholic), one son (who is dying of tuberculosis), and another one (who is sick with hate for the one who is dying). All the four members are also very much attached to the idea that they are a happy family and, until they get drunk, they pretend everything’s perfect.