MY FIRST NOEL*
When I was a kid, I didn't know much of what we were singing in those
Christmas carols. Donkey? Check. A little town? Check (lived in one).
Round young virgin, check. Holy infanso, check. Other than that, it was all a
Except for one song, my favorite Christmas song of
all. I just couldn't understand why everyone else was so excited about
it. But, then again, why not? My baby brother
Noel really was a special little kid (even though at home we called him
wet-wet baby because he still did things that we had outgrown).
Ah yes, one of my earliest midnight mass memories, and when you grow up
Catholic that's pretty much the same as one of your earliest Christmas
memories, is belting out at the top of my four year old soprano "Noel,
Noel, Noel, Noel, dah dah dah dah dah dah dah dah dah-EL." And Missy and
Gordon and I would get our faces in his and say, "that's you wet wet
baby, that's you."
I don't think I remember mom being pregnant
(for the story of her miraculous conversion/conception experience, check
out my earlier meditation called Eudora Juanita's Long Parentheses).
Although since Advent is about waiting, maybe I could say (given Lauren
Winner's advice about true-ish writing) that I did know a baby was
coming and that we were all waiting expectantly for the baby to be born.
I'm sure someone had been waiting. Mom and Dad one assumes. Maybe even Missy who was both older than me and a
girl. But, honest to goodness, one of my absolute earliest memories,
and it's still clear to me, was sitting in dad's car (a Studebaker, made
in South Bend--go Irish!) outside a big building, which turned out to
be a hospital, and him saying "look up there kids, see at that window?
That's momma and your new baby brother."
Of course, I already had A
little brother, Gordon, but he was just . . . "there"--part of my life. As far as I knew, he had never been a little baby. I
guess I was unconscious or something when he first showed up. So, this
fuzzy face up at the third floor window hit me as quite a surprise. An
unexpected crazy addition to my previously not much more than
And then (I see those skeptical faces
out there but I am NOT making this up), Christmas morning as we are
anxiously waiting to open our presents (cowboy hat, shirt, boots, and
gun for me that year, I have no idea what anybody else got), the door
opens up and in walks Eudora Juanita (also known as momma) with a little
bundle of joy and noise and poop, my new little brother, Noel. Or
Noelito, as I still call him and as I called him today when I got him on
the phone, catching him eating birthday cake across the country in New
At some point (I say this because it's another of the
clear memories amidst the general fog of distance), I got to sit on the
couch and hold him very carefully. The tender, delicate, fragile,
miraculous, absolutely beautiful, darling . . . thing. My brother.
Except for the unfortunate nickname, it soon became clear that we were
going to spoil the heck out of him. And we did. I don't think Missy or
Gordon or me needed much in the way of toys for the next year or so. We
had an amazing great gift, unexpected (at least to me), but, if memory
serves, not unappreciated. He's gone on to be an amazing person,
a loving father of a couple of great kids, a credit to his parents (not
to mention the siblings who spoiled him).
I guess this
Christmas I won't get to dress him up in a goofy outfit, or teach him
funny words, or make him laugh by acting silly, or even get to hold him
on the couch. I kinda wish I could, though he's really quite a big baby
now. But I can still feel the wonder and love that came with My First
Noel. Still makes me want to sing. Sort of like the shepherds who, I'm
pretty sure, weren't looking for anything special, weren't waiting and
singing some minor key O Come O Come song wailing for the coming of the
King of Israel. They were just looking . . . at sheep and such. But they got a
huge surprise. SHOCK! Good one, though.
I guess Advent too, in
one way, is about NOT being prepared, NOT waiting, or realizing that
you can wait all you want and prepare all you want and you are still
going to be surprised. If any of this is true, that is.
surprised another way today. After a long day of shopping (oh, I can
hear the sympathy in your voices), and after talking to Noel about his
cake and talking to Jenny about Christmas present ideas for the boys, I
stopped by a place called Mad Anthony's where a friend of mine, Mike Conley,
hosts an open mic on Thursday nights. I didn't even have my guitar with
me, but I thought I'd stop by anyway before heading home.
Just as I
arrived, two friends of mine Wayne and Jane were setting up to play (on
guitar and cello). Of course, obviously, because I live in that kind of
universe, they started to play "The First Noel." I think I distracted
them just a little when I got out of my seat, walked towards the stage,
and held my cell phone up to the speaker so the wet wet baby could hear
it in New Jersey.
Alright angels, thanks for getting us started. Certain poor shepherds and big brothers and sisters can take it from here.
*This piece was first posted last year on Noel's birthday, December 20. He died this year on November 23. I'm glad I called him. Starting on Christmas Day, I'll be writing about him all twelve days of Christmas.