JOINT BASE SAN ANTONIO-Randolph, Texas –
The holiday season is in full swing, with all the accompanying anticipation (and dread). For many, including me, there always seems to be far too much to do in far too little time and the frantic effort to make sure everything is perfect strips the joy from the most meaningful aspect of the season: People.
In early fall, the thought of celebrating Thanksgiving and Christmas with family, friends and coworkers is exciting. But, October comes and goes in the blink of an eye and every year, I somehow get caught up in the blender, panicking at all that needs to be done to achieve perfection. Then, when it's all over, I look back at the season and wonder what the heck happened. I feel empty and disappointed when I think about the superficial things I worried about.
Well, here we are again. It's December and I'm not ready. Just thinking about it makes my heart pound. This has to stop.
This year, when my husband and I call home and our families pass the phones around, my sister, my stepdad and my brother-in-law won't be there, and I wonder, did the gifts we rushed to buy and mail in years past make any difference in their lives? Did they feel blessed by perfect mementos that clearly communicated how much we loved them, or did they shrug off a gift with minimal personal meaning? If they were here, would they even remember what we sent? How could they? I don't.
Is there value in gadgets and gizmos that are soon forgotten? I don't know. While I don't remember a lot of the gifts I've received over the years, I do have vivid memories of holidays past that still make me smile (and cry).
Food: As a kid, I never woke before my mom on Christmas because she was always up early to get the turkey in the oven. Every year I woke to the savory aroma of turkey, onions and sage, the delicious scent of chocolate, cinnamon and allspice, and the tantalizing fragrance of pies and cookies. Now, turkey smells like home, cookies taste like love, and pumpkin pie feels like a hug. So many people don't wake to those smells on Christmas (much less to gifts under a tree) and that hurts my feelings. This year, for my mom, I'm taking a load of groceries to the food bank so that other kids can grow up with those memories (and just for the record, I already got mom's permission!).
Triple Threat: My sister, Wendy, and I were 11 months apart, so mostly we wanted and got the same things for Christmas, while my baby brother, Wade (no longer a baby at six-feet), got "boy" toys that we promptly appropriated (after Dad was finished playing with them). I don't really remember what those toys were - when I think of Christmas, I think of Wendy and Wade. Where we went one, we went all – a triple threat in search of mischief. Now there are only two of us, and I wasn't ready to be a pair. There are so many things I want to ask my sister, but her little heart couldn't hold on any longer. At least a million times over the past six weeks I've thought "if only…" and "I wish…" This year (probably for the first time in my life), I want to give her something meaningful and memorable, and it's too late. But maybe it's not too late for someone else. I miss you Wendy. I hope you like your present this year (a donation to the American Heart Association) and I hope somebody somewhere will get a little more time.
Brother Humor: You never really know when you marry if you're going to get "in-laws" or family. When I married in 2002, I got family, including a new big brother, Jeff. I wouldn't trade my baby bro for anything in the world, but it was pretty awesome to suddenly have a big brother too, and the way I could tell he would be my brother instead of a brother-in-law was his humor. Christmas cards were unapologetically rude and hysterically funny. He wasn't worried about hurting my feelings or making me mad because I was his sister, not his sister-in-law. In April, Jeff was diagnosed with cancer that quickly spread through his organs. His prognosis was grim, but he decided to live – really live – every single minute he had left and fight it with every weapon available. Dec. 3, just after midnight, he took his final breath and left a hole the size of the universe in our hearts. He consistently asked us not to feel sad for him – said he had a blessed life and didn't regret a thing. He asked us to focus on others, like kids with cancer who deserve a chance to live. Nothing will bring him back, I know. But I'll be damned if I'm going to stand by and let cancer take another kid without a fight. Merry Christmas Jeff – fighting childhood cancer is now my cause, and my gift for you.
If you're still reading, thanks for getting this far. There's no "moral of the story" and I know my life is far from unique. I just needed to let the universe know that the days of allowing perceived holiday expectations to spin me into an emotional wreck end now. Trying to buy people a piece of happiness hasn't worked and it never will. My friends and family – probably like yours – don't want more meaningless stuff. They just want to spend time with the people they love.
I won't lie, I'm nervous about not buying stuff for people this year, but I feel a little bit excited too.
What if one person - 50 years from now - cherishes the memory of Christmas morning food aromas more than the memory of a gift?
What if one person, 20 years from now, is able to call her sister and chat thanks to advances in heart procedures?
What if, 10 years from now, a kid who had cancer graduates from college thanks to cutting edge research paid for with donations?
Just imagine, what if!