The Real Meaning of MY Christmas

Happy New Year! Yeah, I know I’ve been absent for a few weeks and am a day late and a dollar short as usual, but like mostly everyone else, my holidays were darn busy. For Christmas 2021, I was supposed to resume traveling internationally by enjoying a trip to Costa Rica. Yet as the day got closer, I knew it wasn’t the right choice. I’ve been experiencing some pretty intense back pain for several weeks now, so that was the first issue that made me question if I was doing the best thing for me. Add the possibility of getting hung up in a foreign country due to COVID19, and the cost of being tested to have the privilege of boarding the plane home, and all arrows were pointing toward exercising my cancellation insurance and waiting until circumstances are better all around.

The decision was still a tough one. I wanted to resume my life of seeing the world, and this was a huge step in the right direction. My last trip out of the U.S. was summer of 2019 in Sri Lanka, before my cancer diagnosis, and I’ve been struggling to be me again since then. Cancelling anything, especially trips, is just not like me. Still, the gnawing inside me said that it wasn’t what I should be doing.

So I cancelled.

Then, a golden opportunity arose.

Even before that, something pretty incredible and highly unlikely took place: no cancer showed up on my last scans taken December 20th! Does this mean that I’m cured? That cancer will never be a part of my life again? That cancer is no longer a part of my life now? That treatment changes or ends? No, it doesn’t mean any of that. It “only” means just what I wrote: cancer cannot be seen. Meaning: it’s probably still there, and will likely come back, but the medication I’m on is controlling it very well for now. How long it will last, no one knows. I can only hope it will be for a long time. This doesn’t diminish the miracle that brought me to this, from where I was a year ago. If you know anything about metastatic cancer, I’m damn blessed. If you knew anything about my cancer specifically, well, I’m a long way from where I was in December of 2020. Read about my roller coaster journey here and here.

The table was indeed set for that golden opportunity.

As soon as I told my niece that I was thinking of cancelling my trip to Costa Rica, she invited me to South Carolina to spend Christmas with her. Yes, this was exactly what I needed: a familiar place where I could rest if necessary, a faithful black dog for quiet company, and maybe even some warmer weather. Not perfect Costa Rica weather, but South Carolina would do! And Costa Rica doesn’t have my niece and her dogs!

I just had to come up with reasonable airfare. From years of traveling at Christmastime, I recalled that December 24th to the 31st are usually the cheap dates. This remains true! I got a great fare and would soon be on my way! But not before wrapping and distributing many presents, falling on black ice, receiving as many presents, seeing friends and family before I left, battling crowds in the stores, starting PT for my back, working full time…

My last two posts are a short story I wrote several years ago. Titled “The Real Meaning of Christmas,” it’s a tale about a woman who disdains the holiday, yet finds her own peace in the season. Hmm, sounds like art imitating life! Because of course, that’s just what I did.

Long before cancer, Christmas was a tricky time of the year for me, and remains so. For more than twenty years escaping has been my way to combat ambivalent feelings about Christmas and what it has come to represent in our culture. Most of the time I would run off somewhere and spend the holiday alone, sans blinking lights and jolly men in red suits. South Carolina is my new favorite escape, and I’ve even learned to appreciate my niece’s special brand of hospitality.

We have a routine whenever I go and visit: bowling, a local farm, ice cream, Chinese food. I’ve gotten to know some of the local people and am always made to feel welcome. That naughty blond pup above vies for my attention with her darker brother while her mom spoils her rotten. Usually when I show up the weather gets thirty degrees colder. Not this time! It was in the 70’s all week. My back started to feel a little better, I got lots of sleep and lots of love, collected and gave more presents, and had turkey dinner left over from Thanksgiving, when I couldn’t be there. I found the real meaning of MY Christmas, and made the correct choice for me.

Perhaps I’ll never really love Christmas again, but I’ve made progress.

I had a great holiday, but I’m glad it’s over for another year! Bring on 2022!

The Real Meaning of Christmas, Part Two

Last week I posted the first part of a Christmas tale I wrote back in 2006. It was more popular than expected, leaving me to think that maybe I should continue to make more of my old fiction writing public. You can read the first half of the story here. What follows is part two. Enjoy!

THE REAL MEANING OF CHRISTMAS (CONTINUED)

Christmas morning came. Toni awoke to the sound of Hannah rummaging around in her room; when she opened Hannah’s door, she found the six-year-old filling a white tall kitchen garbage bag full of toys: stuffed animals, Barbie dolls, musical toys.

            “Honey, what are you doing?” Toni asked.

            Hannah looked like a little grown-up as she turned to her mother and said, “I’m findin’ all the toys I don’t play with no more to bring to the kids less lucky than me.”

            Toni was so taken by her little daughter’s gesture, she did not even correct her iffy grammar. Instead, she asked herself, Oh, how have I done so well with this child, how, in spite of being a single mother literally left at the altar when I was five months pregnant?

            Toni backed away from the door, realizing that her six-year-old knew more about compassion than even she did. Her daughter was outdoing her! This thought made her rush into her bedroom and throw open the closet door. She looked with derision at all the clothes that she was saving because she might wear them “someday,” when she knew very well that that day would never come, and that there was someone out there who could be wearing those clothes that just hung there, going to waste.  She went to the kitchen and got her own tall kitchen garbage bag and filled it with clothes.  She was thrilled by the exhilarating feeling of unburdening herself of the clothes and filled another bag. 

            “I’m ready, Mommy,” Hannah’s voice came from her doorway.  She turned to see that Hannah had her full winter gear on and had a bag over each shoulder, like a mini Santa Claus.

            “I thought we were going to have breakfast and open one present?” Toni reminded her.

            “But Mommy, this is so much more important.  Can’t we get there early and be waiting for them?”

            “If that’s what you want, honey.  Let Mommy get dressed.” 

            “I’ll be waiting out front.”

            “But it’s so cold!  Maybe you should wait in the kitchen.”

            “No, it’s okay.  I’ll wait out front.”

            Toni knew that this was Hannah’s way of saying that she was ready and didn’t want to wait for her mother to waste time. So, Toni didn’t. She jumped into some warm casual clothes and met Hannah on the front steps ten minutes later. There was only a little snow on the ground but it was bitterly cold.  Hannah’s nose was red, but she appeared unfazed by the weather. Obviously, the child was on a mission. It was Toni who complained to Hannah about the cold as they defrosted the car, whose backseat was piled with their garbage bags full of “gifts.” 

            They hardly spoke on the drive to the shelter. As they neared, they saw a small line of homeless people had begun to form, their breath almost freezing in the air, their clothes not nearly warm enough to battle the elements.

            “Mommy, they look so cold!  Do you have any winter coats in those bags?” Hannah asked, her little nose wrinkled but warm-looking.

            “No, honey.  No winter coats,” Toni answered, distressed by the memory of the two down-filled jackets she had left hanging in her closet because she had made a split-second decision that she would wear them again “someday” after all.

            It was then that Hannah reached under her coat and took out her piggy bank in the shape of Eeyore, the sad donkey from Winnie the Pooh that they had bought on a trip to Disneyland the previous year.  It was their routine to fill it with spare coins and bills until they couldn’t fit anymore, then they transferred the money to Hannah’s small but growing bank account.  Toni knew that Eeyore was close to being full.  Usually, they had about twenty-five dollars in it by the time they made the transfer.

             “I didn’t want you to be mad at me for bringing this so I hid it ‘til now.  Can we go and buy somethin’ warm for them?  It’s full and I wanna share it.” The child shook the bank for effect.  It was all too much for Toni at that point; tears started rolling down her face and she grabbed Hannah and squeezed her tight. Hannah hugged her back, though Toni knew she did not understand her mother’s tears.

            Toni put the car in drive and told Hannah to find her wallet in her purse and see how much was in it. Hannah did as she was told, though Toni felt her reluctance; Hannah knew better than to go into her mother’s personal belongings unless she had permission.  Hannah took out a handful of small bills and announced that her mother had twenty-two dollars.  Toni made a deal with her daughter: they each would spend ten dollars to buy some nice, hot coffee, tea, and hot chocolate for the people less lucky than them. That way, they would both still have some money leftover. Hannah agreed and they proceeded to the nearest coffee shop and bought as many cups of hot liquid as they could for twenty dollars.  Then, they went back to the shelter; several more people were gathered, waiting for breakfast.

            Hannah was out of the car with the flat box of hot drinks in her little, glove-clad hands almost before Toni could get the keys out of the ignition. Toni only watched from the driver’s seat as the old men smiled like she was a tiny angel sent from heaven and the women patted her head and took a warm drink. Pride was hardly a sufficient word for what she was feeling as she watched her baby; she was learning something about compassion that even transcended what her parents had taught her so many years ago. 

            Not wanting to steal Hannah’s spotlight, she waited until the girl had handed out all the drinks, then she pulled the bags of clothes and toys out of the back seat of the car and brought them over to the gathering crowd. Together, she and her baby girl handed out second-hand gifts to the spellbound poor and homeless that truly looked like they were seeing Santa Claus. Watching their faces, Toni knew that she had not seen sincerely thankful people since those family Christmases so long ago. Suddenly, those days seemed closer, and the real meaning of Christmas was evident for her again. Just as she knew, it had nothing to do with SUVs or Super Soakers or even a million tiny lights on a fabulous tree.  She had found the real meaning of Christmas again and a six-year-old girl whom she had given birth to had helped her to do so.

            Long before they entered the shelter to help serve breakfast, they had won the hearts of the people less lucky than them.  Other volunteers pulled up in shiny SUVs and ran in at the last minute, laughing and talking about the warm fireplace they had left or the piles of presents waiting to be unwrapped. In those final moments, another small miracle took place: Marcy showed up with a huge platter of delightful, homemade pastries. She was dressed to the nines and was in a terrible rush, but Toni hugged her, seeing the satisfaction in her friend’s face for doing a good deed. 

It was a perfect morning now, with the presents and Marcy’s kindness and the hot coffee and the fresh food on the shelter’s stove. Toni and Hannah giggled and joked and felt good about the miracles already performed, while French toast and bacon sizzled and the aroma wafted through the air and the doors were finally opened and the homeless folks entered the shelter already smiling, with toys for their children and warm drinks in their bellies and the smile of a little blond angel on their minds. And mother and daughter waited, Toni with a spatula, her daughter with a stack of paper cups to fill with orange juice, while bells chimed and carols played and real, true Christmas joy filled the rooms of the shelter.

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Merry Christmas.

Thank you for reading!

The Real Meaning of Christmas, Part One

While writing my last post I was reminded of a short story I wrote long ago, and decided that I was going to post it here. It took some searching to retrieve it. It’s that old! The title? “The Real Meaning of Christmas.” I wrote it in 2006. What a long way I’ve come as a writer since then! Yet, for the sake of posterity (or something like that!) I’ve decided to publish it largely as is, other than removing some annoying spacing issues. Because it’s nine typed pages long, I’ll share it in two parts. Look for part two next week!

Without further ado, here is an old story that’s short on style and long on meaning.

THE REAL MEANING OF CHRISTMAS

Not everyone loved Christmas, especially Toni. She shuddered every fall when the end of November approached because now, for six unbearable weeks, she would have to deal with all the things about Christmas that she hated. Her friends would be chattering about what new toys and gadgets they would be going broke to buy their children. People in their shiny SUVs would be stressed out and driving at breakneck speeds to the next shopping mall to whip out a plastic card and add to their already enormous debt.  Christmas trees would be on the tops of cars and in the beds of pick-up trucks, only to be unceremoniously dumped in a hidden ditch in the backyard once the finest balls and light strings were removed and the expensive presents unwrapped. Some people would light up their homes until absurd dates, well past New Year’s in a silly, futile attempt to keep alive a holiday season that most people had forgotten the meaning of anyway.  She refused to be a part of it all, falling out on the mania that surrounded the holiday that was supposed to represent the Birth of Christ. Instead, she longed for the Christmases of her youth when her parents were alive, when her sisters still talked to her, when people still cared about each other enough to know that love and happiness could not be bought.  Still, she had to keep up some kind of front, because now Hannah was old enough to be excited about the holiday. Somehow, some way, regardless of how much she dreaded the season, she had to make it worthwhile for both of them, to make it special in some way. 

            “Why don’t you spend it in Aruba?” was the worldly suggestion of her friend Marcy, who thought all problems on earth could be solved through the spending of money and a call to Carnival Cruises. Toni did not know whether she was serious, being that Marcy was in a pile of Super Soakers and video game equipment when the suggestion rolled off of her tongue, likely without previous thought. In fact, Toni almost knew that Marcy wasn’t thinking by her harried, pre-occupied tone that accompanied a certain annoyed look. 

            Toni wished that Marcy had not mentioned Aruba. For a split second she wished, too, that she had not visited Marcy at all, as Marcy was one of those people who “loved” Christmas and equally “loved” to spend money on material comforts.  Marcy had always been a bit pretentious and since marrying a self-made millionaire she had only gotten worse. But Toni knew that deep down inside, Marcy had a good heart and Toni still loved her dearly, even if she had to put up with a ridiculous comment every now and then.      

“Actually, I was considering volunteering to feed the homeless,” Toni said.

            “Oh, that’s nice baby. Hannah can stay and play with Amber and Jim-Jim,” Marcy grinned, speaking of her spoiled children.

            “Oh no, I’m going to bring her with me.”

            Marcy was stopped in the tracks of her Super Soakers.

            “Baby, you’ve got to be kidding. You’re going to bring that perfect child to feed dirty, grimy homeless people?”

            “Maybe you should come with me and bring Amber and Jim-Jim,” Toni’s tone was slightly condescending in that she pronounced the children’s names in the same baby-talk way that Marcy used whenever she spoke of them.

            Marcy didn’t even notice.  “You know I have a huge lunch to plan. I don’t know how I’m going to do it without going to that awful shelter.” Marcy rolled her eyes with silly self-importance. Toni knew that Marcy loved her role as town hostess and savored it when her guests bragged about her parties until the next one.

            “Well, we’re going just the same.”

            “You should give Hannah a choice. If she doesn’t want to go, she can stay here and help me cook. She loves to help her Auntie Marcy cook, you know!”

            Toni was relieved that Marcy had finally said something that made sense. She was right: Hannah should have the choice.  Toni would talk to her daughter.

            She tentatively approached her flaxen blond daughter while she was in her room playing dolls. Lovely Hannah, who Toni was trying to lead through her first years of life with compassion for other members of the human race, looked at her expectantly. “Go ahead, Mommy.  What do you want to talk about?”

            Toni was comforted by the patience of her little girl. Sometimes, Hannah was so serene that she made Toni feel like she was the daughter. She began: “Christmas is coming.  Next week it’ll be here.”

            A shadow fell over the little girl’s face. “Mommy, do you have enough money to buy me presents? Because if you don’t, it’s okay. Some kids in my class aren’t gonna get many presents ‘cuz they don’t have no daddy like me and their mommies can’t ‘ford nothin’ for them.”

            Toni didn’t know whether to be horrified that her daughter was thinking such thoughts or to be proud that she was so unselfish.   Hannah had everything within reason that a child needed and wanted, and Toni would always keep it that way, but Hannah was not spoiled or unappreciative. Toni had simply taught her what her own parents had taught her: to not take anything for granted.

            “No honey, it’s not that at all!  I wanted to ask you if you wanted to do something special on Christmas morning.” 

            “What?” 

            “I want to go and feed homeless people at the shelter downtown.  Do you want to come with me?  If you don’t, you can stay at Auntie Marcy’s.”

            “You mean feed people less lucky than us?” Hannah’s eyes widened.

            “Yes.” Toni had used that line on Hannah many times when they had passed the shelter and had seen people out front or on their way there.

            “I wanna go Mommy. We can open presents after?”

            “How about we open one before and the rest after.”

            Hannah smiled widely.  “Yeah!” She tossed her arms around Toni. “Mommy, I can’t wait to feed the homeless people that are less lucky than us.”

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Look for the conclusion next week.

Thanks for reading!

Dear Fellow Humans: Breathe

Well, here we are again: the “Christmas season.” The season of joy and giving and spending time with people that we love. Of reaching out to our fellow humans and showering them with goodness. Of making sure the needy have something to look forward to. Of…

Oh, wait, does this sound like us? Or is this more accurate: the Christmas season means that we run up a big electric bill making sure that our lights look better than everyone else’s in the neighborhood. That we are fighting each other for the closest parking space at Walmart. That we’re trampling our fellow shoppers to get the flat screen TV for fifty bucks off while supplies last. That our children don’t know that Christmas is really about the birth of Christ, not the presents that they’re getting.

That last one is a true story. As a teacher, I deal with around fifty students on a daily basis (but not all at one time!) One year, I was really tired of hearing the twelve in front of me talking nonstop about what they were expecting under the tree. Let me tell you, these weren’t the ten dollar variety presents, but big label sneakers, ridiculous video games, and the latest technology that they didn’t have the know how to need. Add up the prices and I could get up and back across the country a couple of times. But I digress. That year, I put my students to the test: what does Christmas really mean? Most of them said, “Opening presents.” Only one could tell me that it is a celebration of the birth of Christ, and if she didn’t go to church she would have been at a loss, too. I’ve never forgotten this day.

This post isn’t about religion. It’s about the direction we’re going in as people. Are we heading toward a good place? No, we’re screwed, and only getting worse. (IMHO.)

We need Christmas right now like we need a hole in the head, to coin an old saying. This holiday brings out the worst in so many people. I can’t wait until it’s over. Escaping has always been my way of dealing with it, and if all goes as planned, this year won’t be any different. If I look happy in the pictures in this post, it’s because I’m celebrating Christmas in my own way: far away from the nonsense that our traditions have turned into. Nothing feels better than warming a plane seat after handing out the gifts I had to endure long lines and bad attitudes to purchase.

Even without Christmas, we lack empathy. Take it from me, I’ve been living with a chronic illness (called advanced lung cancer, and no, I didn’t smoke!) for over two years now, and it has become very clear to me that other than a handful of amazing family members and friends, most don’t care what you’re going through. I’m not looking for sympathy, but courtesy would be nice. And courtesy is a dying art.

You know what would also be nice? If humans would just calm down. Several times a day I see people freaking out in everyday situations. My biggest pet peeve is the way we act when we get behind the wheel of a moving vehicle. No matter how big the vehicle is, from a standard car to an eighteen wheeler, drivers are in a gigantic hurry to most times get absolutely nowhere by weaving in and out of traffic at top speed, tailgating, and driving distracted. Good luck to the hapless squirrel, or worse, the hapless child getting in the way. Daily, these jokers take my life into their hands, not to mention their own. And this is only one example of bad behavior that has encompassed our nation.

I try not to focus on bad news, but avoiding it these days is getting to be more of a challenge. Maybe it’s because social media constantly has some awful tragedy thrown in our faces, or maybe it’s because we can’t handle not getting our way about something without going to the extreme to avenge our hurt feelings.

And now, we have the mania of Christmas to add to the hysteria, the glut of advertising and garish tinsel, ready made trees, and decor that varies from French fries to ballerinas and includes every interest in between. May I remind you that on December 26th it will all be abandoned in the yesterday’s news aisle and we’ll then be inundated with red and pink Valentine’s hearts for the second most annoying “holiday” on the calendar?

Heaven help us.

Think good and hard the next time you get yourself into a twist to beat someone to the next red light, or to shove yourself into the checkout line in front of an elderly person. Think about what you’re really going to gain.

Breath, folks, breathe. This stuff is not that important. Save your energy for when you really have to deal with something big.