Flashback to Christmas 2007: My daughter was hospitalized in the midst of a stem cell transplant to
treat an aggressive brain tumor. She
spent a month in a tiny little isolation room waiting for her immune system to
rematerialize after the toxic and life threatening dose of chemotherapy she had
just gotten in the hopes of saving her life.
I remember that Christmas Eve well. My daughter was sleeping about 20 hours a
day, and I was sleeping about three to four, too jolted with fear and worry to rest
comfortably. That night, I
typed these words by the light of my girl's machines that pumped and beeped
just inches from me: "I've said numerous times that we are skipping Christmas
this year and will celebrate it later. I
was wrong. Christmas is coming to us and
it has nothing to do with lights or trees or presents or shopping. It has everything to do with good will and
kindness and compassion." Amen.
Flashback to Christmas 2008: I was nine months pregnant, due to deliver in just a week's time. We had to opt out of the family holiday
celebration because our girl, having relapsed after that stem cell transplant, had had
a rough few days of unexplained fevers and ER visits. She woke up on Christmas morning and had zero
interest in gifts or trees or being anywhere other than her Daddy's arms. She spent the day sleeping, only waking to
vomit. I worried and took too frequent
temperatures and smoothed my girl's hair off her forehead and did a lot of
My family will never be together as we should be for any holiday anymore, but our love is intact.
Flashback to Christmas 2009: We had buried our daughter just two months earlier. Our baby son was on the cusp of his fist
birthday. Somehow, miraculously, we
managed to put a tree up. It was small,
but it was a tree, and it shone and sparkled and twinkled, just like trees twice
its size. On the morning of Christmas
Eve, the phone rang. It was our dear friend, recently widowed after a long
and lovely marriage. She spoke words to
me that day that have guided me ever since. "Go to the joy," was her advice. Despite whatever it is that breaks your heart, look for the joy, look
for the love, look for the light.
All of these memories came flooding back as I watched a new holiday commercial this year. TJ
Maxx, Marshalls and Home Goods are running an ad campaign called "Bring
Back the Holidays." Its premise is a
call to arms, really, asking for a return to the focus of the holidays being about
the people you share them with rather than what you share with them—namely, the gifts and pomp and circumstance of the
For me, the kicker is that the ad features the Banks family
whose little girl was diagnosed with stage 4 neuroblastoma, a particularly
unkind type of childhood cancer. The girl's mom talks about last year's holidays being interrupted with hospitalizations. Both parents explain the inspiration their
daughter has been to them through her treatment. The ad ends with Dad saying, "The present for
the Banks family is that we have each other." Cut to a smiling, loving family on the sofa surrounded by holiday
trimmings from TJ Maxx. Again, I say,
The fact that this message of goodwill comes from a corporation working hard to win consumer business is not lost on me, but does that negate the message?
I am a cynic at heart (seriously, how could I not be?) and
have written before about corporations manipulating the emotions of consumers
in their advertising. I get it. But
still, I embrace this campaign. Call me a
hypocrite, but I know too well that the holidays are not about what is under
the tree rather who is around the tree. When
you have that knowledge, you can never erase it.
The fact that this message of goodwill comes from a
corporation working hard to win consumer business is not lost on me, but does
that negate the message? If you are
surrounded by people you love this holiday season, you are one lucky duck. If, in the presence of those people, are also
a pile of presents to be opened, well, your luck is on overdrive.
My family will never be together as we should be for any
holiday anymore, but our love is intact. We keep finding our way to the joy, just as our wise friend encouraged
us to do in the midst of our initial grief. The rest—the stress and demands so many feel this time of year? It's not important. We do what we can with what we have. We work hard to appreciate the holidays
without making them a burden.
I hope to teach our sons (we now have two!) to appreciate the
important distinction between being happy with who you have rather than what
you have. And I am no Pollyanna. I fully admit that it's hard with 6- and 2-year-olds, who can't truly appreciate the absence of a sister they never got to
know. They want Legos and games and
toys, of course. Because we are
lucky, they will get some of those things.
They will also get a heaping dose of love and lots of encouragement to
appreciate the joy we share being together—our little family of four that
should be five.