“The more we try to ground our identities in external possessions or triumphs, the more we plaster our names on everything we can accumulate, the more we cling to surface and style, the less we find underneath.”
― Fr. John F. Kavanaugh, SJ, author of Following Christ in a Consumer Society
I was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia in June of 2012, and treatment costs were very high. Insurance took care of the major stuff like chemotherapy, extended hospital stays, and my bone-marrow transplant, but all the other expenses that came along with treatment added up quickly. Our household income was cut significantly, and while we had a lot of support from family and friends, money was tight.
The sickness and financial insecurity combined with the loss of our younger child, Aidan, which also happened in 2012, made the holidays a reminder of all Sara and I had lost.
I think, if left to our own devices, Sara and I would have fled to someplace like southern Maine or northern Vermont, isolated ourselves, and tried to forget that Christmas even existed. But we had our surviving son Michael, and we weren’t about to spoil Christmas for him.
Finding joy where we could
So, from 2012 to roughly 2017, Sara and I just put one foot in front of the other, especially during the holidays. We tried to find joy where we could and, in those five years, had some isolated moments of holiday happiness. But overwhelmingly, Christmas was far more confusing and sad than joyful.
We were still grieving for Aidan. I was having a lot of post bone marrow transplant health issues. I was also dealing with PTSD, which played a part in my leaving teaching for a few years. Still, I was working again, but as a reporter and for a much lower salary. I tried to compensate for the decreased income with a second job. Sara was able to return to work but wasn’t making anywhere near what she was before. We were working and trying to improve our lives, and the day-to-day stress and loss took its toll.
In all that time, Sara and I didn’t get really anything for ourselves. First, we couldn’t afford it, and second, we were still finding our way back to celebrating in the holidays. We would choose simple gifts for each other – a pound of my favorite coffee, a hardcover book she wanted – and that was it.
“You should be opening more presents.”
In 2017, we had our first Christmas with our new daughter, Arianna, who was born in August. While this gave Christmas a whole new layer of joy, it didn’t do anything to help our financial situation, and we were still struggling. And again, Sara and I gave one another a single gift. Christmas was for the kids, we said, and we meant it. We still do.
But kids have a way of seeing past the BS that adults haven’t or won’t, and last year Michael, who was nine at the time, said something that surprised me.
“You should be opening more presents,” he said to us.
And it moved me. I was reminded of how amazingly perceptive Michael was for someone in grade school. I was also reminded that Michael had a front-row seat for watching his parents struggle with grief, with money, with smiling, with feeling happy. He wanted us to be happy.
Maybe, I thought, Christmas isn’t just for the kids, after all?
Same gifts, different reason
Fast forward to 2019. Our financial situation has vastly improved. Sara and I can afford to get each other more than a pound of coffee or a book.
But just a few weeks ago, Sara and I sat down and went through our Christmas gift lists, I asked her the following question: “By the way, what do you want?”
She paused, thought for a moment, and smiled, and shrugged.
“I dunno,” she said. “What do you want?”
I hemmed and hawed for a few moments before chuckling to myself.
“I dunno,” I responded. “But we really should have something to open Christmas morning. Someone will notice otherwise.”
So, she asked me to remind her what kind of coffee I wanted, I asked her what book she wanted, and then we both started laughing.
We already had what we wanted
At that moment, it struck me that there wasn’t much that Sara and I wanted. We had our home, a Christmas tree, a beautiful boy and girl, family, friends, and hope for the future.
In other words, we were just fine.
Don’t get me wrong, I’ve always known that stuff will not make you happy. That money can buy some security but cannot buy joy. And in the end, it’s your family and friends and experiences that make your heart and mind grow in knowledge and love.
But sometimes, experiencing it all firsthand makes it all the more real.
Happy New Year.