Coming Back to Christmas

Christmas is here again.  It feels like it’s been so long!  I feel that way every year, to some degree, because it’s my favorite holiday.  This year, though, you’ll have to forgive me if I seem more excited than usual—you see, I skipped Christmas last year.

No, it wasn’t like that John Grisham novel-turned-Tim Allen movie.  Great story, though, in both forms.  I laughed my way through both.  No, I didn’t skip Christmas by choice.  You see, I was sick.  Very sick.  Nearly the sickest (is that a word?) I have ever been in my life, topped only by the misdiagnosed and life-threatening infection in the sixth grade, and the insanely violent case of the flu in 2009 and strep throat in 2011.  Yeah.  Not fun on any count.  Apparently when I get a common illness, I do it in uncommon ways.  At any rate, in this case I spent ten days lying on the couch, interspersed with painful and dramatic trips to the restroom.  So sorry, Internet; sometimes the truth hurts.  In this case, it hurt me.  I won’t give you more of the disgusting and humiliating details, but I will say that even sitting up was out of the question.

But, here’s a secret for you:  If I had had a choice, I might have skipped Christmas anyway.  2012 was not a good year for me.  I haven’t made any secret of the fact that my wife and I divorced in 2012—or rather, we separated, and initiated the divorce; it wasn’t final until April of this year (adding insult to injury, it was final on tax day).  The separation happened just before Thanksgiving, thus coloring the entire holiday season.  There were other things, but none of them can top that.

I wrote my proposed version of the custody agreement—the version that we used until we had our preliminary hearing, and upon which we eventually based our final agreement—to give us alternating holidays with the kids.  It only seemed fair, since I was pushing for primary custody, which I did ultimately receive—that is, they live with me.  Trying to be gracious, I gave her custody of them for our next upcoming holiday, which was Christmas (and just as well, since I ended up incapacitated).  So, it was my first holiday in six years without Emma, Ethan, or their mother.

Somewhere along the way, someone asked me, “How do you do it?”  I don’t know what I said, but the truth is, I didn’t know.  I still don’t.  Now, Stephanie and I—have I said her name here before? I can’t remember—are lucky enough to have worked out our differences after the fact.  For certain reasons, we won’t be putting our marriage back together, but we get along.  We can talk, and even spend time together now, and it’s okay.  None of that makes the holidays any easier when we spend them apart, passing our children back and forth like packages.

So, I was glad to get back to celebrating this year.  There were obstacles, of course.  My Christmas lights, after two years in storage (I was too sick to decorate last year), don’t work properly, except the white lights that are preattached to the tree and one string of blue lights that could wrap around my house three times and still line the tree.  Most of my glass ornaments were broken and had to be replaced.  Most irritating of all, sixteen years of collectible ornaments have disappeared, leaving their boxes behind (and despite suggestions by family to the contrary, the ex-wife did not take them; I’ve seen her fully decorated tree this year).  But it was worth it anyway.  Best of all, the children are with me this year, and though I don’t begrudge their mother her time with them, I’m glad to have them home.  So, we decorated the tree (with all-new decorations), and we went Christmas shopping, and we wrapped gifts, and we made hot cocoa, and we put out milk and cookies for Santa.  Tomorrow we’ll open gifts, and we’ll visit family, and we’ll read the Christmas story together.  Life is good.

That’s the thing, of course.  Life is good.  It isn’t perfect.  Did you expect it to be?  I think I did.  Certainly I wanted it to be.  I had a picture in my mind for years, a carefully-drawn picture, of what life should be like.  It wasn’t a pipe dream; it wasn’t some fantasy about how life should magically come together.  No, it was a blueprint for something I wanted to build, and I did my best to build it.  No, perhaps not my best; but I tried.  I made no excuses for myself, and I gave it my all for years.  It wasn’t enough in the end; we were defeated by something I never could have anticipated or prevented—my wife’s mental health issues.

I’ve had a picture in my mind of what Christmas should be like, too.  I like the Hallmark version.  I want the big, handsome, warm, inviting house with the big picture windows.  I want the perfectly decorated tree where it can be seen through those windows.  I want the lights outside, and the snow, and the big meal at a beautifully set table.  I want my family around, all in one place, all getting along.  I could go on…you’ve seen it in so many movies, so you know what I mean.  I want it  storybook perfect, every year.

It doesn’t work out that way.  My family is big and scattered, and they fight with each other.  I live in a rented trailer.  My tree is four feet tall.  I don’t cook turkey well enough to do the holiday meal (thank you, Mom and Dad, I’ll keep buying if you keep cooking!).  It rarely snows on Christmas here, even in the mountains.

It’s not perfect, but that’s okay.  Perfect gets in the way of good enough.  The tree may be short, but I decorated it with my kids.  They don’t care if all the lights are white, as long as they illuminate presents underneath.  We don’t eat around my table on Christmas day, but I get to see my daughter, my son, and my two nephews have Christmas dinner together, and enjoy each other’s company.  There may not be snow (though I hope there will!) but it’s still December 25th, with all that it means.

Christmas isn’t all that’s okay.  My life is not perfect, but it’s okay.  I’ll never say “it’s good enough” in the sense that it needs no more work, but I can say that it’s good enough for me to be content where I am, even while I work on improving.  I have two beautiful children.  I have parents who are there for me.  I have one grandmother remaining, and she still has her mind, which I have discovered is an invaluable thing.  I have a brother and sister whom I love, even when we don’t see eye to eye.  I have aunts and uncles and cousins who make my life colorful.  I have a good relationship with my ex-wife, who also loves our children.  I have the best friends any man could ask for—you know who you are.  I have a good job, sufficient to my needs.  I have a home and a vehicle and everything I need.  I have a God Who doesn’t just love me, but everyone, equally and with intensity.  And I have today.  Every day is a blessing, and Christmas is one of the best.

I know there are people out there who are suffering, or lacking, in some way.  Maybe it’s you.  I hope you understand that I would never say these things to hurt anyone, or to be arrogant or presumptuous.  The topic of how to graciously respond to suffering is complex and lengthy, though it can be summed up in “love your neighbor as yourself”.  That’s what I want to do.  But here, now, I say these things just to say that I’m thankful for what I have.  I  know I may not have it forever—next Christmas, when the kids are away, you may see a different side of me—but I have it now, and I’m thankful.

So, have a good Christmas.  Sleep well on Christmas Eve.  Hold your wife or husband, if you have one.  Hug your children, and watch them open any gifts they receive.  Sip some egg nog or hot cocoa, as I’m about to do.  Eat some turkey or ham tomorrow.  Watch “A Christmas Story” for 24 straight hours, if you like.  Sit by the tree and think.  Remember a baby who was born in a desert country, with no snow on the ground, and no star on a tree, but one in the sky.  Remember that He’s still alive today.  And be thankful.  In all of it, for whatever thing you choose, whatever you value, be thankful.

Merry Christmas, my friends.

Some feelings, you can't buy.  Emma and Ethan under the tree.

Some feelings, you can’t buy. Emma and Ethan under the tree.

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