My Christmas gift came a bit early this year—about eight months early. And it’s the best gift I’ve ever received. I’m alive. In early April, I acquired a serious and potentially life-threatening bacterial infection that could have been treated with simple antibiotics had I gone to my doctor. But because I’m such a stubborn hardhead and have always believed I’m invincible, my lack of action allowed the infection to turn into sepsis, which caused my organs to begin shutting down. My next door neighbor found me unconscious on the floor of my living room and I was rushed to the hospital. Within an hour, I fell into a coma and because so much damage had been done, the doctors gave a 5% chance of survival. But somehow and for some reason I haven’t yet figured out, I was the miracle and here I am for another holiday season.
For the purposes of this little essay, I’m going to skip over the rest of the three weeks I was in the hospital. If I finish the book I’m writing, you’ll get a chance to learn about the incredibly fascinating journey on which the experience took me. Suffice it to say that after nine days, I regained consciousness, I was given a miracle of sorts and I AM ALIVE. There are no words to describe what that feels like to defy the odds and get a second chance at life. All things being equal with a situation like that, I’m not supposed to be here. And search as I may for answers, I still don’t quite know why I got the miracle that others facing death so desperately hope and pray for, but never get. Even without an understanding of why I was blessed with a second chance, I’m using the experience to do something meaningful from which others may benefit. My mom set the precedence for that one Christmas morning 24 years ago.
I’m always fascinated by the power of this time of year. We often talk about the magic of the season, but I think it’s more of an allure. We can’t resist it. It makes us do things differently. We’re a little nicer to one another, we smile a little more and, as Frank Cross (portrayed by Bill Murray) said in the movie Scrooged, it’s the one time each year that we become the people we always hoped we would be. But one of the many holiday traditions that has fascinated me the most is the ritual gift exchange, particularly the unwritten rules that come with it. I tell you what I want and, as a result, I’m pretty sure I already know what you’re giving me. That always bothered my mom. There was no element of surprise and all too often whatever I gave you that you told me you wanted winds up being the wrong color, size or style. And one of us is going back to the store to exchange it. For her last Christmas and after decades of succumbing to the wish list tradition, mom made a rather surprising announcement. She said that she would no longer be giving gifts we had asked for, but rather would give a gift of her own choosing, one that in some way reminded her of us. She added, “You’re all making a living on your own, so whatever you want for Christmas, go buy it yourselves.
It also made things easier on her, since the cancer had returned and was growing again. She had become weaker and no longer had the strength for holiday shopping jaunts to the mall. Complicating it even further, dad had just passed away a couple of months earlier, and we could see she was no longer fighting the way she had been. We knew this would be her last Christmas. What we didn’t realize was just how special and memorable it would be.
On that Christmas morning, things were very different than in years past. Dad wasn’t there making cynical comments and bad jokes, nor was he in the kitchen preparing Jitrnice, the Czech blood and liver sausage that was a family breakfast tradition on Christmas morning. Because Jitrnice (prounounced “YEET-rah-NEET-say”) was an old family recipe passed down from my grandparents, it was the one day when dad was the chef. But on this Christmas morning, there was no Jitrnice, and no dad singing his own version of carols with semi-vulgar lyrics as he cooked. It had begun to lightly snow outside, which added to the strange sense of peace permeating throughout the house. Mom stood at the window and as I walked by, she grabbed my hand to pull me in closer and simply whispered, “Here’s my first gift…the Christmas snow I wanted. It’s going to be a good Christmas.”
When it was time to open gifts, the nieces went first, since they were still at that age when any delay in the opening of gifts is unbearable. Finally, it came time for my siblings and I to discover what mysterious gifts mom had gotten each of us. What came next was a Christmas moment that would never be outdone. We each opened our gifts to discover that she had made donations to various charities in each of our names, and added, “I tried to choose charities I thought each of you would care about.” For my oldest brother, a musician, she made a donation to a local organization offering free music lessons to underprivileged kids. For my sister, the eternal activist and tree-hugger, a donation to Greenpeace. For me, the token gay son, a donation to the local GLBT youth support center. And for my brother Steve, the budding biomedical engineer, a donation to a cancer research program—and with tears filling her eyes, she added, “I just figured that since it’s too late for me, maybe it will help someone else in my shoes.” We were left speechless. For her last Christmas, she blew us away.
So while you are likely done or close to being done with your holiday shopping lists, it’s not too late to at least consider following my mom’s lead and give a gift that will continue to give in ways you never imagined. We all have someone on our list who is nearly impossible to buy for or who already has everything. Gift cards, the usual solution to that problem, are so impersonal. But making a donation in their name to a charity that represents their passions or a cause they believe in, and all of a sudden the exact same amount of money gets a gift that is incredibly personal—and one that will make a difference in the world. Beats the heck out of that wall clock you wanted, dontcha think?
Please consider giving a gift that, in turn, gives the gift of life. A donation to Colorado Cancer Research Program (CCRP) made in the name of a loved one is the perfect gift. You can also make a gift in memory of a loved one who has passed. Go to EndCancerCO.org and click on the donate button.
Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah, Happy Kwanzaa, Bright Winter Solstice, Frohe Weihnachten, Feliz Navidad, Stastny a Vesele Vanoce…
whatever your particular greeting may be, may you and yours
have the happiest of holiday seasons.
We’ve all experienced it, that puzzling quest to figure out how we could have possibly gone through twenty-five bucks so quickly. As you backtrack in your mind, you begin to realize that it was spent mostly on non-essentials that aren’t even significant enough to register in your memory. Those quick stops at the neighborhood convenience are enough of a menacing pickpocket to my wallet. I’m sure you know the drill…you run in for just one item, but you get sucked in by those little things that catch your eye before you’re able to escape with just the snack you originally stopped to get. The lottery scratch tickets are the worst. I often wonder if they possess some ethereal, controlling powers that not only force me to get one, but to get at least three—along with two Lotto and one Powerball quick-picks because it somehow doesn’t make sense to buy just one scratch ticket. Of course, my hopes for instant wealth are always dashed upon the discovery that each ticket is a loser.
Before I know it, twenty-five bucks is gone and I repeatedly have to wrack my brain to figure out where it went. I know I’m not alone in this. I’ve often commiserated with friends over this and while the specifics and the amount for each of us may vary, the outcome is the same. Even after sharing tips on how to be more frugal, we’ve come to the conclusion that the weekly conundrum of the disappearing twenty-five dollars is simply one of life’s many enigmas, much like the one sock that is apparently sucked into the black hole of the laundry universe shortly after it enters the dryer.
I realize I am not the penny-pincher my mother was. That woman was the champ of frugality and could have easily settled the national debt in the course of an afternoon. But I’m also not at all cavalier with my finances. On the contrary, I try to keep a relatively balanced budget and I set aside a fixed, disposable amount each week—but it’s usually gone in record time. So it occurred to me that most of us would feel much more satisfied with the disappearance of that money if we knew it went to something more meaningful.
I don’t hide the fact that my passion for Colorado Cancer Research Program (CCRP) is derived in large part from losing my mom to cancer and the ensuing determination that I would somehow avenge her death, almost as if I were relentlessly hunting down an at-large assassin. And in a way, I am. The advancements and breakthroughs that stem from the work done at CCRP are unprecedented. The result is that people are living longer, more lives are being saved and we are closer to a cure than ever before. So, of course, I’m sold on the mission of CCRP. If you haven’t already—and harsh as it may be to hear— odds are that you will experience a loved one battling cancer at some point in your life and the war against cancer will become a cause in which you, personally, have a vested interest. So it begs the question: isn’t that something worth supporting now—with— oh, say, twenty-five bucks?
Of all the success stories I’ve heard here at CCRP, there’s one touches me more than any other. It involves Nicholas, a six year-old boy whose father passed away four months after being diagnosed with an aggressive cancer that attacked and spread quickly. After that, there was no gray area for Nicholas. Cancer of any kind meant death. Three years later, his mother got the devastating news that she had stage 2 ovarian cancer. When the time came to tell her son, it didn’t matter that her oncology team was optimistic about treatment options; it didn’t matter that she had been enrolled in a promising clinical trial through CCRP and they had every reason to hope for a successful outcome. Throughout her treatment protocols, Nicholas remained doubtful and hopeless, certain he would be an orphan before too long. A year after her CCRP treatments began, she heard two of the most incredible words she could imagine: full remission. The unforgettable moment when she shared the miraculous news with her son is difficult to adequately put into words, as his deepest fears were shattered and his entire outlook on life suddenly changed. It’s a moment I recall whenever I’m having a bad day. It puts things into perspective and makes me remember what’s important. And it’s a moment I often think of when I’m feeling frustrated about the missing twenty-five bucks.
Next Tuesday is Colorado Gives Day, the annual event presented by Community First Foundation to celebrate charitable giving and to raise funds for approximately 1,200 non-profit organizations. It’s a day that can make or break some organizations, and for others, it’s a day that can be the deciding factor on whether or not a necessary program is added or whether or not additional clients can be served. It’s just one day. And for that one day, I’d like to issue a challenge—to take that $25 you would otherwise spend on meaningless friffle (one of my mom’s invented words) and use it to make a difference. Give it to any one of the nearly 1,200 Colorado Gives Day charities. Of course, I’m going to suggest you give it to Colorado Cancer Research Program. But regardless, the challenge is to take that twenty-five bucks—or more—and help make your corner of the world a better place. It will make you feel good—and you’ll have no trouble remembering what you did with this particular twenty-five bucks.
So there it is—my holiday challenge to you. I’m hoping that, next Tuesday, you’ll include CCRP on your charitable giving list. In my last blog post, I mentioned something my mom used to say that has been one of my guiding principles for life: “Nothing feels quite as good as knowing you’ve made a difference.” Today, let’s make a difference.