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.