23 Nov Happy-sad Holidays

Fall and winter celebrations always bring forth a mix of memories—sweet and sad. They transport me back and forth, across my life, to the moments they occurred.

Christmas morning. Mid-1970s.

6:00 a.m.; Great Falls, Montana.

My brother “Ethan,” the addict, has disappeared.


I kneel next to an armchair, and open a new “Maskatron” action figure yanked from my stocking.

Only the toy is no fun this a.m., ‘cause I keep stealing glances to my right. There my mom cooks scrambled eggs in our light-green kitchen. Her face is tight with fear.

Even so, each time she looks up at me she forces a smile. Mom is a master of making the best of bad times.

Two nights before Thanksgiving, 2004.

Fox Island.

My 18 month-old boy hasn’t crawled for over a year. Brain cancer has robbed him of so much.

But as I sit at the end of our honey-hued, wooden table, Michael is 48 inches from my feet.

Sweet Boy slowwwwly tucks his legs underneath himself, places both hands a half-foot apart, and leans forward.

As limbs waggle with effort, he…carefully… rises…and crawls!!

Though it’s merely a haphazard, short shuffle, he’s really doing it. The once-broken baby is mobile. Only I can’t see him anymore.

All the “dust in the air” has made my eyes blurry.

December 24th, 1978.

Great Falls.

I gush, “It’s the Death Star!”

Ethan is, for once, stable and smiling. Garbed in a KISS rock-band shirt, he speaks:

“Hey, ya want me to help you put it together?”

And that’s just what he does.

For the next hour he patiently clicks in each plastic piece. From the top floor’s cannon, to the wee basement’s orange trash compactor, the Star Wars toy takes shape.

For the only time in my life, he is my hero.

December 24th, 1984.

Seattle’s Eastside.

My younger cousin “Sam” and I wander amongst a sea of unhappy relatives.

Grandpa and the uncles tell racist jokes peppered with curse words. It’s not too hard to pick out whether the older cousins are tipsy, high, or fueled with cocaine.

As Sam and I traverse the sad-sack scene, we make sure to keep our fingers away from Aunt “Jenny’s” mean-spirited, pricey pooch: “Pom Pom.”

When an older member of the tribe sends us out to her car to bring in some dinner rolls, Sam and I find a baggie of drugs on the front seat.

In truth, I’m not the least bit tempted to swipe any, for by now Ethan’s drug usage has left him with a litany of growing health and occupational failures.

Still outside, Sam and I accidentally step in the designer dog’s poo. We use Jenny’s backyard steps to clean our shoes.

I bitterly laugh; Jenny is Mom’s tormentor.

December 23rd, 2007.

Fox Island.

A slew of vehicles arrive outside our modest home.

Santa and a group of elves descend our driveway bearing armloads of brightly wrapped presents—including an especially large one garbed in pink paper.

Upon hearing that Michael has been given less than a one percent chance of survival, the organization has come to bless us.

And then I see her: my blonde, kindergarten daughter, Abby, delicately peeling away the wrap on that ginormous gift to reveal…


My girl shrieks with joy. As I watch her dance along to the toy’s tinny music, I turn away. ‘Cause if she sees me crying she’ll worry.


Fox Island.

I sit, typing near where Michael first crawled 11 years ago.

It’s almost the holidays, and Strong Boy is still alive. He doesn’t only walk, he plays touch football at recess.

At home he and little brother, Jonathan, like to race around the yard with their childhood pooch: silky Bella.

Abby is in high school. Her pigtails have been replaced with make-up. Little sister Sarah has inherited the pink Barbie castle.

Come Christmas morn, Jill and I will watch in awe as four children tear open gifts. Later that day a pall will threaten to come over me—that moment when unwelcome recollections, from past holidays, will vie against my joy.

Thankfully, an unforced smile will return by late afternoon when Mom and Dad join us.

That night, after I wave goodbye to my precious parents. I’ll look up through the cold sky.

Then I’ll say a quiet, skyward “thank you.” For my kids are never gonna be haunted by dark, childhood memories.

Our lives are incredibly blessed.

My heart is full.