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Tuesday, December 14, 2021

In Other Words: That Christmas We Were A Part Of And Apart From

By Chuck Keller 

An illness can make life uncomfortable. But combine an illness, a pregnancy, hospitalized parents, three children, a major holiday, and possible family separation, well that's a disruption of some magnitude. But it can also present something wonderful.  

Christmas was coming and we three children were excited. We knew that we were getting a new sibling (We didn’t know it was a sister until she arrived) because mom was very pregnant and due around Christmas. I was seven-and-a-half years old, my brother was six, and my sister was four and we were pretty focused on Christmas. I was trying to be a good boy, but let’s be honest, we all know that was challenging. Because we were so laser focused on ripping open gifts on Christmas morning we didn’t really pay attention to other events swirling around in our home. We were kids and saw the world through a kid's lens.  But one little seven-and-half-year old was paying attention. 

The Christmas tree was up, the house was decorated, and the scent of freshly baked cookies wafted throughout the house. We dreamed of snow and the treasures that Santa would bring. Life was good. We were good. We had high expectations for Christmas. Then dad got sick. 

Dad contracted a horrible case of hepatitis which meant that plans had to be made quickly. I remember overhearing some hard family discussions about what to do with us kids. The worst case scenario was that we would go to the Allen House, the nearby orphanage, for the holidays. We had to be packed and ready go if anything went, well, wrong. Family members might step up but, according to Dad, that was a lot to ask and events were happening quickly. He seldom asked for favors. 

Dad went off to hospital and within a day Mom went into labor. She was admitted into the hospital on December 23. And there we were, three kids under eight years old sitting at home wondering what was going to happen next. Our bags were packed. At seven-and-a-half years old, I knew where everyone was but I didn’t quite understand what it meant. I also knew that as long as we had bread, peanut butter, and jelly, we could take care of each other. It was quiet in the house. The kind of quiet you don’t invite. And that’s about the time when my grandmother appeared. We were NOT going to the orphanage, she said again and again as she bustled around the house rattling skillets and dishes.

It was now Christmas Eve and we were supposed to be asleep, but I awoke when I swore I heard an uncle in the other room trying to be quiet. It’s funny how noisy someone is when they try to be quiet. I was confused why Uncle Carmen would be in our living room on Christmas Eve because we all knew that Santa won’t show if someone is awake and particularly if someone was at the tree. Then I heard rustling of paper, a few hushed curse words, and multiple feet shuffling about. Doors opened and closed. And then silence. I was safe in my bed and soon asleep.

My sister, Jeanenne, was born on that Christmas Eve. Dad sent a telegram that is now framed and hangs in her home, a reminder of her dramatic entry.  A few days later Mom returned home with a baby and dad returned with his health restored. We were temporarily separated by circumstances beyond our control. Today I know just how easy it is for lives to spin out of control in similar circumstances. We are all at times a part of and apart from something we love.

That Christmas was a time of loss, gain, struggle, victory, confusion, clarity, of being together and apart, of loving and sacrifice. It was a time much like today.  People struggle during the holiday season. As difficult as that period was, I wouldn’t change it because our family knows that we are stronger when together. And it’s being together that gets us through other difficult times like the deaths of our parents, family members, friends, and other setbacks, but it also buoys our celebrations of marriages, births, holidays, victories, and beginnings. The birth of my sister, as my father said, is the finest Christmas present ever. Helping, especially helping to keep a family together, is the spirit of the Christmas season. 

The last couple of years have been difficult because of the virus. Our family gatherings, like everyone else on the planet, have been crippled by circumstances beyond our control. People withdraw in order to be safe. But one thing I know is that people rise to help people like family will help family. W. C. Jones wrote that, “The joy of brightening other lives, bearing each others’ burdens, easing others’ loads and supplanting empty hearts and lives with generous gifts becomes for us the magic of the holidays.” Our family saved our family that Christmas.  

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