Life is absurd. And life is precious. Family is a lot of both.

Monday, December 22, 2014

One Less

This year we will celebrate Christmas for the first time without my mother-in-law. We lost her after a swift battle with lung cancer this past summer and are still getting used to speaking about her in the past tense. She was a quirky and boisterous part of so many of our holidays that it seems incomprehensible to plan gift lists and menus and phone calls home without including her.

She was the first grandparent our children have lost. Lucky kids to have held on to so many of the grands for so long. Our oldest kids have never had a Christmas without shopping for Memaw (an avid collector of all things Elvis, she was usually the easiest to please). Our youngest, who will likely not remember her at all as he was barely three when she died, is already being coached by his older siblings about their grandmother’s famous cinnamon rolls and her borderline-obsessive devotion to the Denver Broncos.

Grief seems at its most heart breaking in December. I suppose it’s because we are knee-deep in family traditions more than at any other time of the year. The hole left behind by someone missing looms larger and deeper when we unwrap special ornaments or bake a traditional recipe or take the year’s photos knowing that there is one less than the year before.

Even if you have your own quirky relative still with you, or you’ve welcomed your Soldier home for the holidays, or you have your home so stuffed with family that there’s hardly room for one more, you are still likely missing someone. And whether it is death or deployment or disagreement or the details of a busy life that is keeping you apart, it stings.

I imagine Mary and Joseph could fully relate to missing the ones they loved. After all, the very first Christmas found them far from home, misunderstood, alone but for each other, and no doubt longing for the peace and tradition and warm embraces of home. Yet they received a gift unsurpassed that night and, because of that gift, they heard the angels sing.

I could not compose a more touching prayer for all of us than Edmund Sears when he wrote “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear” in 1850. No matter who or what you are missing this year, may you “rest beside the weary road and hear the angels sing.”

Merry Christmas.

Friday, December 5, 2014

If Only In My Dreams

A friend recently returned home from a 10-month deployment in Afghanistan, just in time for Christmas. Is there a more joyful time of year for a reunion than the freezing days of December? He pulled off surprising his youngest at her elementary school and was featured on the local news, which was nice because we are all desperate for some happy news these days.

The whole thing made me think about our own reunion-after-deployment and it seems impossible that it was almost a decade ago.

Christmas 2004 found us celebrating on three different continents. The kids and I remained at our home in Germany while Dad deployed to Iraq in September. I wasn't sure I could pull off Christmas (alone and eight-months pregnant with #5) so I decided to fly us home to Texas for the holidays. My husband was less than enthusiastic. As in he stated, "No way. You're not doing it."

Christmas 2004 in Tikrit.
Thing is he was more than 2,000 miles away and couldn't do much about it. I don't usually just defy my partner in life without some profitable discussion. But I did in December 2004.

Among the long list of crazy stupid things I've done, this is right up there.

Flying to the States out of Germany is no small thing. But when you live two hours from the airport, have four children (one still in diapers), more luggage than can fit in one car, and a seriously-pregnant's nuts.

I honestly thought the folks at the airline would take pity on me. Poor dear. This brave military wife is battling her way back home to provide a magical holiday for her many, many children. We oughta upgrade her to first class just to show our appreciation. 

That's not exactly how it turned out.

Christmas 2004 in Marktbergl
(before the insane flight).
Instead I had to bustle us all in, lugging luggage, and stand in a long line. I didn't even get a smile from the grumpy agent. In fact, I'm pretty sure she rolled her eyes as she clicked through five tickets. I swear she looked at me like I was crazy. As did the security guards. And the gate agents. And the flight attendants who directed our circus to the very last row of the plane.

By the time I got everyone seated and all carryons stowed away, I popped into the airplane bathroom for a quick visit before takeoff. As I washed my hands I caught my reflection in the mirror and looked at MYSELF like I was crazy. But there was no backing out at that point.

I don't remember much about the eight-hour flight except that the toddler spilled a full cup of dietCoke all over her older sister, causing both of them to burst into tears. And the various crayons, pretzels and toys that were dropped onto the floor could not be retrieved because have I mentioned I was eight-months pregnant? And no one slept until the last 30 minutes. Which means everyone was disheveled and sour as we disembarked and stood in line at customs for another 35 minutes. I think I hated the airline, my husband, the Army, and pretty much everyone I could think of at that moment. Not my finest hour.

But God bless my family. The moment we were through customs, I collapsed into my mother's waiting hug and turned over all planning, discipline, effort and thought to them. For two weeks I did nothing but just show up.

At several points during that rough trip I doubted it was worth it. I'd have been better off in Germany with just the kids, I thought. It wouldn't have been that bad to have Daddy gone for Christmas.

But when the phone rang on December 25th at my sister's house because, by some miracle, he'd been able to find a phone line and call to wish everyone Merry was awful. The kids cried. I cried. He cried. I knew I didn't have it in me to pick up the pieces all by myself. Again, it was grandparents and cousins to the rescue. A whole lot of Christmas silliness (that's the year our 6-year-old led the family Christmas dinner prayer wearing his Darth Vader voice-changing helmet) helped redeem the day. No doubt we made memories that year. It's certainly one I will never forget.

And forever after I will deeply appreciate every Christmas spent with my sweetie, a house full of kids, my wonderful family, and airline personnel who find it within themselves to offer even the tiniest of smiles to the craziest of travelers.