January 3, 2005 Newsletter

Last year I went through my second divorce.  Wait.  What’s that? You ask, how can someone who writes about and teaches principles for effective living be the product of two failed marriages?  Well, you’ve heard the saying, “Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach,” haven’t you? 

Okay, I’m sorry.  That wasn’t funny.  The fact of the matter is, it took the pain of several failed attempts to find fulfillment through conventional means promoted by society before the answers were finally revealed to me.  It was that incessant longing for happiness and my seeming inability to attain it that led me on a continual search for the truths of this existence.  A deep desire to know and help others like me come to know the truth has been a salve but not a shield from life’s wounds.

And so last year, with incredible acrobatics, I extricated myself from the business of marriage.  Name changes and property liquidations and ownership transfers finally culminated a few weeks ago when I bought out his share in, of all things, a cemetery plot.  I felt totally ridiculous handing him a check for $75 to ensure that our remains would not be laid side by side in permanent repose in the shadow of the small country church I attended in my youth.  As I wrote out the check, I tried to recall what I was thinking twelve years earlier when I wrote the check to purchase the four side-by-side gravesites.  Apparently, we had planned to rest there forever with two other people, although I can’t for the life of me remember who they were.  I also can’t recall the motivations that made me think it was so important to be preoccupied at barely thirty years of age with where my bones would lie after my spirit had been set free from this earthbound frame.

I’m not sure I was thinking clearly at all.  Before it was over, my family and his had purchased enough sod in the middle of the graveyard to create a veritable family cemetery, despite the fact that we were all living farther and farther apart, flung it would seem by the wind to the four corners.  Maybe we thought this would ensure we finally spent some time together.  Regardless of our motivation, it now appears quite foolish and has thus become a constant reminder to me of how easily we become focused on things that don’t matter, to the detriment of things that do.  That’s probably why I was so happy to spend Christmas with my family this year. 

With the world forever changed by 9/11, this Christmas found my brother-in-law serving his country in Afghanistan, while my only sister and two nephews, ages ten and four, tried to have a normal Christmas in their new home not far from Nashville, Tennessee.  When she asked me and our mother and father to come help her make Christmas for the boys, it was an easy request to accept.

I soon learned that my job would be to take the boys shopping for their mother’s present on Christmas Eve, in order to get them out of the house and clear the way for my dad to assemble their Santa Claus presents, which would be kept hidden in the basement until time for Santa to place them under the tree.  I also learned that this was the year that my ten-year-old nephew had learned the truth about Santa.

“You lied to me!  You told me you believed in Santa!” he admonished my sister.  But in her special, motherly way, she had explained to him that she had always and would always believe in Santa.  “Santa is the spirit of Christmas,” she explained to her inquisitive young son who was growing into a young man right before her eyes.  “God gave us the gift of his son, Jesus, on the first Christmas.  And the wise men brought gifts to baby Jesus.  Then the real St. Nicolas carried on this tradition by giving gifts to poor children.  Ever since Jesus was given as the original Christmas gift, we’ve celebrated this spirit of love and giving down through the ages.  This spirit of Christmas lives because we keep it alive.  St. Nicolas lives in all of us.  And now that you know the truth, his spirit will live in you too.”  This seemed to satisfy him as she walked away smiling to herself, before wheeling to add this caution, “And don’t you dare ruin it for your little brother!” 

As we made our way through the crowded streets, parking lots, and shopping malls this Christmas Eve, I could easily see that he had taken her lesson to heart.  When I explained that he would need to distract his younger brother while I purchased last-minute stocking stuffers, he seemed confused, until I quickly explained that his little brother must believe that Santa had stuffed the stockings.  “Ohhhh!” he exclaimed knowingly.  We whispered our plans from store to store, and smiled and winked our signs to one another as he went about finding ways to occupy his brother.  He was a little too convincing, though, and probably should get a sales commission from at least two stores where I was forced to purchase the toys used for diversionary purposes.

But as we drove home that day with all the secret presents hidden away in my backpack and his little brother safely buckled in his booster seat in back, I noticed that my elder nephew didn’t seem any worse off for having his childhood illusions shattered.  If anything, he seemed more peaceful and fulfilled by the experience of being a full participant in the season.  Gone was the little boy who begged and pleaded for toys, as his four-year-old brother still did.  No longer was he a selfish child focused on what he could get.  In the time it took to blink my eyes, he had grown into a giving young man relishing the joy of showing love to others this holiday season.

It was interesting to watch him on Christmas morning.  His present from Santa still awaited him under the tree, complete with his personal note from Santa (dictated by my sister but scribed in the unfamiliar hand of my mother) and his stuffed stocking still leaned against the hearth as it had on each of his ten Christmases.  He smiled a knowing smile at all the adults. 

Then there was the four-year-old’s reaction.  It had been a tough night for him.  Spurred on by news of Santa’s journey on the TV news, claims by his mother and grandmother that a bright light visible in the night sky must be Santa and his sleigh, and his grandfather’s best reading of The Night Before Christmas, he had been worked into a frenzy by 8:30 p.m.  He insisted that we go to bed right away so Santa would come – eliciting groans from Grandpa – but his little body trembled with excitement.  He was all worked up, partially from the anticipation of Santa’s visit, and partly from the healthy serving of chocolate cake we had foolishly allowed him to eat.  Sleep would not come, and as minutes ticked into hours, he went beyond sleep into delirium.  Any attempts to remind him that Santa would only come if he went to sleep like a good little boy simply added to his hysteria.  His tears flowed easily, as he tearfully reminded his mother, “It’s hard to be happy without Daddy.”

Watching him struggle through the night, I realized how difficult it was for such a small child to proceed through the normal routines of his little life, when it had become anything but normal.  Now when I think of how deep the sacrifices go in service of our country, I look beyond the regular soldiers on foreign fields to these helpless little ones back home.  They are the forgotten soldiers. 

But all that pain was temporarily forgotten when he tiptoed into the living room at 6 a.m. Christmas morning to find his shiny present waiting under the tree.  It was a battery-operated, child-size ATV that he could drive all by himself. 

 “Santa brought it in the house!” he whispered to me in amazement. 

 “Yes, he did,” I replied with a smile.   

“How are we going to get it out?” he asked wide-eyed. 

I laughed as I read Santa’s note to him, and watched his facial expressions with interest as I informed him that Santa thought he had been “pretty good” and really thought he needed to “try harder” next year! 

He noted with awe how Santa had eaten the cookies and drank the milk left on the hearth and explained to all of us how Santa had brought his present down the chimney, while my sister and I distributed the stockings.   

Having a stocking for every member of the family had never been part of our family tradition growing up as sisters.  I think it took all the extra money that Momma and Daddy could save to purchase the presents we received from them and from Santa, so there was none left for stocking stuffers.  Maybe that’s why Momma and Daddy were so surprised to find their own waiting for them on Christmas morning at my sister’s house. 

Daddy’s stocking was stuffed with a pocketknife, wool socks, and handkerchiefs.  Momma’s was filled with Christmas socks and earrings, and both were topped off with candy.  They made a beeline to their room, and, I swear, I think it was to hide their tears as they proclaimed to us that these were the first stockings they ever had.

It was then that I knew the transition was complete.  Me, my sister, and her older son – the new man of the family this year – were no longer the children waiting for our parents to make Christmas for us.  This year was our turn to be Santa for them.  As my sister and I had struggled to quietly carry the presents up the basement stairs and whispered to one another to get the right gifts in each stocking – the gifts purchased by me and my elder nephew – we had played Santa Claus.  We had brought the spirit of Christmas to life once again.  And, for a few moments, the pain of missing Daddy was eased for two precious little boys.

I saw their vibrant smiles and looked into their sparkling eyes, and the farthest thing from my mind was whether our bodies would ever end up in the ground side-by-side in cemetery plots on a hilltop far, far way.  Never again will I be preoccupied with where my bones will rest.  My preoccupation will be with living. 

For now and always, I will remain focused on how I can bring the spirit of Christmas to life each and every day.  I will forevermore be buoyed in that quest by the memory of my four-year-old nephew’s innocence and wonder, my ten-year-old nephew’s unselfishness, my sister’s generosity, my brother-in-law’s sacrifice, and my parents’ gratitude.

 May the spirit of Christmas live in you every day and forevermore, and may 2005 be the year that you begin to live the life that you were born to live!