I’ll just put it out there: Christmas hasn’t been my favorite holiday for a good ten years.

It’s not that I stopped liking Christmas. In fact, I love Christmas. I love the lights, I love caroling, I love cookies, and I love the spirit of the season. But as we get older and things get more complicated, staying excited about Christmas can get a little more challenging. This year, though, I enjoyed Christmas in a different way than I ever have before. I wouldn’t call it the ‘best’ Christmas, but it made me feel something new, and that’s a really valuable thing.

On Sunday night, my dad and I decided to call 911 and have an ambulance take him into the ER. All day, he had been too weak to support himself and had been drifting in and out of a clear head. Although I’m stronger than I look, I can’t carry my dad, and he didn’t have the strength to transfer into our new wheelchair, so 911 it was. Even though I knew my dad wasn’t in immediate danger, there’s something about having emergency workers in your house that amps your adrenaline.

My dad spent the night and all of the next day in the MICU, ironically in the same exact room he had been in the very first time he had stayed at the VA overnight. He didn’t remember, but I did. (It’s kind of hard to forget coming to the hospital after a 17 hour flight and seeing your dad completely unconscious and on a ventilator.) This time around, though, he didn’t need a ventilator, which meant a much shorter hospital stay. He was transferred to the main oncology unit late Monday night. We hoped he’d be able to be home before Christmas, although, I think both of us knew that it wouldn’t really make a difference; I think it was more like we felt we were supposed to want to be home for Christmas.

While we were at the hospital, several volunteers made rounds to say Merry Christmas and to hand out goodies. One woman brought my dad a really nice fleece blanket. Another brought a card and $10 for the Canteen. And a small troop of younger men wandered the halls handing out cookies and candy. It was weirdly karmic to me because my very first experience in the VA hospital was doing that very thing. I appreciated what those volunteers were doing on a really fundamental level. And even though my dad wasn’t one of the neediest patients–after all, he had me with him–I hope he was touched by their kindness the way I was. But even with their warm spirits, the craziness of the last days had wiped me out, and I had all but given up on making any sort of Christmas effort.

The night before my dad came home from the hospital, his good friend Gene met up with me to deliver a few strands of lights and a tiny Christmas tree. Up until that point, I had pretty much decided that Christmas was going to be pretty bland this year in terms of traditions and decorations. My dad didn’t seem too excited about the holiday, and I didn’t want to expend the energy if he didn’t care. But once I had the lights and the house to myself, something kind of came over me.

I can’t quite explain it, but decorating by myself, and mostly for myself, was sort of therapeutic. Maybe it was because I was taking some ownership of my space, or maybe it was because I was creating beauty, or maybe it was as simple as the fact that I was appreciating having some control over my life for a few hours. Whatever the reason, as I set the DVR to record White Christmas and I strung lights over door frames, I suddenly felt Christmas sitting on my shoulder.

It’s funny because the commonly celebrated theme of the holidays doesn’t often include the scene in which I found myself. Christmas is ‘supposed’ to be about togetherness, connectivity, love, and family. While those are all great things, this year I realized that I don’t think that’s what Christmas is really about. Christmas isn’t about any individual’s specific relationships or circumstances. Christmas isn’t about getting along with your estranged grandmother, and it isn’t about giving someone a gift they’ll really love. When I think about what Christmas is really about, I think about the birth of a humble, yet pervasive, symbol of hope and love.

Sometimes people find their connection to that spirit through family or community. But, sometimes we don’t. I think sometimes it’s more effective to tap into the hope and love we carry within us. Sometimes, Christmas is most beautiful when we’re all alone.


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