It’s a different holiday world on the wards of Landstuhl Regional Medical Center here in Germany where many of America’s wounded will find themselves before being transported back to the states. It's a very different place from my own home, but it’s even more different from Wal-mart, Toys-R-Us or the mall. The difference is bizarre, if not downright unsettling. The priorities, the moods, and the attitudes inside the hospital couldn't be more polar to those outside out of it.
Few things are comparable to the sheer delight of a child tearing into a plate of Christmas cookies — especially when that child is 22 years old and tearing into those cookies with the one hand at the end of the one arm he has left. The children who didn't make it out of combat are probably having their best Christmas ever, but the same can't be said for their families.
I’m not a fan of defining the good of something by how bad it isn't. I'm not a fan of contractions at all ("We aren't cold this winter" or "I don't have cancer"), because what isn't can just as easily be flipped around and defined by what is ("We are warm" or "I am healthy").
Last Christmas was, economically, my family's best year ever. We bought and made a bunch of gift bags for the wounded and took them to Landstuhl. When we got back I thought, "We could easily get by with so much less." Get by? So much less? I wanted to smack myself. I knew better than the phrase "get by" because there had been that Christmas years ago when "less" would've been a step up.
In 1989 I walked into a church basement with two coupons. One read "girl, 3" and the other read "boy, 4." My job's $459 monthly paycheck qualified me for two wrapped gifts, one for each of my children. I could've unwrapped them to see what they were, but I had no money to replace the wrapping and instead put them under the tree I’d chopped down myself from the forest behind our trailer.
Do understand — this is no sad tale of woe. I put that tree up and was excited about how things were going because just the weeks before we had been sleeping in my car and then in a shelter. My ex-husband had written me but one child support check and I’d used it to pay back rent. His check bounced so my check bounced, and out on the street we stood. Social services helped me get back into the trailer and had given me the gift coupons. Things were tight, but at least we were home now.
All was right with the world until my ex-husband broke into our home and stole the children's presents a week before Christmas. I've never been able to prove he did it, but it's curious that the "robber" would take the gifts and leave behind the few items of actual value that were in full view.
A friend stopped by later the same day and did her best to console me. Also a single mother, she didn't have much money either and twice as many children. She was right to tell me the kids were young enough that they wouldn't know Christmas from next Tuesday. She said if all I did was give them cookies and candy canes, all would be well, and so that’s what I planned. She had other plans.
A few days before Christmas, she showed up with several mutual acquaintances. They’d brought wood for my woodstove and 27 presents for each of the children. It was five holiday seasons later when I realized I’d opened no gift for myself. My gift hadn't come in a box, and it was such a powerful present, I still regard it as the best Christmas ever.
My older two children remember 1989 as a flurry of color and light, warmth and the smell of cookies. My youngest views the photos from that year as almost mythical. By this time next week, my "girl, 3" and my "boy, 4" will be home from their college in Kansas and my husband will be home from his work in Virginia. This last weekend my youngest helped me decorate the tree and make cards that we'll all take to the wounded later.
I’ve not come full circle from the day I desperately clenched those coupons, but had I remembered that “get by" really means "do just fine," it wouldn't have taken these trips to Landstuhl and a stroll down memory lane to jolt me back to reality.
Merry Christmas. I hope yours is joyful and triumphant.