Monday, December 17, 2012

Home for the Holidays

I love Christmas.  I have always loved Christmastime, and I love celebrating everything about it.  I love the holiday sights - green wreaths and red bows, trees decorated to the nines, sparkling snowflakes and smiling snowmen, Santa statues in stores, Nativity sets and twinkling lights on lawns throughout the neighborhood, Christmas cards in the mailbox.  I love the tastes and smells of the season - warm cookies and eggnog, turkey dinner with sausage stuffing hot from the oven, freshly cut pine trees, burning incense at midnight Mass.  And I love the sounds – excited kids opening presents, familiar lines from classic movies like “It’s a Wonderful Life” and “White Christmas,” hilarious lines from new classics like “Elf,” a church full of people singing hymns and carols, and Christmas music playing on the stereo.

Oh, the Christmas music!  The frequency with which I purchased Christmas CDs in the past probably made me look a bit like a music junkie!  I couldn’t get enough of it.  My Christmas CD collection has something for every taste and includes everything from the Mormon Tabernacle Choir and the London Philharmonic Orchestra to Nat King Cole and Ella Fitzgerald, from Martina McBride and MercyMe to light piano jazz and Celtic guitar.  I love it all!

And I love all of the traditions that are part of celebrating Christmas, too; those I grew up with and those that my husband and I have created for our family.  I’ll always be grateful for one particular tradition my parents began with us.  No, not the annual torture session that was the dreaded family photo!  Oh, the stories I could tell…oy.  Rather, the annual tradition I loved most, one that I started with my kids, was that my parents gave my brother, my sister, and me each a new ornament, marked on the bottom with our names and the years they were given.  When each of us got married in turn, we received a box filled with our childhood ornaments.  A tree without those decorations may well be beautiful, but it would, for me, be incomplete.  Being able to trim my own family’s trees each year with ornaments from my youth allows me to incorporate my childhood traditions and a feeling of home into my home now.  And honestly, what are the holidays without home?  Indeed, home helps make the holidays.

So being away from home for the holidays is difficult.  The word holiday connotes family and friends, good times and traditions, smiles and fun…and home. Spending a holiday not only away from home but at the hospital with a critically ill child is even more difficult.  As a parent, though, you make it work.  You do what you have to do for love of your child.  You have to be there – heck, you wouldn’t want to be anywhere else! - so you try to soften the blow of the location and the situation by focusing on your sweet kiddo and on making the holidays as bright as you can for her sake.  You decorate your child’s hospital room with a tree and with Christmas lights, knowing that the brightly colored lights can’t really compete with the hospital’s ubiquitous fluorescent lights.  You play soft Christmas carols instead of lullabies, though the music is often punctuated by the beeping of alarms and monitors.  You hang cheery Christmas cards and cute stockings on drably colored hospital room walls.  You dress your baby in cute holiday outfits, being careful not to interfere with any medicine or oxygen lines.  You write letters to Santa on her behalf begging for a miracle.  You do what you have to do.

If there is something good to be said about being at a children’s hospital during the holidays, it’s that there are so many people who want to help you and so many organizations that want nothing more than to lift your spirits.  They understand how hard it is to be away from home with a sick child.  Many of the groups were founded by people whose own children were critically ill.  So during the weeks leading up to Christmas, those groups go out of their way to make the season a bit more festive.  They deliver gifts to the kids and families in the NICU and the PICU.  They provide meals for the families staying at the Ronald McDonald House.  They craft handmade blankets, pillows and pillowcases, hats and scarves, teddy bears and the like, so that families away from home can still have a touch of something homey.  Being away from home for the holidays can be so hard, but there are so many who try to make it…not easier, just less hard.

It was around this time last year that I stumbled upon a video on YouTube that really brought this message home for me.  [I hope it is still available to view by the time I post this to the blog.]  It’s really just a very glitzy, very well-produced TV commercial-cum-music video for a cell phone company that was beautifully set to the song “Home for the Holidays,” but it was so much more than that to me.  The first time I watched it, I got goose bumps and I cried.  Now, I have to admit that I’ve been known to cry at random commercials before – at ads for our local grocery store chain, for greeting cards, for the Olympics - so there is a precedent for tears.  But this time it was different.  This time, it wasn’t just the message and its delivery that tugged at my heart strings but also the circumstances in which I found myself watching the commercial.  I remember sharing it with my friend K., another heart mom whose child was in the hospital, and both of us crying.  I remember sharing the video on Facebook, saying, “There really is no place like home for the holidays, and for me, home is wherever and whenever all five of us are together.”

If ever anything forced me to ponder the concept of home and what it really meant to me, it was my daughter’s extensive hospital stay.  As the days and weeks turned into months, home was no longer a question of where; it was one of who.  Home was family.  Home was my husband, our two boys, and our daughter.  Home truly was wherever we happened to be and for however long we happened to be there together.  Yes, I longed to be able to take Ella back to our physical, literal home for the holidays - happy, healthy, and healed - but at that point, I was forced to be content with the fact that home was a room in the PICU.

Last year at this time, I was still in the children’s hospital with my daughter Ella.  Last year, I was still so full of hope – hope for a miracle for her, hope for a healthy, new heart, hope for the future, and hope simply because of the season.  You see, even though she and I were in the hospital in a town far from our family and far from home, and even in light of Ella’s long list of medical issues, I still had hope.  I still thought she had a future, and I still dreamt of her future and of our future as a family of five.

Being away from home for the holidays is a difficult thing, but even more difficult, even more painful and even more heartbreaking is being home for the holidays without my sweet girl.  Home is where the heart is, but so much of my heart has gone with her.  Home is wherever and whenever all five of us are together, but she’s no longer here.  We will always be five, but we are no longer five together here.  There’s no place like home for the holidays, but when you baby girl is truly Home while you’re in a too-empty house pining for her, the holidays feel less cheery, the season less bright.  It is still so hard to wrap my brain around the fact that she is gone, that she died before we could truly celebrate Christmas as a family.  And now we must celebrate the birth of a Child while we still mourn the death of ours.

I know that there’s no place like home for the holidays.  The idea of being home for the holidays has changed for me now, though.  Because of that, my focus during the holiday season has changed.  I’ve been so focused on how unfestive our home is, how hard it will even be to celebrate Christmas, how sad this time of year will probably always be for me now.  I’m sad because I miss my Ella.  I’m sad because she died three days before Christmas.  I’m sad because my arms are empty and no present under any tree will ever fill them.  But when I force myself to think about it, I know that, of the five of us, my girl is the only one blessed to truly be Home for the holidays.  She’s the only one of us able to celebrate with the Reason for the season.  Though she never celebrated her first birthday, she gets to celebrate His with Him.  Maybe remembering that will keep at bay the melancholy that often threatens to overwhelm me.

The last two lines of the song “Home for the Holidays” speak the truth:  If you want to be happy in a million ways/for the holidays you can’t beat home sweet home.  My daughter is Home for the holidays, and one of the things I have to try really hard to remember during this season – during what is truly the most difficult of all the hard times we’ve experienced without her – is that she has already achieved the goal for which we are all still striving.  She is eternally happy in a million ways for One Reason.  She is Home sweet Home, and while it breaks our hearts in a million ways for her to be gone, it gladdens them in the most important way because though she can’t be at home in our arms this Christmas, she can rest safe in the arms of the Christ Child born for all of us so many years ago.
St. Ella, pray for us!

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