Sunday, December 18, 2011

We all fall down: Jan. 21, 2007

Our family kind of collapsed at the end of 2006, and we spent most of 2007 putting it all back together. My parents saved us in 1,000 ways. They even saved Christmas.

Leaning on family makes hard times easier
    This Christmas should have been pretty bleak.

    I’m sick with a thyroid disease that has left me underweight and weak for most of the last six months.

    My husband is injured and staring down the barrel of losing his engineering job. Our little family is so wobbly and demoralized, in fact, that the week before Christmas we packed a few bags and moved in with my parents.

    We even brought the cat.

    I apologized to our two sons for the disruption in their lives. I explained that we would have Christmas at Momo and Papa’s house and that when I am feeling stronger we’d go back home. Our nearly 2-year-old didn’t really care. Our 6-year-old, however, had one major concern.

    "Momo and Papa don’t have a Christmas tree," he said solemnly.

    It was true. My folks have a wonderful house, set on a ridge on five wooded acres in East Brainerd, with lots of spare bedrooms and a big old fireplace in the living room for Santa to make his entrance. But they didn’t have a Christmas tree. Since my children were born, my parents have always come to our house to watch the present-opening. They’ve fallen out of the tree habit.

    "We don’t need a tree, honey," I assured my son. "Santa will come down the chimney and leave the presents by the fireplace."

    That was Dec. 22.

    I went to work that morning. I returned that evening to find an immense, real, completely decorated Christmas tree in my parents’ living room.

    "We got it today!" my 6-year-old announced, hopping around the room. "I helped decorate it!"

    I turned, astonished, to my mother. She smiled. "It was half off," she said. "I got a really good deal."

    That night, as I tucked my oldest boy into bed, we talked a little bit about this rough spot our family has hit.

    "Mommy, when are you going to feel better?" he asked.

    "I don’t know," I said. "The doctors are doing some tests, and they’ll figure out what kind of medicine I need, but it might take awhile for me to feel better. Sometimes the medicine doesn’t work. Sometimes they have to try different things."

    He considered that for a while.

    "When is Daddy going to get better?" he asked.

    "I don’t know," I said. "Daddy’s doctors haven’t been able to figure out a way to help him very much. We think he might not be able to get better. It makes all of us feel pretty sad. I know you miss being able to play baseball with your dad."

    "Yeah, I do," he said. "But it’s going to be OK. I like being here. I like for all of us to be together."

    After the kids were asleep, I went upstairs to sit with my parents in the living room.

    My dad and I got to talking about hard times. He told me about studying for the bar exam after he finished law school, about feeding his infant daughter with one hand while he turned the pages of his study guide with the other.

    He took the exam in July, then had to wait until October for the results.

    "There I was," he said, "no job, a baby daughter, $300 in the bank." He laughed. "I met the mailman at the box every day starting Oct. 1, waiting for the results of that test."

    He passed. He became a lawyer. And he became the kind of father who welcomes his 34-year-old daughter and her weary family into his home for indefinite periods of time.

    A day or two later, when I hit a low patch and gave in to the urge to cry, my mom and I talked about the hardships she and my father have confronted: The near-fatal illness that almost claimed my brother in his early 20s; the cancer that tried to take my mother just a few years ago. Not to mention decades of raising a military family while my father worked in the Army JAG Corps — frequent moves, long separations, far-flung assignments (Fort Huachuca, Arizona!)     

    But, she pointed out, they weathered the hard times, had the sense to enjoy the good ones and ended up in a warm house on a wooded ridgetop with their grandsons asleep in the spare bedrooms.

    Christmas was wonderful.

    Santa left the presents under that glorious, last-minute tree, and the boys had a fine time tearing into them. My parents had the luxury of seeing it all without leaving home.

    That evening, after the boys were in bed, my husband asked me, "Are you doing OK?"

    I nodded. "I’m OK. Are you OK?"

    He nodded, but his face was set in a way I have come to know means he is in pain.

    I am weak and skinny. My husband is hurt, and his job is about to disappear, taking with it much of the comfort and security we have enjoyed, ending many of the plans we had made.

    I am scared. But in my stronger moments, I know my 6-year-old said it best: It’s going to be OK. I like being here. I like for all of us to be together.

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