Just over ten years ago, the week of Thanksgiving 1999, my family found out that my youngest brother, Shepard, had a brain tumor. He spent the weekend in the hospital, until the doctors determined that he would need brain surgery.
The doctor recommend that my parents take Shepard to San Francisco for brain surgery. "If it was my child," he told them, "I wouldn't send him to anyone in Las Vegas." (This has become something of a running joke in my family, as we have now heard this from friends and neighbors about nearly every possible health issue you can have - one wonders if there really could be no competent doctors in the Las Vegas area).
My mom, Shepard, and Grannie spent about a week in San Francisco (my dad was there for the actual surgery, then returned home to be with us and to work), while we waited for the news about whether the tumor was benign or malignant, if the surgery would get it all, if chemo would be necessary.
The night my mom and Shepard flew home, we all went to the airport to greet them. This was still nearly two years before 9/11, of course, so you could go up to the actual gate. I think we all felt a little nervous - Shepard had a large horseshoe shaped scar on the back of his head with huge black stitches (they actually used a blanket stitch - they could not have been more conspicuous if they tried), and we knew his head had been shaved for surgery, but when he was actually there, his normal fiery sweet self, we were all so relieved to see him that we all squeezed in to hug and kiss him.
My mom told us about a kind gentleman on her flight who offered her his first class tickets (like I said, there was no way NOT to notice Shepard's scar), but my mom insisted they were fine and that the flight was very short anyway. A few minutes later, the man came back, saying he'd been to the ticket desk and upgraded her tickets and that this was something he and his wife really wanted to do, and merry Christmas. The kindness of strangers, indeed.
Since my dad's return a few days earlier, we had worked feverishly to get all the Christmas decorations up and the lights on the house hung so that it would look festive and welcoming for Mom and Shepard's return. When we pulled up the house, my mom commented on the lights, of course, but Shepard, in the back seat, didn't see them. Then, as we all tumbled out of the car, and he was removed from his seat, he looked up at the house, lit up in the dark with hundreds of tiny lights, and whispered, "Home." We all got a little teary.
That was a Christmas to remember - such a combination of heart wrenching gratitude and family love, but also tinged with fear and nervous anticipation for what might lay ahead, as we all knew chemotherapy was fast approaching in January.
It was also the last Christmas. Shepard died 26 days before Christmas in 2000. His presents were already wrapped under the tree - presents we've never unwrapped and that we put back under the tree year after year.
It's not a Christmas you'd ask for, but it's one I'm grateful for anyway. Grateful to be reminded that family is really the most important thing, grateful to know that people, strangers, can be kinder and more generous than you might ever be, grateful that even difficult times can be full of joy and sweet moments.