1972, my senior year of high school. I was 17. Dad had been battling leukemia for close to two years and it had been a roller coaster of both physical and emotional health. Mom continued to work because, well, she had to support us financially. They celebrated their 37th wedding anniversary in late October and then of course the calendar was leading us on into Thanksgiving and Christmas.
Thanksgiving that year was uncharacteristically cold and for some reason Dad started interrogating me about my ability to change a tire during the 4 day break from school. I assured him that Mr Campbell taught us the fine art of changing a tire during my freshman year of driver’s ed. This information didn’t satisfy him and he simply insisted that we go out into the driveway so that I could prove to him that I could change a tire. He was pretty weak, and it was bitter cold. But he made his way out there and watched me, giving me step by step instructions. Mission accomplished, I passed his test and we went back inside the house to warm up.
Between that day and early December his health took a nosedive and on December 5th I watched as Mom, my brother-in-law, and my sister loaded Daddy up in the car to take him to the hospital in Salina. I watched them drive away and as I walked back into the empty house, I had the overwhelming feeling that he wouldn’t be coming home again.
Over the next several days Mom stayed with Dad at the hospital and I went about school and my activities as much as possible, visiting him as much as I could in the evenings. The weather was just horrible with snow and ice. Mom had the good car in Salina, and I was driving the old Ford F150 red pickup, which we called Zip because its maximum speed was about 40mph. Would you believe that during that period of time I had multiple flat tires on the pickup? Changed them all except one which was changed by a sympathetic passerby. (Side note: I had never needed to change an actual flat tire before and to this day I have never ever changed a tire again)
I put up a little Christmas tree in the living room and tried to work up some holiday spirit. But my heart was breaking little by little as I watched Daddy grow weaker and weaker when I went to visit him. He passed into the arms of Jesus on December 19. Our hearts were relieved that his suffering was over, and our hearts were also broken into pieces at the same time.
Christmas that year was not Christmas as we’d ever known it. And it never would be again.
The title of this blog post indicates that Christmas was changed forever. Changed, but certainly not ruined. Not at all. Far from it.
In fact, you might be surprised to know that my heart learned exactly what the real meaning of Christmas is during those last two weeks of Dad’s life.
I spent a lot of time alone during that time. Changing tires like Daddy had taught me to. Going through the motions of life as best I could. Crying out to God with tears flooding my face. Praying like never before. Deep excruciating sadness like never before in my young life.
The typical stuff of Christmases past went out the door that year.
Since 1972, the holly jolly, ho ho ho, giddy exuberance of Christmas never really happened for me again. Losing someone you love will do that. But it has been replaced by all is calm, all is bright, heavenly peace. Immanuel. God with us. The real deal. Right there in a manger.