Reflections On A 60-second Christmas

It was 8:30 a.m. when we finally pulled out of the driveway, 45 minutes later than scheduled. The van was packed to the roof with packages, baggage, toys and a large display frame. With warm coffee in my hands, the kids buckled and the laptop ready for shows, we entered the 10-hour trip to Delaware.

Every year we travel to my parents for Christmas to our long-distance home. Through the flat plains of Ohio, into the rolling hills of West Virginia, to the endless Pennsylvania Turnpike, I could imagine the smell of baking cookies, picture the large tree with decorations from my childhood and sense the lazy atmosphere of no deadlines.

Somewhere around Blue Mountain, Penn., at the top of a peak, a police car straddled the middle of the road and slowed the traffic to a crawling 20 mph. For 20 minutes we rumbled along, eating into my estimated time of arriving home.

After a few rest stops, we hit Harrisburg—a little over one hour left. It was 5 p.m., there was still time to get there and eat and get the kids to bed. Abigail and Elliott watched out on the darkening landscapes of Lancaster, as we passed by buggies and lush farmland and the pungent smell of manure—the home stretch.

At 6:30 p.m.—after10 hours and a few spare minutes of sitting, staring and waiting—we pulled into the driveway on Amberfield Lane and rushed through the garage to the back door. Right on time. The kids leaped with excitement as they stammered into the kitchen screeching “Grandmommy! Granddaddy!” Sonya and I collapsed at the table, exhausted.

Then things started to turn. Abigail cuddled on the couch and started to cry and sway. “What’s wrong, Abs?” I asked.

“Daddy, I’m don’t feel good,” she whimpered as she walked toward me. As we headed toward the bathroom, it happened. The dam burst. The flu had found us—that was not part of the plan. Immediately, all I could think as my daughter stood crying was, I don’t want to get the flu.

Next came Sonya later that evening—she had reluctantly and regrettably eaten some lasagna. She ran upstairs, not to return till late the next day. I stayed awake all night with Abigail, holding a bucket and watching Lady and the Tramp over and over; the wonderful visions of a Christmas tradition flushed away—I had never missed Christmas from being ill. I convinced myself I would not get sick. I would not get this flu. I just had to hold on for 72 hours.

Despite the twists gnawing inside my stomach, I ate to overflowing with conviction, imbibing every tradition to its fullest—red wine, cigars, a late night viewing of It’s A Wonderful Life, Christmas Vacation and A Christmas Story, everything I could cram into hours and minutes and seconds.

Then came Christmas Eve, and I felt fine. It’s our family tradition—going back more than 50 years—to open gag gifts. Each year we exchange names, the goal to get a funny gift for less than $5. This years’ winner was given to my dad—a small plastic reindeer that when you push down on its back, the tail lifts, and out comes a brown jellybean. As I got my gift, the waves bubbled up, and I ran upstairs.

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The entire night I spent shivering, then sweating, cowering in the bathroom and begging forgiveness for every sin of my life (still wrongly assuming that any harm must be a punishment from God). I was selfish, I was wrong—I cared only for myself, and this is my penance … forgive me, God. Minutes and hours seemed like days, ceaseless. After waking on the floor, I slowly rummaged to bed, hoping to rest, even if only for a few minutes.

The slight sounds of Christmas filtered through the stairwell to my ears as I lay bundled. Half dazed, my body surrounded with an ache, all I could think was, I’m missing it. This sucks. I’d have no eggnog, no cookies, no turkey dinner. I’d not see my children tearing through wrapping paper, rustling with excitement, overcome with joy. I’d be enjoying Christmas in the bathroom, rocking and hunched over the toilet.

Then I heard a pound on the door, and two tiny faces peered through the crack, beaming. They crept into the room, holding a small red bag out in front as they slunk toward the bed. “Merry Christmas, Daddy,” they whispered. My wife stood in the doorway, watching with joy. In that brief moment, I felt no fever, no eruptions, no pain. Inside the bag was a knit hat, which I put on my head and felt warmth and comfort. My daughter kissed me on the head and with a big hug said, “I hope you like it.”

“I love it more than anything, Abigail,” I replied. “Thank you.”

For 60 seconds, I was well and whole and fully tasting the gift of grace for which we celebrate. For 60 seconds, Christmas was alive like the birth Christ, a birth that encompassed a travel to home, waiting and anticipation, pain and discomfort; but in an instant, the world was changed and made whole. Not everything hoped for, not everything planned happens, and certainly some of the most significant moments of life happen in 60 seconds.

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