The following was printed (The Boise Weekly) on December 21, 2000
Somebody Else’s Christmas
The story I have to tell you this week, this Christmas week, is about two mothers and three kids, and I warn you up front, it’s sad. It’s nearly as sad as I can imagine, only I didn’t imagine it.
Maybe you feel sorrow has no place in the Christmas display, but I think you’re wrong. As grown-ups, we know that Christmas isn’t just about joy and peace and good tidings. Adults know it’s also the season when grief and need and melancholy are honed to their keenest edge. Perhaps not for you personally, provided you’re one of the lucky ones, but I don’t doubt you know somebody for whom the music of Christmas is a blue and tangled fugue. And when else could hearts swamped with loss demand our attention more than at Christmas? Especially if those hearts belong to kids?
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From my perspective, this story started out a couple of years ago when my daughter joined a neighborhood Girl Scout troop. Two friends of hers talked her into it, which wasn’t hard. She’s a born joiner. As the years unroll, her mom and I will have to keep a close eye on what she joins because she’s one of those kids who long to belong, know what I mean? If we don’t guide her with the utmost care, she could end up a Democrat and a Republican.
But this isn’t about our daughter. It’s about the two mothers, Annette and Judy, who shared the duties of being her troop’s scout leaders. And before I go any further, don’t you gotta love what people like this do for our world? Scout leaders, I mean. And soccer coaches and T-ball coaches and anyone else who gives up weekends and nights and free time to help keep your kid and my kid happy and active. I don’t throw the word “angel” around lightly, but if there is such a thing, it’s that volunteer who’s out giving youngsters something to be busy with and proud of.
Anyway, Judy has three kids, one of which is my daughter’s age, and Annette has three … one of which is my daughter’s age. Those two girls, Liz (Judy’s) and Breanna (Annette’s), talked my girl into joining their scout troop and I’m glad they did. In just a couple of years, Annette and Judy gave her plenty to be proud of.
Then—damn it—one day early last summer, Annette made the mistake of mixing chemicals to clean a bathroom. I didn’t know her well. She’d been in my company only once, and all we talked about was how she’d become a scout leader to help keep her kids healthy and occupied. But my impression was she was the sort to know better than to mix cleansers. She might have been in a hurry that day. Or overly fastidious. Or maybe she just forgot, I don’t know. And I never will. Annette fell into a coma and didn’t come out.
She was a single mom. Her two girls, Breanna and an older sister, are of one father while her little boy is of another. During the time Annette lay comatose, kept alive by the reliability of expensive machines, it seems the only solutions offered by relatives and ex-relatives concerning her kids’ futures would have separated them. This one here … those two there. No good way to run a family.
Now, here’s the part where I can only shake my head and marvel at the marvelous generosity of select human beings. Judy, our co-scout leader—understanding how splitting up siblings was no good way to run a family—came forth and offered to look after Annette’s children. Not knowing whether Annette would ever awaken, Judy added Annette’s three to her own.
Annette didn’t awaken. After fading away for months, even the machines failed her. My daughter came home from school one October afternoon and told of how Breanna had been uncharacteristically silent that day, quiet enough that her friends pestered her about it. She finally admitted, “I didn’t want to tell you this, but my mom died yesterday.”
Now, think about that. What must it take for a 10-year old to carry such a heavy message to her friends? According to my girl, Breanna had a shy smile on her lips when she explained why she’d put off letting her buddies know. “Because I don’t want to make you guys sad … too.”
* * *
Judy now has legal custody of Breanna and her siblings. From all appearances, she took them into both her house and her heart with equal ease. I suppose things are working out as well as such a circumstance can.
Still, both moms and those three motherless kids continue to haunt me. Which is why I’m telling you this, I guess—not to purge them away, but to make certain I never forget how tragic things can become and how generously and bravely a person can respond to such tragedy.
Believe me, I didn’t tell you this story to be perverse for the Holidays or to spoil anything for you and your family. I didn’t want to make you guys sad, too. I just think these people deserved some extra attention. Especially now.
So while you go about doing whatever you do to celebrate the season, give this extraordinary family an extraordinary thought or two, will you? Wish them well, wish them luck and wish for them a share of your joy. No doubt, you can spare some and no doubt, they can use it.
December 21, 2000