The Unhappy Christmas

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Dear Readers,

I love Christmas. I love everything about it: the lights, the trees, the decorations, the giving of gifts, being with family and most of all, celebrating the birth of Christ. When I was growing up, Christmas was a magical time of the year for me. I adored Christmas and I had so much fun with my family during the holidays. With Christmas drawing near, I am missing my family, my childhood home and days gone by. On Christmas Eve, my Mother’s family, the Hortons, had a huge pitch-in dinner and everybody gathered at the church dining hall. Since Mother was one of eleven siblings, our family gatherings were massive, loud and awesome. As a child, I didn’t realize how special and wonderful it was that we gathered as a family every Christmas Eve. It was so much fun being together and eating yummy food especially Mawmaw Horton’s caramel sauce over cake and ice cream! Other than remembering that Papaw and Mawmaw Horton gifted me a Susan B Anthony coin one year, a two dollar bill another year and a “book” that held multiple rolls of life savers (which I thought was the most marvelous thing ever!), I honestly don’t remember if we exchanged gifts. But I do remember the joy, the laughter, playing with my cousins, eating good food and loving being together.

When we left the Horton family Christmas, we then went to the house of my father’s brother and his wife, Uncle Buster and Aunt Francies. My Father came from a family with 5 siblings so the Osborne family Christmas was smaller but equally happy and festive. My Aunt Francis was a marvelous baker and a wonderful cook. She would completely fill all of the available surface area of  two dining room tables with platters, pie tins, cake plates, bowls and plates full of the scrummiest, yummiest desserts that I ever put in my mouth. It was heaven! She also served savory dishes as well. One year my sister, Rebecca, decided to try a taste of every single thing. Needless to say, she ended up being miserable but I doubt that she regrets it! The Osborne family gatherings were always so much fun. My aunts and uncles were smart, quick-witted and absolutely hilarious! My Osborne cousins are all a lot of fun to be with and each one cares deeply for their family. Again, I don’t remember if we exchanged gifts, I am sure that we did but what my memory has retained is the enormous amount of joy, contentment, peace and love that I felt when I was with my Osborne family.

It would be late when we headed home. As the youngest child, I sat in the middle of the backseat, on the hump. We never had a large vehicle, so even though we were not overweight as girls, my sisters and I were crammed closely together. As you can imagine, on road trips this was miserable but late in the night on a cold wintery Christmas Eve, I felt cocooned in warmth and happiness and a great delight in the fact that our family of 5 were snugly together in a warm car. As we drove on Kents Ridge Road, I would always hope that it wouldn’t be too late for Mother to turn to Daddy and ask him, “Could we drive up into Hidden Valley so the girls can see the Christmas lights?” When Daddy said yes and would turn the car onto the uphill drive into Hidden Valley, my sisters and I were suddenly wide awake. Once we oooed and awed over the beautiful Christmas lights and decorations, Daddy would turn the car towards home. Unlike some of my friends and family, I never asked to open my presents on Christmas Eve. I couldn’t imagine waking up on Christmas morning and having the excitement dashed because all of the presents had been opened the night before. Of course, I would protest that I wasn’t sleepy and couldn’t I please stay up just a little while more. However, as soon as my head laid down on my pillow, I would go straight to sleep. Our parents were not rich but I never once felt deprived of anything in my life. Christmas mornings were magical and I always loved and was thankful for every gift I received. Yet again, except for a few exceptions, I don’t remember many of the gifts my parents gave to me over the years but I do remember how hard they worked to give my sisters and I a wonderful Christmas. I remember how much we loved one another and how close of a family we were and how happy we were to be together. The love of one’s parents and siblings is worth more than any gift or gold could ever be. My favorite part of Christmas day wasn’t opening and receiving awesome presents, my favorite part of Christmas day was when our Osborne family came to our house on Christmas day for a Christmas feast. Y’all my Daddy can flat cook! His food is lip-smacking delicious! And my Mother was a first-rate baker whose cakes were legendary! Mother’s Red Velvet Cake was the most delicious cake I’ve ever eaten. The laughter, the joy and that indescribable warm feeling that you feel inside your heart and soul when you are with the ones you love is the best part of Christmas. The best Christmas gifts don’t come wrapped up in a box or topped with a bow. 

As delightful as my childhood Christmases were, not all of our Christmases were happy. In 1978, Mother was with child. I was very excited to be a big sister and not the baby anymore! Mother had even said that the baby could share my room. That Christmas we were all joyously expecting this addition to our family. With three girls already, many people would say that they hoped Mother had a boy but I was hoping for another sister. Christmas Eve that year was on a Sunday. Since Daddy was a preacher and the assistant pastor of our church, Sundays were a big deal for the Osborne family. On Saturday nights, I had to get a bath and wash my hair. Then Mother would roll my hair up into sponge rollers. I hated this because she always rolled them to the scalp and laying on curlers is not comfortable and makes for a poor night’s sleep. Also on Saturdays, my sisters and I were instructed to pick out the pair of shoes we were going to wear to church the following morning. We then placed the shoes by the door. Daddy would clean, polish and shine all of our shoes on Saturday nights. I enjoyed watching Daddy polishing our shoes. Seeing Daddy, take such good care of our shoes made me feel loved and special. 

On Sunday, the 24th of December 1978, my Daddy, my sisters and I were sitting at the kitchen table eating breakfast. Mother came over to the table with the glass coffee carafe and began pouring Daddy a cup of coffee. I remember watching the coffee fill the cup and then overflow the cup. I watched as the coffee spilled down onto the floor and I wondered why Mother didn’t stop pouring the coffee. Then as I watched the coffee streaming down the table flooding the floor, I wondered why the brown coffee was turning red. Mother dropped the carafe and it shattered scattering glass all over the floor. With horror, I watched Mother collapse onto the floor. While this memory is indelibly imprinted into my mind, the rest of the day is hazy and I can only remember small bits of it. I remember seeing EMT’s carry Mother out of our house on a stretcher. I remember being at my Osborne grandparents house lying on a bed with my sisters sobbing. I remember having a broken heart and feeling pain like I had never felt before in my short life and although I know this was because I knew my little sister was dead, I don’t remember who told us or what words they said. That Christmas was not a happy one. Christmas morning didn’t feel like Christmas at all. Mother remained in the hospital and instead of attending any family gatherings, we went to the funeral home instead. Her name was Sarah Eunice Osborne. She had beautiful red hair like Mothers and a perfectly pink rosebud mouth. She looked so peaceful and pretty in her white cap and gown in her very small coffin. We shouldn’t need coffins that size and the sight of a baby in a coffin was disturbing and heartbreaking. Sarah looked like she was only sleeping so when I thought no one was looking, I poked her cheek with my finger trying to wake her up. My hand recoiled at the sensation of feeling cold, firm flesh. That sensation remained with me for days and I couldn’t wipe it out of my mind. More than anything else, the hardest part of Sarah’s death was seeing how much it devastated my parents. However, this Christmas has a single light of happiness which pervaded the darkness of my sadness. On Christmas Eve, my Osborne grandparents, aunts and uncles, sat up all night and made me a beautiful doll house three stories tall filled with hand-made furniture and furnishings. They had even hung a small framed picture of me on a wall in the livingroom of the little house. Joy in the midst of sorrow; kindness during the darkest moments of one’s life is profound, life-altering and never forgotten. As an adult, I have remembered that unhappy Christmas and my admiration, respect and love for my parents grew exponentially, not just because of what happened every single Christmas after that but also because of what didn’t happen every single Christmas after that. My baby sister was stillborn due to placenta abruption on the 24th of December, 1978. That Christmas Eve, instead of feeling Sarah kicking inside of Mother’s womb on Christmas Day, my father had to look down at the sight of his beautiful, newborn baby daughter lying still inside of her coffin. After that, how could my parents ever be expected to want to celebrate Christmas again? Surely, Christmas for them would now always be a sad and solemn occasion, right? Everyone would understand if Mother cried every Christmas and Daddy became withdrawn and quiet. Yet my parents never did any of that. While I am sure they shed tears in private, we continued to celebrate Christmas every year. My parents smiled and continued to give us wonderful Christmases full of love and joy year after year without a hint of underlying grief and sorrow. They were truly remarkably good parents. The memory of Sarah’s birth and death day, inspired a scene in John the Beloved

When I was nine years of age, Mother was diagnosed with a form of bone cancer called multiple myeloma. Because we lived in such a rural area, the closest and best place for treatment for Mother was at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, Virginia which is 269.5 miles from our home. Mother and Daddy could be gone for weeks at a time due to her being hospitalized or undergoing radiation therapy and chemotherapy. Fortunately, family and friends graciously opened their homes to my sisters and I and we were very well taken care of and loved. Still, we missed our parents and longed to be home together. One Christmas, we were devastated to find out that Mother would have to remain in hospital over Christmas. At that time, we were staying with a wonderful family with the surname of Jackson. Jimmy and Frankie Jackson and their children took us into their home and hearts and provided for us when our parents couldn’t. I could never thank them enough for that. I didn’t think we would see our parents during Christmas and I was distraught. As the Jackson’s celebrated Christmas they included us in on the fun. Then on Christmas morning, we woke up really early and they bundled us into cars and drove us to Charlottesville to be with our parents! What an amazing Christmas gift! The Jacksons went to a hotel and spent the day there. Isn’t that so selfless? I can’t imagine a hotel is an ideal place to spend Christmas, yet they did that for our family so that we could be together on Christmas. We celebrated Christmas in the oncology unit where Mother was hospitalized. Hospital rooms are not comfortable or homey places to be but that didn’t matter. All that mattered was that we were together. As we opened up our presents, Mother sat in her hospital bed with the biggest, most beautiful smile imagainable. I have no doubt that she was in a great deal of pain but she was determined not to let it show nor did she let the pain and sickness deprive her of the joy of celebrating Chrstimas with her family. Once again, although I remember getting a really cool and beautiful doll house, the gifts I received are not the highlights of the day for me but rather, the sight of Mother’s shining face, radiant smile and sparkling eyes. The joy of being together on Christmas was made sweeter by the  knowledge that we did not have the promise of many more if any Christmases together with the circle of our family unit unbroken. 

I used to think that the saying “you can’t go home again” was a falsehood because you can physically go back home. However, now I understand that home isn’t a place, it’s people. So while I can go back home to visit my hometown, my Daddy’s home, my family, my friends and home church, I can never really go back to the home of my childhood because so many of the people who were my home are now home in Heaven. It seems like the older I become, the amount of people that I lose each year is soul crushing. Yet while I can’t go back home to my childhood, I can go back home to my Daddy and Momma Kathy, my sisters and brothers in law, my nephews and niece, my aunts, uncles, cousins and friends; and I still have a home only now home is now with my beloved husband and our family. If I focus on the loss of my loved ones and on being homesick, sadness overwhelms me and I know that isn’t what they would want. Being overtaken with sorrow isn’t what God wants for me or for any of his children. I know that my mother would not want me to focus on those that are gone but on those who are still living. When we spend so much of our time and energy focusing on past loss, we run the risk of depriving ourselves of the joy of being with those still with us. Looking back too long at the past causes us to miss out on the present and consequently, brings us pain in the future. So in honor of my family and friends who have gone on to their eternal home and in honor of the One who is the greatest gift of all, this Christmas I choose joy. I know there are people for whom this Christmas will be sorrowful and we all deal with pain and loss differently and I am by no means condemning anyone who may be struggling with depression and sadness this Christmas. However I want to encourage you that by the Grace of God we can have joy in the midst of sorrow, peace in the middle of a storm and hope even when in a seemingly hopeless situation. My Christmas wish and prayer for you, dear Readers, is that you will have a very Happy Christmas! 

In God’s Rich Love,

Deborah Osborne Wyatt

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