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Sign of Peace From a Fighter's Spirit

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The no-man's land of the holidays, this nebulous margin between Christmas and New Year's, is an opportunity to exercise balance and reflection. The occasional hedonist in me wants to just fall back into the season and squeeze out every drop of lazy, peaceful deliciousness.

Loll by the fire, watch the snow drift, sip something soothing, let my kids eat in the living room, let getting dressed to go for a long walk and visit friends be the most strenuous act of the day. Well, after the necessary shoveling, but even that can be made fun.

And, not to spoil the pleasurable side of the season, but it also feels like a natural crossroads, a time to assess the last 12 months, meditate, set goals or visualize the coming year. Pray for guidance in whatever form. This can be a perfect time for reckoning, acceptance, reform, and new or renewed intentions. (Not that, for some of us, each day isn't a micro-reckoning, but this time has a particular relevance.)

Of course, there is plain old reality too. Most of us do not get to lie around the house for a week at a time. In fact, my house finally sold last week (a loss and a relief) and is filling up with boxes and piles to be sorted/discarded for an imminent move into a rental. The trappings of our Christmas were minimalist, to put it nicely. I remain underemployed, and so when a few days' work is available I take it, holidays or no.

And life is good. Or at least good enough. I have come to see that it is always in progress and always will be, even if progress is sometimes disguised as retrogression. And this moment, surrounded by concentric realities of love but fear, beauty but drabness, leisure but drudgery, gratitude but loss, brings the memory of similar moments over the past year. I had a pivotal one in August, vacationing in London, on the anniversary of a death that has demarcated my life.

Dad loved Christmas. When he got sick, we prayed that he could have one more happy holiday, and he got it. Sort of. In August of 2004. As a fever took him to another place, he began talking to his deceased brother and mother. His words described a quintessential family holiday scene unfolding. The last thing he uttered was a song. With what was left of his voice, he "sang" the carol "Winter Wonderland." It was a ruthlessly hot day at a cancer center in Texas. But for him, it was Christmas.

Every time I repack, there is the box containing that answering machine. One of his last messages was filled with hope. He had some good news, possibly remission, and a brother who was a perfect match for a stem cell transplant. "I have a puncher's chance, honey." And he intended to win or go down swinging.

Sam was a great man who lived an ordinary-appearing life. He and I shared a love of boxing. He was so proud of my job at HBO. And, he was good-looking beyond all fairness as well as in superb physical condition. He worked out on a heavy bag in the cellar and had trained at the Marciano camp in his youth.

When a riot broke out among spectators at Bowe-Golata in Madison Square Garden, some of the crowd even tried to recruit him to their side of the brawl. (A moment of bashful self-esteem for a man about to turn 60. He declined in favor of ushering my mom out of harm's way as chairs and punches flew.) Often we would talk on the phone throughout a televised fight, or have a long discussion about it the morning afterward.

The 2012 Olympics were the first at which women were allowed into the boxing ring. The days of phone calls with Dad are years behind me. But I still have them anyway, in my head. What would he think, about the boxers and more? The Irish champion, Katie Taylor, has a throwback style that I bet he would appreciate. Here I was, in London with my daughters, post-divorce austerity be damned.

What would Dad think of the money I had spent, using up every AmEx reward point saved since the 1990s, selling my jewelry for one ticket to the finals, which coincidentally were occurring on the anniversary of his death? There I was, indulging in an expensive event for myself, while my kids took a double-decker bus tour with my manfriend. Excitement mixed with a funny sense of truancy!

Not one to let a fun vacation simply be fun, I moved with the crowd very much in the moment as well as caught like a bug in amber -- such a multilayered experience. Had it been worth it? What about the man escorting my kids around London? What if we don't end up making a life together? Would Dad have liked him? The thing about reaching middle age is that you can revisit/relive younger versions of yourself, but you can't erase the patina: You are a conglomerate of selves.

The thing about someone who was a key part of your life is that even when they leave it, even after years pass, they still are -- just from a different place. I still want to hear his voice, but I will accept hearing it in dreams, or seeing it in snowfall, or smelling it in good food. Though it felt thrilling to have my little solo adventure attending the Olympic boxing event, I am my father's daughter always, and could not suppress the part of me that wished we could have attended together.

In moments of doubt, we can seek reassurance in any number of ways. Look inside: Do I feel okay? Does this seem right? But, at times I look for outside feedback too. A "sign." And, not generally from God. Though of course I would be profoundly grateful for such a thing, I think that God has more important stuff to do than to provide reassurance about my mundane life issues. My dad, on the other hand, and those loved ones who have gone before me? Them, I'll pester any time. So, yeah, at that point, at the Olympics in London, I guess I was putting out the beacon: Hey Dad, can you give me a sign?

That's when I heard the melody. How strange. Amidst the cheers and spontaneously erupting fan songs, a Christmas carol? That Christmas carol?! The Irish fans, in their exuberance over their champion, had made up a victory song, to the tune of "Winter Wonderland."

Momentarily numb, I fumbled for my phone, my camera, anything, but ultimately I failed to capture the moment. But it had captured me, and that was enough. (And, fortunately, another member of the crowd did catch it and post it on YouTube.) Otherwise, I might not believe that I had heard it.

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