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12/12/2012 12:14 pm ET Updated Feb 11, 2013

The Return of Big Jon at Christmas

Written by Brenda Young, this story first appeared in Guideposts magazine, a monthly publication, founded by Rev. Dr. Norman Vincent Peale, that provides hope, encouragement and inspiration to millions. Download a condensed version of 'The Power of Positive Thinking' absolutely FREE.

Presents were opened, the floor littered with wrapping paper, the grandkids happily playing with their new dolls, Lego sets and electronic gizmos.

My sister-in-law slipped to the back of the tree and pulled out a shoebox-sized gift, wrapped in beautiful gold paper. Something extra for one of the grandkids? I wondered.

But then she turned and handed it to me. "Merry Christmas," she said.

I tore away the paper and slowly lifted the lid. A floppy stuffed clown stared back at me. Big Jon. The fabric of his plaid jumper was worn in places and had a few more stains than I remembered. But then it'd been more than 20 years since I'd last seen him.

I squeezed the doll tight, memories washing over me and all the feelings that went with them.

It was the summer of 1983. My son, Jason, was 5. For months I'd been beside myself with grief. How could I tell my little boy he was dying? How could I prepare him for the next world when I wasn't ready for him to leave this one?

Jason had a rare form of leukemia, and the last two years had been a blur of hospital stays, blood and bone marrow tests, and months of chemo treatments. From the start the doctors had said there was little chance of beating this aggressive type of cancer, but I couldn't accept that.

I prayed, a plea that was always on my heart, for a miracle. I tried not to even consider a future without Jason. I certainly didn't talk about it with him or his two sisters, barely even with my husband.

But that summer, at the end of July, during yet another of Jason's hospital stays, the doctor took me aside. "There's nothing more we can do. I'm sorry, but Jason doesn't have long to live. I think he'd be more comfortable at home."

I followed him to Jason's bed, my mind still trying to process his words. The doctor took Jason's hand. "How would you like to go home and not have to come to the hospital for any more needles or drugs?" he asked.

"That sounds good," Jason said, his voice so sweet and innocent and trusting. Did he have any idea what the doctor was really saying?

I searched his eyes for any sign of distress. My gaze fell on the stuffed clown beside him. Big Jon. He'd been with Jason through it all.

My mother had bought the toy for Jason when he was first diagnosed. He was handmade with felt eyes, nose and mouth, perpetually smiling. We named it after Jason's favorite uncle who lived in Colorado.

Big Jon went with him to every doctor's appointment, slept with him in every hospital bed. When Jason got an IV or a lab test, Big Jon got one too. He ate with him, rode in the basket of his tricycle.

He offered so much more than security. Big Jon was my son's best friend, a source of strength, it sometimes seemed.

I'd grown to love Big Jon too. Just a toy, but a toy that represented something -- faith, strength, reassurance.

But there were limits to what a stuffed clown could do. He couldn't tell Jason that the chemo wasn't working or why he no longer saw a friend at the hospital. Couldn't tell him he was dying.

The doctor left and I packed up our things. I tried to stretch the 60-mile drive back to our house longer, as if I could put off the fact that I was bringing my son home to die. But then we passed a favorite park and I couldn't help remembering the time we'd been there in the fall.

"What makes the leaves turn colors?" Jason had asked then, as we strolled along a leaf-covered trail.

"That's how God made them," I said. "In the spring it's kind of like they're being born and that's when they're green. They live all summer and then in the fall they turn beautiful colors before they ... before they die."

"My friend Ryan died."

"Yes, Jason," I said. "And that was sad."

"He had leukemia, like me."

"Yes, that's right."

"Am I going to die, Mom?"

There it was. Dear God, I prayed, what do I say to him? But nothing -- not one word -- came to me.

"What do you think?" I finally managed to get out.

"Someday, I guess," Jason said. "But not for a long time. Not until you and Dad die."

I squeezed his hand. "You know Dad and I will always be with you no matter what happens," I said.

"Yeah, I know," he said, but his eyes watched a wooly worm crawling over a leaf. I wasn't sure he understood, or even heard me.

Jason never brought up dying again, but it was all I could think of those waning days of July. Every night I tucked Jason and Big Jon into bed and kissed them on the cheek. "I love you," I said, fighting to keep my voice from breaking.

Jason smiled back at me. "I love you too," he always said.

I hated leaving his room even for the night. I wanted to hold onto him tight -- as tightly as he held Big Jon -- and never let him go.

Two weeks after I brought Jason home, my sister-in-law called. Could she bring her son, Mikey, over to play with Jason? They lived in Dayton, a two-hour drive away. We knew this would be the last time for the boys to see each other.

The night before their visit I kissed Jason and Big Jon good night and went to turn off the light.

"Mom," Jason said, "when Mikey comes tomorrow I'm going to give him Big Jon."

My hand froze on the switch. "Why would you want to do that?" I asked.

"I don't need him now, but Mikey does. He doesn't have a dad. He needs Big Jon," he explained. Mikey's father had died in an auto accident before he was born.

"But, Jason," I said, "you need Big Jon too."

"No, Mom," he said. "I don't need him anymore."

"OK," I said, my words coming out in barely a whisper. "We'll see about it tomorrow."

I switched off the light and walked back to my bedroom, my heart breaking. If this was the end, then I needed Big Jon. I didn't want to let go of that last part of my son. I wanted something to hang onto.
Once Jason was asleep I slipped into his room and hid the clown underneath his bed.

The next morning Jason was so excited to see his cousin that he seemed to not even notice his missing toy. The boys had a great time playing with Hot Wheels. Then it was time for Mikey to leave.

"Mom," Jason said, "where's Big Jon?"

"Oh, he's around here somewhere," I said. "Don't worry. We'll find him later."

"No, Mom. Find him NOW!"

Chastened, I went to Jason's room and retrieved Big Jon. Then I watched my son give his best friend, the buddy who'd always been there for him, one last hug, their cheeks pressed together.

"Bye, Big Jon," he said. "Take care of Mikey. He'll take good care of you too."

Jason held out the stuffed clown to Mikey. His cousin looked to his mom, then at me and finally Jason, puzzled.

"It's OK," Jason said, setting Big Jon into Mikey's arms. "I want you to have him."

I could tell Jason was tired, but he was positively radiant, like he'd reached the end of a long, arduous race. He watched his cousin hold Big Jon close and nodded.

It was then that I sensed another embrace, God holding Jason in his loving arms, his presence a comfort beyond anything I could imagine. I didn't have to prepare Jason for what was ahead. He was preparing me.

Jason died peacefully a week later, surrounded by everyone he loved.

I grieved terribly in the days and months that followed. I prayed and searched the Scriptures for comfort. Some days I sat for hours in Jason's bedroom, wishing I could cuddle with him again.

But every time the pain became too much or the loss too deep, every time I wondered how I could possibly go on, I remembered that incredible moment...

"Mikey doesn't need Big Jon anymore," my sister-in-law said now as I looked down at the clown in my hands. "We thought that you would like to have him back."

"Welcome home," I said. I'd find a special place to keep him, not as a memorial to Jason, but as a remembrance of what my son had taught me all those years ago.

Sometimes the greatest gift is acceptance, the greatest comfort is in letting go.

Written by Brenda Young, this story first appeared in Guideposts magazine, a monthly publication, founded by Rev. Dr. Norman Vincent Peale, that provides hope, encouragement and inspiration to millions. Download a condensed version of 'The Power of Positive Thinking' absolutely FREE.