I was not allowed to move. I remember lying on my side, propped up on either side by large pillows. I was not allowed to eat. I remember hearing nurses nearby discuss ordering White Castle and eventually smelling the smells of greasy food and the rustling sounds of a takeout bag. I was in intense pain. I probably couldn't have moved even if I wanted to. And eating sounded exhausting.
I saw the twinkling of Christmas lights all around me. I heard soft strains of Christmas music punctuated by machines beeping loudly.
It was Christmas Eve. My back was severely broken. I was 9 years old and all alone.
It wasn't my parents fault that a happy road trip to visit Grandma and Grandpa ended up breaking our family alongside a cold highway. It wasn't their fault that a stranger had a heart attack under a dark underpass, leaving his car parked in the middle of the road just begging to be hit. It wasn't their fault that because of how badly my back was broken I had to be taken via ambulance back to Chicago while my entire family stayed behind in a smaller hospital in Michigan.
I often think how hard it was for my mother to say goodbye to me. Her face was streaked in blood (she later needed facial reconstructive surgery), and I barely recognized the person who had always been there for me. And yet they wheeled me away from her after a tearful goodbye because in that moment she couldn't help me or go with me.
My older sister walked away from the crash to sit in a warm car nearby. It was so very, very cold, but I had refused the kind stranger's offer, holding myself up with my arms and fearing what would happen if I were to let go. I was told later that if I had tried to walk away from the car, I would have become paralyzed.
I remember the long ambulance drive, being taken away from my family while clutching the softest white teddy bear with a velvet red bow tie and smooth brown nose.
As the week progressed, I remember my Sunday School teacher driving two hours to sit next to my hospital bed to read me the Christmas story. I remember my violin teacher bringing some of her students to perform a show for me. I remember so many stuffed animals being thrown my way at one point I almost had to give up my bed for them to take over. I remember painful physical therapies in which I had to relearn to walk. I remember the back brace that I had to wear forever.
I'm a grown woman now. I'm 30 years old, and I am the mother. But yet every Christmas I get sad remembering how big the hole of loneliness was inside of me that night as I stared at the Christmas lights in painful isolation from my family. I was such a little girl, and yet that night I had to be strong. I didn't have any other choice.
I often think back to this Christmas that I will never forget and wonder what I'm supposed to learn from this experience that I still can't talk about. I can barely write about it. I know that it has been hard for me to trust after this. After falling asleep innocently in a car and waking in more pain than you can handle while staring at a completely shattered windshield and seeing your family covered in blood around you, it is hard to trust. I know that Christmas for me always holds some sadness no matter how much happiness surrounds me as I remember the day that easy trust was stolen from me.
When I think about my children and what Christmas experiences I want to give them, I always find myself so very happy when I can just be with them. Remembering what it's like to be separated from my parents during the "happiest" days of the year, I am so thankful every year when that is not my reality as a mother. Yes, we do presents, and yummy food is always a plus. Yes, we talk about the Christmas story, and Christmas carols are blasted 24/7 for far too long.
But to me, Christmas is successful when I can tuck my children into their beds safe and sound the night before. When they can wrap their arms around me and leave wet kisses on my ear. When we can watch a Christmas movie all leaning into each other on the couch in a giant pile of limbs (spoiler alert: tickling will ensue). When we can live our loud, messy lives together -- quiet moments blending into the unforgettable ones because of the intensity of joy that comes from simply being.
Lately I have been trying so hard to get to know my children better. It's so easy to just schlep them around on my schedule, not taking their thoughts or opinions into consideration. But especially as Christmas approaches, I find a great need to really know them. Especially Addison, who struggles to communicate well. I want to KNOW her. I want to be there for her. I want her to share her heart with me. Most days I feel that I am failing at this. And so as I wake up with every new morning, I try again. I try harder. I want my boys to feel heard. I want them to feel understood and supported even as they are so different from me. As we lie on the floor in front of our Christmas tree, I want us to discuss everything and nothing. As we make Christmas treats, I want them to have the gift of knowing that I am there for them. I want them to rest unfailingly in the security that I can offer as their mother.
And yet I know all too well that the security that I can offer them is minimal. So much is out of my control. Events that may separate us are always just a potential blink away. I have lived this. I know that I have to let my children go -- to (gulp) trust. I have to trust that while I can't control their safety or my ability to always be there for them, I have a loving Heavenly Father who can. A Father who knelt next to a hospital bed in that Children's Hospital so long ago -- providing strength to a little 9-year-old girl fighting back tears.
I don't feel the need to make Christmas BIGGER and BETTER, to plan elaborate schemes, or to give so many presents that it becomes difficult to be thankful for all of them. Mommy guilt and "I'm not doing enough!" worries don't control me at Christmas time.
I know that when I was 9-years-old, all I wanted for Christmas was to not be alone -- to not be in pain.
I am overwhelmingly thankful to be surrounded by my three beautiful children and handsome husband this Christmas season. I am grateful for their love to me. And I look forward to pouring out my love to them this season of celebration. No, my Christmas plans won't be up on Pinterest. But hopefully, these moments will be etched in my children's hearts. Etched and framed by the filter LOVE. I am thankful for the moments that we have to fill by simply being.
Togetherness is a gift I will never take for granted.