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It's the days before Christmas that I find myself mired in a mix of emotions. How can it be another Christmas has come so quickly, how can it be that another year has flown by? But isn't this the mystical beauty of Christmas? It is a sacred marker on our lives, an immutable timetable that inspires us, guides us and lifts our spirits as we rejoice in the season.
What got me thinking about this was reaction to a story I wrote recently about a friend of mine visiting his older brother in a facility for people with Alzheimer's. I'm proud of the story, but more importantly I am proud of my friend. He showed a side that was beyond what many of us had ever seen before; warmth, kindness, caring and the ability to step outside himself and comfort the lives of others.
So I find myself thinking about all this just a week before Christmas, because in essence, isn't this what Christmas is really about? Lifting ourselves above the ordinary, stopping for a season undergirded by faith, love and reaching out, reaching beyond the ordinary day to day of the rest of the year to say that there is something higher, more joyous and more uplifting that links us all.
It is Christmas.
I'm writing this a stone's throw -- my house is just a short walk away -- from Crestline Village in Mountain Brook, AL where I know in just an hour or two shoppers will start scurrying about, working their way down the list of presents for family and friends. The quiet I enjoy while writing is a stark contrast with what goes on outside of my space. And the hustle bustle of real life, especially this sacred time of year. But these people aren't just shoppers, they are people. With struggles, lives and complexities. Who knows what challenges they have had to face over the past year?
Yet, it's almost as if I can feel it. It's Christmas time, the lights are up, plans are in the works, the world is slowing down, college kids are already home, the schools are out and I'm scratching my head once again, too late of course, as to what should I get for my wife this year.
However, as I think about presents I really think about all the presents I've gotten this past year. They’ve come from the experiences I've had writing about others; meeting people brave enough to open their lives up to me and having the privilege to understand them and write about their triumphs and challenges. Never was that more evident than the recent story about my friend.
So, Christmas, here I come. I've been struggling because I've wanted to write a Christmas story. "What's left to say about Christmas?" I've been asking myself. And then it occurred to me: everything. Christmas, like the birth of Jesus whom it celebrates, is born anew as the season recurs and so are we. Merry Christmas to all of you.
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“Trotter, what is it with you and wasps and snakes and bees?” a friend asked. I had canceled a lunch date with him a week earlier at the last minute, because I’d been attacked by a swarm of wasps and had to rush to the doctor.
“You know what I think it is?” I told him, “Distraction.”
I’m not paying attention. I’m thinking about other things. My mind is preoccupied, especially lately; it is coming from aging, urgency and fear.
I ruminate too much about my son’s future. He’s a special needs kid who is now 22-years-old. It’s often overwhelming because everything is coming at me in terms of thinking about what I have done and what I need to do to ready him for his journey into adulthood.
“Where’s he going to go? What’s he going to do? Who will take care of him?” These are the kinds of questions that dart across my brain and through my heart over and over.
I’ve always worried about him. But these last few years it’s become more intense. There’s a shorter window. I just turned 65. And all of a sudden I don’t have as much time to plan and protect and provide.
I’m a worrier by nature. It’s been that way as long as I remember. And then after almost every worrying episode, I look back and say, “Why was I worried about that?” I worry even though I know that worrying usually serves no purpose; it just drains the energy you have and gets in the way of focusing on what’s real and what needs to be done.
So back to the wasps, snake and the other mishaps that seem to plague me more than anyone I know. I worry about money, so I do things to save money — things that I am really not qualified to do.
My wife Anne, my financial advisor and my attorney tell me we are fine financially — and there will be enough money to take care of my son. Yet, I know people are living longer, and I worry all the time that Anne and I are going to outlive our money and in the end won’t be able to provide what my son needs.
Anne says, “Get somebody to put in a new screen for our porch.” I tell her I can do it myself; she rolls her eyes and gets agitated. I fall off the ladder, crack my rib and have to go for x-rays. And wind up paying more in medical bills than I would have spent on someone to replace it.
I was bitten by a snake because I stuck my hand deep into an outside drain trying to clean it. I should’ve called a plumber to do it. Luckily, the snake didn’t have time to sink all of its venom into me though the fang marks were there.
My arm started swelling but I was determined to go about my business. I called a friend just to chat and casually mentioned something had bitten me. He happened to know a lot about reptiles and told me to text him a picture of my arm immediately. Seeing the picture, he told me I’d probably been bitten by a copperhead. “You better get to the emergency room,” he said. I did and, thankfully, all turned out okay.
On the day of the broken lunch date mentioned above, I was cleaning a rug. I washed it and put it outside to dry, hanging it on a treehouse from when my son was a kid. After a while, I went out to get it.
I climbed the treehouse steps, grabbed the rug, shifted my balance and felt a sting. I looked up and saw I was in a swarm of wasps. Sting! Sting! Sting! I literally jumped off the treehouse — it’s about 10 feet off the ground — and ran toward the house. The wasps were in my pants, under my arms, in my shorts, and on my neck and face. Dead wasps were falling out of my clothes. I wound up with 20 bites.
I called the doctor in a panic and the nurse told me what to do. I was scared because I’m allergic to bug bites. As a kid, I almost died after being stung by 13 yellow jackets. Good thing a doctor lived across the street at the time. He came over and treated me. But I’ve lived in fear of wasp and bee stings ever since.
I’m preoccupied. Too preoccupied. I’m nervous and anxious much of the time and trying to save money in stupid ways.
So what do I do? I’m a 65-year-old man inhaling fear. I’m lucky in many ways. I have a great wife, good health, and a son with a heart and a smile as big as you can imagine. Yet, I feel lost at times, and detached, and gnawing at me is the likelihood that my next mishap is right around the corner.
I tell these stories to friends and family; they always bring laughs and chuckles. They are funny and something out of a sit-com, I admit. But they are becoming less funny to me and, as I continue to wrestle with life these days, they sting.
I worry about this every day. How will my special needs son react as his life unfolds and those close to him die?
This lingering anxiety came riveting home to me not too long ago when my brother-in-law, who was one of my son’s favorite uncles, died. They were together a lot. My brother-in-law Andrew was a formative influence on Trot, who is 21 years old.
Even at the hospital, in the immediate aftermath of Andrew’s death, I was thinking about my son.
My son has been challenged by an array of special needs since he was diagnosed at age three. I had taken Trot to the hospital with me and he was there when I learned of Andrew’s death. I had to break the news and could already feel a gulp coming on. What would I say?
My fears were these: Would Trot fully comprehend what had just happened? How would he absorb it, both immediately and over the long haul? What were the right words? Would this experience transform an essentially happy young man, despite his challenges, into someone burdened, anxious and afraid?
He and Andrew clearly shared a bond; I believe it was a bond of shared vulnerability. Each in their own way struggled. Andrew, in his 70s when he died, had struggled with illness for 20 years. Trot knew him no other way; Andrew, I know, had a soft spot in his heart for Trot, who struggles with his own challenges every single day.
And not only were Andrew and Trot close, Andrew lived very close to us. So my wonderful brother-in-law and my wife’s sister were a constant and uplifting part of our lives. Even with his challenges, Andrew provided us with strength when we needed it and there was a closeness between our families.
Andrew would spend a lot of time in bed because of his health struggles. And Trot would lay there next to him, watching TV with one of his favorite uncles — whether Andrew wanted to watch it or not. Trotter would just plop himself on the bed next to Uncle Andrew, ask him to turn on the TV and that was there special time together.
As I headed toward Trot who was stationed in the hospital waiting room, preparing to share the news about Andrew, I thought about another question. A question that hovers over me all of the time: How will my son react as his life unfolds and more of his loved ones, including his parents, pass away?
These were not spur of the moment thoughts. They were reflections of the struggles and anxieties that have lurked within me for years, and now, as I headed towards Trot, I had to come up with the right words at that very moment.
“Trot, I have something to tell you,” I began. “Uncle Andrew’s in heaven.” I took a deep breath, and continued, "He’s now with Jesus. We will miss him.” And then, I added, probably to comfort myself as much as Trot, "But we’ll see him again one day.”
Trot, who usually has a broad smile on his face, had a bewildered look. Then, within a minute or so, he started making a low-key squealing noise and clapping his hands. I was a little startled. My son seemed actually happy upon learning of his uncle’s death. But I instinctively reminded myself that I know my son, and concluded he was happy for a reason.
“That’s great Uncle Andrew is in heaven with Jesus. I’m so happy for him,” said Trot, believing that heaven was a better place for Uncle Andrew and is a better place in general. There are no sick people in heaven; there are no sad children; there are no homeless people wandering the streets; there are no abandoned cats and dogs; none of this exists in Trot’s view of heaven.
The beauty and rewards of having a special needs child often come from the way in which they interpret experiences. They think about things in such simple ways, often capturing a beauty and a poetry that escapes those of us whose minds are constantly cluttered.
I was worried if Trot would even be okay once I told him. In fact, he was more than okay — he has the strength and the religious faith and such a powerful belief in God, that it was Trot who began providing comfort to other members of the family.
As is often the case with a special needs child, they surprise you. And invert the experience in a way that helps you understand them more deeply and life more deeply.
So what now of my thoughts about Trot’s life as it unfolds and he encounters more death?
I can’t predict — I learned that long ago — but I can hope. And in Andrew’s passing I’ve been given some hope — a sense that my son, because of the power of his faith, compassion for others and caring heart, will be able to navigate and bear the burdens of loss that life will throw his way.
What makes me say this? A feeling, and a sense within this young man that there is a strength and optimism that will endure.
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