Thursday, December 8, 2011

Christmas Lists

I have joined a new family and this new family has new and different traditions.

I could not even begin to list all the different Christmas traditions between the Sanden family and the Miller family, so I'm not going to try... but one of the biggest differences I'm facing this year is the encouragement to make a Christmas List.

I have not made a Christmas list since early elementary school.  My Christmas list was never for my parents, grandparents, siblings... it was for Santa Claus!  Even the last few letters I wrote to Mr. Santa included more cordial communication to an old friend (asking him how he was doing, asking him to give my regards to Mrs. Claus, etc) than they did lists of presents I wanted from him for Christmas (if you wouldn't mind, I'd really like an American Girl doll... Thank you).

In the Sanden family, there was no place for Christmas lists.  We knew each other -- we didn't need to ask what anyone wanted for Christmas.  Christmas gifts were a unique combination of things that the person needs and will not buy for themself and a few useful or useless surprises just for fun.  The Sanden family always asked other family members for input on what to buy someone (my siblings would ask my mom what to get me, I would ask my dad what to get my siblings, Mom and I would conspire about Dad's present, and Dad and I would shop together for Mom) but NEVER EVER was a Christmas list compiled saying "This is what I want for Christmas."

When my hubby explained to me that a Miller Family Christmas List email would be coming my way where one person writes what they want for Christmas and everyone is expected to reply with their Christmas List, I was more than a little startled.

I had to think WAY TOO HARD to come up with a Christmas list, which led me to think about why participating in the Miller family tradition and sending out a Christmas list was so hard for me... and I think I found an answer.

Have you ever heard Amy Grant's Christmas Song, "Grown Up Christmas List"?

Its not just a nice Holiday song.  It is a state of mind that Sandens have and have had for nearly every year since I was 15 years old.

When someone dies, it is sad.  All families experience deaths and all families experiences sadness.
But when tragedy threatens a family and that family struggles together and struggles through and clings to each other and clings to God and to faith and fights through to the other side of the tragedy... they are changed.  My family has been changed.

My older sister, Tracey, was married for 9.5 years and her husband, Dan, died after an 18 month battle with cancer.  My whole family fought that battle with cancer.  My dad (a doctor) was on the phone with countless oncologists, and specialists.  My mom and dad made countless trips to Minnesota to help Tracey and Dan with their pets, and household needs as Dan underwent chemotherapy, radiation treatments and surgeries.  I was in seventh and eighth grade trying to process what was happening, and often at home with baby-sitters.  Dan died on May 27, 1998.

After Dan died, many other, more distant family members battled cancer and died.  My dad is not an oncologist, but he was very good at understanding the seriousness of a family member's condition and anticipating a relative time line for their possible demise.  He was nearly always correct.  It was not uncommon for my dad to gently tell me that I should, "really appreciate this Christmas" with a sad look in his eyes.  We lost 7 family members in 6 years from 1996-2002.

In January of 2000, my sister, Tracey was diagnosed with cancer.  Once again, my family came together for battle -- each and every one of us was doing our part to fight with her.  My parents were in Minnesota for her entire chemo and radiation treatments, and again my dad was talking to doctors and my mom was taking care of household chores and animals.  I was at home with a friend of the family looking after me, 16 years old thriving in high school and holding down the fort at home while my parents spent months with Tracey.  All efforts pointed to helping Tracey any way possible, and beating this cancer once and for all.

This time, with the fierce optimism of a daddy watching his little girl in the fight of her life, my dad still advised me to appreciate every Christmas... but never with a time line attached.  There was no time line because Tracey would beat this.  There was no room for anything but optimistic thinking.

When my sister, Tracey died on June 8, 2002, I had just graduated from high school.

Our family was broken, shattered, cracked, hurt, finished, defeated, raw.

My dad, a pediatrician, had saved the lives of hundreds of children during his decades as a practicing pediatrician, and yet he had to bury his own first-born, his oldest daughter.  No parent should ever have to do that.  No child should ever have to watch her parent do that.

It has taken our family YEARS to recover...
But recovery does not mean good-as-new... it means recovered.

Just like after recovery from a serious athletic injury, the injured ankle may regain strength and function normally, but it is not the same as it was before the serious injury.  The athlete has to be aware of her limitations and respect the journey her body has taken to regain the strength she has.  She is not good-as-new.  She is grateful to have the use of the ankle she does.

I cannot flippantly make a Christmas list, because the things I desire cannot come under the tree -- they will come in a reunion in heaven.  Furthermore, the things I treasure during Christmas cannot come under the tree -- they are the people sitting around the tree.  They are the sounds of laughter, and inside jokes, and sight of my dad's joy when opening a 3-hole punch for his desk (because he would never buy a new one himself) -- and the thanks he continues to give me every Christmas when he tells me how often he uses that 3-hole punch and how much he appreciates it.

Christmas is not a day of mourning in the Sanden family, but a day of great joy; nevertheless, but there are moments of tearful eyes and memories.  Just like an athlete can use her ankle, but she notices when it is being pushed beyond its new limits, our emotions are challenged with each Christmas without Tracey.

When asked to write a Christmas list, that challenges my emotions.  Not only have I not written a material Christmas list since I was 7, but I would not ask for anything material on a Christmas list.  I have a "Grown Up Christmas List".

Appropriately, Amy Grant's "Grown Up Christmas List" was a song my sister, Tracey introduced to our family in 1994 and it remained one of her favorite songs.  I cannot hear it without thinking of her.

I love you and miss you, Trace.

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  1. This was very beautiful Brooke. I felt so much emotion when reading this blog and listening to the song. My Mom died in April 2002, nine years ago. She left to the arms of Jesus becuase of cancer too. I know one day I will be there with Jesus too! Much blessing and love sent to you and your family through these days!

  2. This was wonderfully written and so full of heart! It brought tears to my eyes. So sorry for your losses and having to battle so many hard events in life. You are strong, brave, and kind.
    My father passed away in March (damn cancer!) and this will be our first Christmas without him. I don't even want to think about it! I'll just hold on to the good memories and pray to be reunited with him once again.


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