I remember the holidays from my childhood fondly. They were exciting, magical times when my whole family would gather together to celebrate the day and enjoy each other's company.
On Thanksgiving, we would all sit at the big table in the dining room and eat for what seemed like hours while we talked about everything imaginable. On Christmas morning, since I was the only child, it was my job to hand out everyone's presents to them and I remember thinking how important it was that everyone got the same number.
On the Fourth of July, we would make home-made ice cream the old fashioned way by taking turns cranking the handle until it was a frozen delight. It would be served with ice cold watermelon and soda pop and that night, kids in every yard in town would be shooting off their fireworks. Glorious, happy times they were.
But then people started dying.
And the holidays were never the same again.
Yesterday, Thanksgiving Day, was the 9th anniversary of my oldest son Brandon's death while serving in the Navy in San Diego, California. I remember every detail of that fateful Monday morning, Nov. 25, 2001 when I was awakened by a knock on my door at 6 o'clock in the morning. When I opened the door and saw two Marines standing there in their dress blues, I immediately dropped to my knees because I knew what they were about to tell me. I don't know how I would have made it through that day had it not have been for my two best friends, one staying with me until the other relieved him, so that I wouldn't be alone. But my loss was not unique. I know from the Compassionate Friend's newsletter I receive along with news accounts that many people have lost their children too. It's something you just can't imagine until it happens to you and when it does, you have no idea how you're going to survive. But with the kindness and support of family and friends you somehow do, although you know your life has been changed forever.
My middle son, Michael, wrote a tribute to Brandon on Facebook yesterday. He demonstrated through his words that his loss is no less than mine, or his brother Will, or his mother. Michael and Will and their families had Thanksgiving dinner with their mom yesterday and he also mentioned the hollow look on her face as she stared at the empty chair that Brandon always sat in.
Since the drive to Arkansas and back is too long for a four day weekend, I stayed here and was honored to be asked by Jim Lemon and his wife Carol to spend Thanksgiving with them and their family. They're wonderful people and their friendship and love means so much to me. We had the traditional Thanksgiving feast along with a day of football. Watching their grandchildren frolic around the house with the boundless energy young children have reminded me of better, happier times with my own family, both as a child myself and as a parent to my boys.
Life marches on relentlessly and dying is a part of living. Even though the pain is no less, you expect the old people to die one day because that's just what they do. But you never expect to have to bury your child.
Tragically, many families do. And they too have to look at that empty chair and remember how things used to be, knowing they will never, ever be that way again.