I appreciate that this year’s holidays are going to be very different than what we have experienced in the past. We are most certainly grieving the loss of familiar celebrations with family and friends all gathered in one space. My personal hope is to be mindful and pay attention. Maybe, just maybe, I will find some blessings in the adaptation. I want to share a story, from several years ago, with you.
For years, Mickey, a teacher at the preschool attached to the church where I work, was someone I heard about often and saw occasionally in the hallway. I heard about her lengthy battle with breast cancer and all the treatments. I heard about her remarkable strength and stamina. I heard of her fierce loyalty to her family, her colleagues, and the children she taught. I witnessed her quick stride (always on a mission), her incredible gift of working with children and the respect she earned from her fellow teachers. Hearing about Mickey and seeing her at work could not have prepared me for the gift ahead.
It was not until the last few months of her life that I really had the privilege to get to know Mickey. I understood from Carol, her boss, that things were not well. However, a phone call from her husband Jon is what prompted my contact with this incredible woman. I must admit I was a bit intimidated to reach out. Mickey had the reputation for unshakeable independence and being able to hold her own. She was known as “a tough cookie.” I called her and instantly felt at ease when she agreed to meet with me.
On my first visit, I brought her a prayer shawl, which she immediately wrapped around herself. She was holding on to a warm cup of tea a friend had brought to her. We connected, at once, through our love for Starbucks tea. We talked and quickly our conversation turned more serious. She expressed such sadness that her terminal diagnosis was the reason her children were hurting. We discussed that, as moms, all you ever want is to take your children’s pain away.
Each time I visited Mickey, we would sit in her living room with her fireplace going. I commented on how nice it was to have the warmth all day long. She told me they had installed gas logs a long time ago. When I mentioned that Mark and I were thinking of doing the same thing, Mickey spoke with conviction when she said how much she loved flipping a switch and having an instant flame. The stockings were hung from the fireplace and the decorated tree went up in the window. For all intents and purposes, it was Christmas in the Phillips’ home.
Christmas also came to Mickey’s house in the form of a preschool teacher party. I teased her that the best way to host a gathering was to have the festivities come to you so you sit back and soak it all in. Since everyone knew she had a sweet tooth, she shared that there were enough cookies to open up her own bakery. Mickey, with her wisps of hair and frail frame, looked delighted in a picture of herself decked out in a Christmas hat at the party. All you see is that infectious smile.
I was visiting right before Christmas and Mickey told me that Jon and she were going to be running an errand. She looked so fragile and tired that I tentatively questioned where she had to go. She was determined to shop for at least one present, that she, herself, had picked out for her children, Sean and Jessica.
The last time I saw Mickey, she spoke of fear and faith. Fear of leaving Jon, Sean and Jessica, her family and friends behind. Fear of what she will miss out on in the future, but sincere faith that there was a place for her beyond here.
I have shared details of my visits, but have yet to tell you about the gift I received. My gift was a refresher course in gratitude. I have bolded words throughout this text and in these words lies the education. While I shared tea with Mickey, I learned to be grateful for my physical health and my ability to go out to get my own tea from Starbucks, whenever I desire. While we discussed motherhood and not being there to see her children’s future, I learned to be grateful that, at least for today, I am able to be a present mom to my children. While I watched the fireplace, I was grateful that because of Mickey’s convincing, Mark and I were able to afford, order and have the gas logs installed in our fireplace two days before Christmas. As I watched Mickey’s Christmas tree be moved to make room for the hospital bed, I was grateful for the fact that my whole family had been able to go out to pick a tree and place it wherever we thought was best. As I heard about the party that came to Mickey, I was grateful that I could venture out to share Christmas celebrations with family and friends. As I looked at the picture of Mickey, bedecked in a Christmas hat, I was grateful for my reawakened awareness to find joy in times of adversity. As I watched Mickey struggle to gear up for her trip to the store to buy presents for her children, I was grateful for perspective-buying presents should be fun, not just another thing on my list. As Mickey expressed her feelings of fear and faith, I was actually grateful for my fears of the past, present day and future. I am healthy and alive to experience fears and whatever enlightenment they bring to my life. However, I believe I was most grateful for the lesson of faith because that is the one Mickey taught me in every encounter. Her determination, her mighty presence and her zest for life were all rooted in her faith.
Thank you, Mickey, for the amazing gift of renewed gratitude you gave me in this, the Season of Giving. It is one that, I didn’t know I needed. It was just the right size, could not be bought, cannot be returned, but best of all can be re-gifted.
Just like for Mickey and her family, these next few months will feel very different. We will need to adjust, adapt and search harder for the beauty. However, just like Mickey, I am convinced that we will succeed!
Julie Ruchniewicz, BSN, RN
HMA Executive Director
For some ideas on how to celebrate the holidays in 2020, check out our How to Celebrate During a Pandemic page.