Remember the past

Embrace Christmas present

December 19, 2009|By JOHN LEAGUE

It was Christmas Day 35 years ago.

We were at the home of my oldest sister, Anne, a 29-year-old school teacher.

My immediate family was in her living room, sitting around the Christmas tree ready to open presents with Anne, her husband and their 15-month-old son.

My other sister, Susan, had bought a video camera - back in the day when most people did not own a video camera - to record what we knew would be Anne's last Christmas.

Anne was suffering from colon cancer. The clock had been ticking since June. So we were determined to do our best to make this Christmas right.


We gathered the family around, along with my toddler nephew, resolved to have one final Christmas with our family. Then Anne's husband brought her downstairs.

She made it down and took her seat, in obvious pain and disoriented from the chemotherapy and pain pills. She tried valiantly to make a go of it, more for us than for her, but she just couldn't do it.

After about 10 minutes, she whispered to me to help her back up the stairs to her room. I did.

As we were walking up the stairs, she looked at me, tears welling in her eyes and mine, and said, "I don't believe I'm ever going to make it down these stairs again."

Six days later, she was dead.

And that, for the past 35 years, has been my Christmas memory. Like many other people who've faced tragedy at this time of year, I battle that memory every year as I face the holidays.

My sister Anne was part big sister, big brother, mother and father. She was the "go to" person in my life when the sledding got tough. Her death didn't make sense to me, a 19-year-old who, as many teens do, thought the world revolved around me.

Truth be known, it took me about two decades to gain some perspective and to realize that while that memory was seared into my consciousness, it didn't need to pull me so far down. At some point, I realized that reliving the sorrow of the past was robbing me of the joy of the present.

Watching my own kids marvel at the joys of Christmas helped, as did building our own holiday traditions. So did counseling, faith, and a wife who pushed, prodded and cajoled me to work through this tough case of the holiday blues.

I'll never forget that Christmas 35 years ago, but for the past few years, I've been able to love and embrace the holiday season again.

It's a time for friends and family, and a period to contemplate peace and good will. It's a time to remember lost loved ones, and to cherish the memories, but not get lost in the sorrow and pity.

It's taken a long, long time, but I believe I can finally, honestly say, "Happy, happy holidays!"

John League is editor and publisher of The Herald-Mail. He can be reached at 301-733-5131, ext. 7073, or by e-mail at

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