This is a previously unpublished version of the Christmas letter from 2001. I had rewritten a number of versions, mostly about my mom, who died a few months earlier. A couple months later my sister Joyce was diagnosed with cancer I took Sam on a walk on Dec. 23 and came home and wrote the first story. Clearly not like any of my other Christmas letters, I just decided not to send anything. Then two days after Christmas Joyce died.
FRIENDS, FAMILY >>>
It was a cold and windy night, just before sunset. Sam was being a handful as per usual and was working Rose’s last nerve.
“Take him out of the house,” she said. “Take him for a ride in the Jeep or something.”
Being that Rosemary wears the pants in the family, I hurried to get me and Sammy ready. But I didn’t want to go driving around in the Jeep, so I asked Sam if he’d want to go for a walk. He was up for it.
We got bundled up. The temperature was in the 20’s, but I try to follow the example of my brother-in-law, Mark, who lives up there in Minnesota. If it’s above zero, his kids are out playing in the snow.
I put Sam in the stroller, slapped a blankie on him and we were on our way … up the big hill towards the park.
Sammy was happy. He said, “Daddy, nook at all of the ‘no.”
I said, “Yep, look at all of the snow.”
“Hi, ‘no,” Sammy said, waving his blue-mittened paw at the newly fallen snowflakes.
We got up to the “T” in the road and had a decision to make … go straight and head right to the park, or turn and continue the walk. I turned. I didn’t really want to go to the park; it was cold and I didn’t want to run around chasing the boy … but Sam made a pretty good case for going to the park – he said, “Daddy, I want to go to the playground.” – and I relented.
Our neighborhood park is really cool because the view of the mountain range. The Continental Divide goes on and on until it disappears into the horizon at the edge of the world. From that little neighborhood park, you can follow the horizon from the mountains for about 180 degrees to the south and east; it’s quite a vantage point.
Sam jumped into the snow and was in heaven. He just liked stepping on it and picking it up. He went down a slide and there was nothing but snow and ice at the bottom. He liked that too. He ran over to the swings and gave out a call. He needed my help and I finally had to leave the park bench to provide it.
Sammy was in rare form on the swing. He was getting upset because he wanted to go higher. “Harder, Daddy, harder.” So I gave him a series of “underdogs” that left him flying towards the heavens.
It was a good time. I had spent the day shopping; the fresh air was doing me good.
After a bit of swinging, the sun began to set, turning the clouds above the entire mountain range a brilliant orange. I asked Sam, “Do you want to stay or should we go look at the orange sky.” He actually picked the orange sky.
Near the park, there is a trail that winds upward around the houses to an even better vantage point … unobstructed views of the mountains and the orange sky. In the summer, this is the place to go on July 4th; you can see fireworks from about five or six towns.
We took in the views and continued down the path. It was cold and now the sun was setting behind the Rockies. I asked Sam, “Should we go home or keep walking?” He said, “Keep walking.”
We crossed the street and were about to run down the hill, like we’ve done so many times before … but something caught my eye. Christmas lights! One of our neighbors does an amazing job with the decorations each year. They live up on a hill and decorate everything from their roof down to the street; it’s something to see. It looks like a massive spider web. In fact, the house was featured in the newspaper that day.
We’ve driven by and even stopped at that house many times, but we’ve never got really up close and personal, so Sammy and I took a detour and walked right up to the driveway. It wasn’t quite dark enough, but all of the lights were on and it was cool to see.
We were ready to leave … but something caught my eye. It was a deer. Sammy and I tried to get a closer look. We found a spot right across the street from the deer.
There wasn’t just one deer. There were four … five … wait, seven … eight deer!
There were eight deer, including one that had a set of antlers this big!
“Nook Dad! Nook at all the Rudolphs!
“I want to touch his nose.”
We watched Rudolph and all the other reindeer eat dinner for about 20 minutes. It was good and dark by then and the Christmas lights were bright and beautiful. The temperature was dipping and it was time to go home.
We had to hurry home and tell Mom, Carli and Gina that we had just been face-to-face with Santa’s reindeer. Santa must be in the neighborhood!
One of the great benefits, in my opinion, of my new job at the U.S. Olympic Committee is the quarterly marketing divisional meeting. It’s a mixture of business, community service and fun. For the first one, we spent half a day cleaning up and helping out at a homeless shelter, then we went cycling at the velodrome.
Last week, we had another quarterly meeting. The community service commenced at the St. Francis Nursing Home. We brought poinsettias and Olympic pins for the residents. A few of the guys and I took on the first floor, stopping at each room to drop off the gifts and chat. The old guys were instantly grateful and happy and ready to talk. The first guy, Rolland, talked about his career as a dance instructor and how once, for a publicity stunt, he tap danced on the back of a flat bed truck all the way up the Pikes Peak Highway to the top of the mountain. Next was Walter, he was so frail. Mary was fun and funny, but within 10 minutes, she brought up how she had lost her twins decades earlier.
I felt like I had had enough. I knew that we were brightening up these folks’ day, but the circumstances were a little too reminiscent of my mother’s final days in the hospice. My mom died on Sept. 9 and this community service was hitting too close to home for me. So I busied myself with looking for more pins, taking the plastic wrapping off the flowers, etc. But before not too long, I had run out of busy work.
I went looking for my friend Matt. I found him in a room alone talking with a woman in her 40s, who suffered from a severe spinal injury. Matt’s two-year-old daughter has spina bifida, so that visit was a little gut-wrenching to me, but Matt seemed to handle it well.
I started delivering flowers to residents, who were sleeping, or the room was empty. Finally, I got to Marilynn B.’s room … Room 106. I walked in and she was sleeping, so I looked around for a place to set her flowers. I looked at her sleeping with her hands folded under her chin and for a brief fleeting moment I thought, “She kind of looks like mom.” Then I noticed her looking at me and I said, “Hello?” Marilynn popped right up Well, she looked like she was in her upper 80s, so she didn’t exactly pop up. She too was overwhelmed and grateful. She told me to put the flowers close to her, so she could see them.
She held her arms out to hug me and in that instant I realized that I didn’t get to have that one final goodbye with my mom.
When I visited Minnesota in July, I brought the girls over to Mom and Dad’s each day and each day when we left Carli, Gina and I all hugged Mom and kissed her and told her that we loved her.
But when I arrived the day after her heart attack on Sept. 6, Mom was in the ICU, unconscious, and for all intent and purposes, gone.
So in that instant when Marilynn offered me a hug, I took a leap of faith. I closed my eyes and imagined that Marilynn was channeling my mom for one final hug. She kissed me on the cheek and we hugged.
We talked for a while about this and that. At first she was alert and the visit was going well, but then she started talking about sad things. Her kids sold her home. She wasn’t sure where she was spending Christmas. And the death of her husband. She got sad and started to cry, so I told her that I knew what she was going through because I had just lost my mother. We were sad together. I said, “Let’s talk about something else.” And we did and she got happier, but then it was time to go. I told her that I had other flowers to deliver. I felt bad for her. She seemed so unsure and helpless and alone.
I got up to leave and gave her another hug. She whispered in my ear, “I love you.”
I thought, “Mom, was that you?”
I love you too.
This Christmas letter was hard to write this year. Typically, I do a funny recap of the major events. But this year’s events weren’t too funny. I was unemployed for 10 months … who would have ever guessed that those would be the best months of the year. I mean, other than spending all of our savings, those were some of the best months I’ve ever had.
Then Mom died two days before the terrorists’ attack on America.
As bad luck would have it, I did know people who died in the attack. Not close, personal friends, but members of Alliance Consulting, a law firm that worked with spiz.com. We had a few conference calls with them; Audrius and Scotty had meetings with them in their 104-floor World Trade Center office. Just a weird coincidence, I suppose.
Less than two months after my mom died — on Nov. 6 — my sister Joyce was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. She has started her chemotherapy and is hanging tough.
Joyce is the sister, who always took my brother Jon and I to the Minnesota State Fair. For, I don’t know, 10 straight years or more, the three of us would go to the fair – Joyce’s treat – and we’d hit all of the rides (the Tilt-a-Whirl, the Matterhorn), eat mini-donuts and foot-long hot dogs. We’d visit the animals and the big tractors. We’d take in a show, whether it was Willie Nelson or the rodeo or the demolition derby. And we’d end our long day the same way every time … we’d go to the Hippodrome and pick out a present (in 1975, I picked out a Boston Red Sox batting helmet) and then we’d head over to the diary building, stand in an unspeakably long line just to order the best-tasting chocolate milkshake on the planet.
Joyce went to all of my baseball and softball games.
She encouraged my writing and, in fact, Joyce was instrumental in that pivotal day I spent with Sid Hartman. I was on the phone with Joyce, trying to figure out what to do for ninth-grade Career Day. I suggested being a television sports cameraman, so I could go to all of the sporting events. Joyce suggested calling Channel 11 sports anchor, Tom Ryther. One way or another, we came up with Star Tribune sports editor, Sid Hartman, and the rest as they say is history.
Joyce visited me in Florida once. We went to St. Augustine on the East Coast, Disney World and Epcot, and the Gulf Coast.
She visited several times in Colorado. One time we stayed in Buena Vista, home of Mount Princeton and the Collegiate Peaks, a series of fourteeners. This trip was not that long after an operation Joyce had. The Mount Princeton Resort has a couple century-old hot springs baths to soak in and those hot springs came in handy after Joyce and I hiked 1,000 feet up to a waterfall in the middle of the side of the mountain. I was very proud of Joyce that day.
I really haven’t done much to repay Joyce for all that she has done for me. But I’ve always wanted to go back to the Fair with Jon and treat Joyce for once.
Maybe we can do that this summer.
<Joyce passed away at 1:50 a.m. on Dec. 27.>