I have no idea how this post will evolve or how it will be received. I simply have some words on my heart that need expressing and this is where I come to relieve the pressure thoughts and feelings cause to rise within me before they weigh to heavily for me to carry any more…
Let me start by say I love my sister to pieces.
For anyone who doesn’t know, my older sister is mentally challenged. She’s 67 years old with the heart, spirit and mind of a child who is 8-12 years old.
If placed in a room with her, you might start a conversation, for which she will fully participate. At first you might not notice anything is different, but a bit in to the conversation you would detect something is a little off – a little innocent or naive about her responses. Eventually it would occur to you that she is unique.
Cathy is so many wonderful things — she is funny, tender, caring, helpful and open to adventure. She is highly social and has more friends and activities on her calendar than I could ever imagine having myself, and that’s saying something because I am incredibly social!
Cathy lives in a group home setting in a suburb of Chicago. There are six or so men and four women who reside there and then there are staff members who are there twenty-four hours a day.
Pre-Covid, Cathy worked one day a week at McDonald’s (and has for twenty years. So long that she actually has “regulars” that bring her Christmas and birthday gifts — it’s darling!). The other days she would attend a workshop for specially abled participants with her other house mates.
…and then Covid.
Since the threat of a pandemic, Cathy’s home has been on lockdown. Many of the residents, my sister included, are older in years and have compromised immune systems. Cathy, for instance, has diabetes. And though it’s well managed through medication and weight management, she is still at higher risk than I am. And if one of the residents got sick, the whole house is at risk. I get it, and I’m thankful she has such a dedicated staff to meet all the needs of a locked-down house. But man – 10+ months is a long, long time to be within the walls of your house.
Even in the early days of Covid, when we were on “stay at home” guidelines, we still managed to take turns going to the store. Cathy’s friends don’t even have that.
…and then came Christmas.
When my mother died in 1999, I became not only Cathy’s sister, but her guardian. One of the commitments I made to my mother is that she would spend her Christmas holidays with our family. We love having her home with us during that time. Being 8-12 emotionally, the joy of Christmas is so present in Cathy’s heart and in your countenance.
It’s like having a permanent child. We get to do all the things!!
- We decorate gingerbread houses
- We make sugar cookies to decorate
- We prepare and feed the reindeers magic “reindeer food”
- We set out cookies and milk for Santa
- We set about filling the stockings once Cathy is in bed and we set out the presents under the tree
Cathy wakes in the morning eager and ready to see what gifts arrived the night before, but not before checking to see if the food is gone from the sidewalk and if Santa ate his cookies and drank his milk. The wonder of Christmas is on eternally at our house and for that I am so thankful!!
We knew this year would be different.
I started having discussions with her staff back in September about what this year might look like. We all agreed traveling on a plane, half-way across country, even in a mask, was probably not the best for Cathy. To protect her health, and the health of the other residents, we decided she would need to stay in her home this year.
This has only happened two other times since 1999 – once because of a blizzard and once because she had pneumonia. When she got the news, she was absolutely devastated. So I immediately devised a plan that I shared with her.
We would send her Christmas presents along ahead of Christmas, we would Facetime with the help of the staff on Christmas and I would let Santa know she was at her home this year. That helped, but we had weeks of tearful phone calls leading up to the holiday.
In late October, I mentioned the situation through a prayer request to my friends who I meet with in a weekly bible study. I simply asked that they support Cathy and her friends in their prayers since this was a hard time for them all. And oh my goodness, these ladies immediately asked how we could do more — could we “adopt” the whole houseful?
I contacted Kim, the lead staff member of Cathy’s house, and obtained a list of the names of all the residents and what they each wanted for Christmas. Then my friends went to work as Santa’s helpers. All the gifts were covered, not to mention cards were written and stockings, hats and reindeer antlers were included! We had six boxes (not including our family gifts for Cathy) to send along. Frank joked that it was a good thing we had the plane ticket budget because we used it to get the gifts to the house! I couldn’t have been happier to foot the delivery bill.
Christmas came and we Facetimed Cathy as she opened her gifts. It was sweet and emotional and she was overjoyed. Later that night, the staff gathered all the residents and they opened their gifts from our group — more joy was had.
I can’t tell you how happy that made my heart — to know that though not with us, Cathy still had a nice Christmas with her friends and second family (the staff). Though it was different, it was the best it could be under the circumstances. And in the midst of my concern for Cathy’s experience, our family was blessed in a way I hadn’t anticipated.
Christmas was special here in South Carolina as well.
My kids are now adults. Jake stayed back in Colorado on his own and Kenz, though still living with us is nearing 21 — she works and has her own life — so Christmas is naturally different. This year, because of Covid, Jake is working full-time from home so he decided he could manage that from here and thanks to a friend’s generous gift of a free ticket, he was able to spent 10 days with us this year.
It was amazing having him here for that long. Usually when he visits it’s for three to four days and it’s a complete whirlwind. And as I mentioned, most of our time is centered around my sister’s visit.
This year, we had a slower pace. Jake and Kenzie got to spend a lot of time together playing games and going places. Frank and I each had one on one time with Jake. We laid our presents under the tree ahead of time which added a beauty and a little anticipation to our holiday we don’t normally experience.
Christmas eve we enjoyed prime rib and movies which the kids still decorated their gingerbread houses but this year we nixed making cookies — which was an unexpected blessing for me — that’s a lot of work because we make them from scratch.
Christmas day we rose at a reasonable hour, passed out the gifts to each other and took turns opening each package. We got to really savor the moments of joy seeing what each of us gave to the other and the thought that went into the gifts.
After the big reveal, we made breakfast and lounged in PJs for most of the morning. Later that evening we had our close friends join us for a game night. Jake was such a big hit they invited us to their house for the next night and more games. We had such a great time.
So though my sister was unable to join us this year, and that was hard, there was a sweetness that I don’t often get to experience. Christmas with my immediate circle of family. I will treasure the moments we shared this year because it’s rare. I felt a sincere sadness when it came time for Jake to head back to Colorado. He’s grown and matured so much these last few years.
I know one day he will be married and have his own family — and living so many states apart I’m under no illusion they’ll travel often to see us. Kenzie will spread her wings soon and one day have the same. Having time with my kids and my husband is fleeting. I am painfully aware of how precious our Christmas was this year. And though I love my sister to pieces and missed having her, I don’t think I’d trade Christmas 2020 for anything.
Amidst the things that were lost, or different, because of Covid — I gained a moment in time that will forever be precious in my heart. And for that, I am thankful.