The holidays are a big deal at my house.
We have traditions up the ying-yang. It all starts the day after Thanksgiving, when we set up our Christmas Tree.
But this year, my son didn’t come home.
For the first time ever.
And it hurt.
Usually, we pull out the tree, my boys and I. My husband has to work. It takes us all day to get the tree put together, the lights and tinsel on, and the rest of the Christmas decorations up.
Then I cut cheese and meat. We set out a plate of cheese and crackers and whatever other leftover holiday goodies we have from Thanksgiving. We serve egg nog (and brandy, for the adults!) And we put on some Christmas music.
When my husband comes home, we decorate the tree. It starts with a gift to each of the six boys.
We’ve been doing it since my oldest was born, 19 years ago.
Each child gets a new Hallmark Keepsake Ornament for the tree, every year. The goal is that by the time they graduate, they will have at least 18 ornaments of their own, for their very first Christmas Tree.
The ornaments reflect the last year, their age and their interests that year.
We have Blues Clues, Star Wars, Spider Man, Harry Potter, Cars…..so many wonderful childhood memories on our Christmas Tree.
Our standing favorite is Cousin Eddy’s RV from Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation.
Each year, I pick a special Christmas Wrapping Paper for each of the boys, as well, that also symbolizes their year. Every present they get from us is wrapped in that paper.
This started when they couldn’t read. We needed a way to differentiate the gifts – the boys had to know which presents were theirs. When they all could read their names, I did away with the special wrapping paper. There was mutiny in my house that year!
So it is back.
On this night, the kids have to take turns guessing which ornament is wrapped in their paper. (My sixteen year old had something pink…his three year old brother picked it out for him!) If they guess right, they get to unwrap their new ornament and hang it on the tree. If they guess wrong, play moves on to the next child in line. And we continue, until all boys have figured out which wrapping paper is theirs and have hung their ornament on the tree.
These are the first ornaments to go on the tree.
It’s a big deal.
My 19-year-old, second-year-in-college-son was not there this year.
It was the first year he has ever missed.
It seemed so empty without him.
I wish I would have known, last year, that he’d be missing this year.
I would have slowed down the chaos a little. I’d have paid more attention to all of his ornaments – they each have their own tote of ornaments, and they hang their own on the tree every year. I love hearing all of their “remember when’s?” and their laughs at how dorky they were.
He had a Star Wars phase, a Harry Potter phase, and even a Christmas Movie phase. He has Cousin Eddy’s RV and he has the Leg Lamp from A Christmas Story. When he started dating his now long-time girlfriend, we teased him with a milk and cookie ornament that sings “Let’s get it on” (looking back, that was quite inappropriate….but hey, we choose from what the store offers!)
This year, my husband and I hung his up.
“That there’s an RV….now don’t you go falling in love with it!”
We played his ornament for him and snapchatted it to him.
He was working, so he couldn’t even snap chat back.
And for Thanksgiving, he had gone to his girlfriend’s house.
Yes, yes, we were all sick. And yes, he didn’t want to get the flu.
But it didn’t feel right. We are a family, in sickness and in health.
His 16 year old brother laid it on thick, and at the last minute, my son came home for a few hours.
I couldn’t really even enjoy his presence – I was so tired from being sick and preparing Thanksgiving Dinner. I went to bed early while the teenagers chatted in the kitchen.
My son was sick two days later.
I felt horrible.
We never know, as parents, when the last of anything will be.
The last time we tuck them in to bed at night.
The last time we kiss them or read them a story.
The last time we snuggle.
Or the first time they miss a holiday, a major family tradition or an important family function.
The first time they choose their boyfriend or girlfriend over mom and dad.
It’s all part of the leaving home and developing independence thing we’ve been working on for the last 18 years.
But knowing it is supposed to happen doesn’t make it any easier.
He missed our favorite tradition.
But he will be home for Christmas.
And I am going to slow all the chaos down. I am going to treasure the noise, the laughs and the hugs.
Because I know that someday soon, we won’t be his first choice, his natural choice, for family functions.
Someday we will be competing with in-laws.
Someday we will be competing with kids of his own.
I hope he knows his mom and his brother will be fighting for his attention this Christmas. (Along with his dad, his four other little brothers, and his three crazy uncles!)
I hope he knows that a part of each of us is missing when he is gone.
Shannon Lambert is a writer living in Northern Minnesota with her husband and six boys. When she’s not busy chasing the boys, she enjoys a good book and good cup of coffee.
Photo credit: John Morgan