Family, Holidays

3 Ways to Holiday with Intention

Well, Christmas is now behind us! Every year, I worry not about how to afford Christmas gifts but about how to keep things reined in so that we are able to focus on the true meaning of the holiday. I feel fairly certain most people would love to be a bit more intentional with their holidays and to gain a little more meaning and purpose out of these celebrations. While I must admit that I am always a bit relieved after Christmas is over (like I successfully navigated an obstacle course or something), I am also aware that there are takeaways every year, things I can do to ease the stress of the season and derive more meaning from the various events.

Here are a few things I did this year that contributed to a slightly less stressful holiday.

1. Request items I actually need. One of my biggest stressors every year is the gift-giving expectation. Each year, I get a little annoyed that gifts are an expectation that simply won’t go away. I recognize that other people enjoy giving and receiving gifts (as do I!), but I’m also keenly aware that there is very little I actually need. I enjoy selecting gifts for others and especially love finding an item that I believe a particular person will use and enjoy, but I always feel a little guilty about the gifts I am given because, again, I know there’s not too much I need.

I feel overwhelmed already with what I have and deeply privileged that I can look at my household and my closet and say with confidence that I have more than enough. So, when people ask me what I want for a gift-giving occasion, I always seem to scramble around for something that seems gift-worthy or just say that there’s nothing in particular I want.

This year, I realized the folly of my ways and made mental note of things I did indeed desire to receive, knowing full well that my family members WANT to give me gifts. I am only doing a disservice by not giving any ideas. I took a lesson from the Frugalwoods who have posted several ideas for gifting “frugal weirdos.” I noticed that they weren’t ashamed or embarrassed to ask for things they truly needed or wanted, even in the household goods department. I finally realized it is most definitely OK to request items like stain-free plastic food storage containers and stainless steel kitchen prep tools to replace old ones that are past their prime. So, that’s what I did! I wasn’t specific on brands or colors, and my family members indulged my need-based requests. Quite frankly, the items I received are downright luxurious…the kitchen tools are certainly beyond anything I would have purchased for myself and will last forever. Frugal win!

2. Keep your gifts simple. Brandon and I opted not to exchange anything epic this year. We didn’t set a spending limit, but we discussed the fact that there was really nothing either of us needed. We’ve both been in a de-cluttering mood lately, anxious to do a better job of curating our wardrobes and home purchases. My wardrobe is a perfect example of this. I probably wear roughly one-third of the clothes in my closet. For now, I’m keeping some of the superfluous stuff knowing that I may get more use out of it as other items wear out.

We always receive some Christmas money, so instead of adding to the plethora of rarely-used items, we decided to put our Christmas gift money towards the purchase of a new camera, something we can both use and enjoy. It will get lots of use in the coming years, especially because it has an external microphone meaning I can use it for work. Another win.

I know a lot of folks who are very specific with their significant other about what they want. It seems to me that there’s an expectation of a quality or level of gift you are supposed to receive from a spouse, partner or significant other. Some folks do the big gift and then a few smaller items, which can be a good strategy. But, if you find yourself grasping for something you really need for that “special” gift, know that it is absolutely OK to request¬† sentimental gifts or none at all and instead to focus on quality time with the person.

We each did a couple small gifts for each other, but in a happy coincidence focused on the sentimental. With help from a friend, Brandon built end tables for our living room as a gift for me and also gave me a new pair of shoes purchased on clearance simply because he knows I like to have something to open. I gave him a piano book and two framed wedding photos because in seven years of marriage, we’ve framed exactly zero photos of just the two of us from our wedding. Our gifts to each other turned out to be perfect for the low-key, low-stress Christmas we sought this year. Next year, I hope we will continue the trend.

3. Give some away. We regularly tithe to our church, support a campus ministry and sponsor two children in Ecuador through Compassion International. We added a couple year-end gifts to the mix this year, specifically a to capital campaign at church and a larger than usual gift to the campus ministry. Additionally, we gave to Compassion in advance so that “our” kids could have Christmas gifts. Finally, we chose to give our old camera away. Because it was in great shape, we could have sold it and originally intended to, but upon learning of a need a friend had, it made sense to just give it away. It felt great to let go of that need to scrounge for every penny. When you are willing to live with less, you have the freedom to give a bit more. And during Christmas, when you know others are stressed and experiencing all kinds of life upheavals, it’s incredibly freeing to ease their burden a little bit.

Things I learned for next year:

1. I worried way too much about food contributions to family celebrations. Other people also worried about food contributions. This means that there is still way too much food in our various family refrigerators. Much of it will go uneaten, unfortunately. I always make two pies. Other folk then contribute other sweets resulting in an abundance of junk food that no one wants or needs but feels guilty throwing away. Next year, I’ll stand down.

2. I only have so much time. While I know that it’s not appropriate or compassionate to refuse to give of my time during the holidays, especially as it relates to spending time with family, I went through the past five days with almost no down time and stayed up until roughly 1 a.m. every night. We were constantly at someone’s house until late in the evening and back at it the next day. Next year, I’d like to take time to go home at a decent hour and get more rest during my days off work. If holidays are supposed to be restful, it makes no sense to exhaust myself and overdo the special family time. I’m more enjoyable to be around when I’m rested…and so are other people.

3. I can’t make other people relax. I didn’t necessarily try to, but I also know that we often bear other peoples’ stress without intending to. I learn more all the time that it’s not my responsibility to attempt to fix other people or their situations. That said, it’s difficult not to be impacted by the choices of those close to you, particularly during family events. It IS my responsibility to offer grace, spoken or not, to others. I can’t change their circumstances or choices, but I can respond to them with more grace, even if in the moment I don’t feel I receive it in return. Another lesson learned that probably makes all family interactions much more manageable.

Cancer, Family

Cancer.

When I was 16, I got a job at a gift shop. It was sort of like a Hallmark store, only it wasn’t a Hallmark and was independently-owned and operated. We sold greeting cards and scented candles and tiny figurines in the shape of woodland creatures and ceramic angels clutching birthday cakes or balloons. We played light rock on the radio and sold Beanie Babies, designer bath products, gift wrap and semi-gourmet coffee. For a 16-year-old girl, it was a lovely place to work. No fast food burgers to flip. No grocery store conveyor belts to clean.

For every gift-giving occasion, I shopped the store for gifts for my parents and sister. I can’t imagine now shopping in such a store and being satisfied with the options presented, but at 16, an empty Texas A&M picture frame seems like the perfect gift for your Aggie father. There were many scented candles burned and bottles of lotion emptied at our house. For three years, Yankee candles scented our home, and every gift was donned with tulle and designer paper.

In November, my parents moved out of their home of 33 years. They had several garage sales to ditch as much of the flotsam as they could before they left the house forever. Much of the junk set out on card tables in the garage was remnant from long-ago birthdays and Christmases, highly impersonal items into which we had poured all the sentiment they could hold. Each time they had a garage sale, I found myself hauling childhood junk out of the house and dropping it on the driveway. For months before they moved, I wished they would sell all their possessions, or at least a good portion. Sell the furniture. It doesn’t matter. Choose before the bank chooses for you. At least it can be on your terms. At least. I didn’t think much about losing my childhood home or never returning to it again. Them leaving that house was a weight lifted from our collective shoulders. But still there were things to worry about.

In December, I took my mother to the doctor for a mental status exam. I could feel that something was wrong because each time I saw her, my mother repeated herself more and more often. At first I dismissed it. My mother had always been absent-mined, forgetful. Then one day, I took her to lunch and she asked me the same question five times in 30 minutes. She ate a spinach salad and told me she was happy to be losing weight, that her doctor took her off blood pressure medication. She seemed weary, like she had been exercising and maybe that was the reason she lost weight. But she also seemed tan. Maybe she is getting healthier. Maybe she is wearing short sleeves and walking in the sun. She asks me about my sister again and again, like she needs to account for her people.

You have already asked me that, Mom. I am happy for you that you are losing weight. You’re walking and eating right. Good for you. No, I haven’t talked to my sister lately.

I assume that the stress of losing the house and having all her possessions displaced could cause forgetfulness, that the sudden change in her life circumstances is to blame. Or perhaps it is a medication change. The doctor concludes nothing is wrong. My mother’s mind is sound. Getting older, the doctor says. We all forget things. I can tell she thinks I will have my mother committed. I resent the doctor.

Brandon holding my mom's hand.
Brandon holding Mom’s hand.

And then one day, we receive an answer. On a Thursday in April, my dad calls to say she is in the emergency room. My husband and I drive to my hometown of Flower Mound to sit with her in the hospital, to ask questions and keep her company. We call the ER from the car and ask if she may eat. We are told yes and stop to buy her a hamburger on the way. When we arrive, the doctor’s order has changed. Nothing but clear liquids for now. Jell-O will be fine. And we have found a foreign mass on your mother’s pancreas. There are also spots on her liver. They tell her this news before we arrive. She is alone.

We pull into the parking lot. We enter the quiet suburban emergency room. She will be admitted soon. We sit with her in the ER. She is transferred to a hospital room. We tell her stories and jokes. People visit and pray with her. And for two weeks, I write down everything any doctor says to me. I keep a binder of meticulous notes. I write test results and physician names and plans and new plans. And in two weeks, she will go.

She comes home on Saturday after 10 days and two procedures in two different hospitals. We have met more doctors than ever in our lives. In our extra bedroom / office / music room, we place a borrowed day bed. I hang young pictures of my parents and my sister and me. I hang art from our old house. I decorate the top of her old piano, the one I brought home with me from my childhood home when my parents moved out. I place pillows at the end of the bed so that she can look out the window instead of at a wall. I hang cotton nightgowns in the closet. I stock the fridge with applesauce and Greek yogurt and chocolate Ensure and the pantry with instant cream of wheat. I buy popsicles and frozen fruit for smoothies. I simmer homemade organic chicken broth in the Crock Pot. Brandon carries her up the stairs. She sits in a Queen Anne chair in our living room, face in her hands, weeping. My husband plays her 40-year-old piano, and she goes to look at her room. She weeps.

For three days, we live in a quiet space that includes my mother. Suddenly, three people live in our condo. We nag her to eat and drink. I count her calories on an iPhone app. Fresh berries: 40 calories. Ensure chocolate shake: 250 calories. Chicken broth: 86 calories. In one day, her diet shrinks from 800 calories to 500. I cannot make her eat or drink.

On Tuesday, I work from home. Today, we will go to the doctor. The oncologist will tell us how she can get better, how we can treat her disease, how we can get her strong enough to withstand chemotherapy. Soon we will have answers. I wake my mother and place on the table a bowl of cream of wheat with cinnamon and sugar and a glass of chocolate Ensure. I ask her how she feels this morning.

“At peace,” she says.

She sits at the table and eats the entire bowl of cream of wheat. She gulps the “chocolate milk.” And then she goes to bed. In a few hours, I wake her and help her to the bathroom. She sits on a plastic chair in the tub, and I bathe her with Caress body wash. I wash her hair, her face. Her eyes close and her cheeks are hollow, her skin waxy. She breathes the steam and rests. Her eyes are closed, her chin against her chest. I feel how tired she is. She gets back in bed and sleeps again until it is time to leave.

She gets down the stairs of our apartment with Brandon walking one step behind her and holding her up under her armpits, he in a squat position, her clutching the grey metal banister.

We go to the oncologist. She sleeps on the way to the doctor’s office. Brandon helps her out of the front seat of my car, up the ramp with her walker, to a reclining chair in the waiting area. The office is empty except for one staff member who tells us we are in the wrong place. We get a wheelchair and wheel her across the parking lot to the right building. In the hallway of the cancer clinic, she sleeps while we sign forms, sleeps while we wait for the doctor, asks to go home. We are awake, and I do not understand why she is not. How can anyone not be rested after so much sleep?

We wait and meet with an oncologist. He looks at her and is not startled. He has seen this many times before. He looks at us, at my husband and me, then at my father. He comprehends in an instant what I now understand.

No one tells me she is dying. I know she will die. I know cancer is devouring her body. I know the cancer will win and she will die. But I do not know she is dying. She is in the process of dying for three days in the bedroom we decorate for her in our home after her release from the hospital but before we must take her back because she is vomiting.

I have never loved my mother as much or as well as I do during those three days.