Twenty-three years ago I spent Christmas in the hospital...Shepherd Center, specifically. It was just over a month after my accident, & it was a very hard thing for me. I ADORED Christmas! I loved the decorating, the shopping, sending & receiving cards, the wrapping, the music, everything! And I was missing it. Worse yet was the fact that it was my very first Christmas spent away from home. Come to think of it, it's the ONLY Christmas I've EVER spent away from home. Oh, I've gone out visiting later in the day, but I've always awakened in my own bed...except for that one year.
At the time, I was very sad about being stuck in Shepherd for Christmas, but looking back I realize it really wasn't so bad. In fact, considering it was a hospital, everyone made it quite fun.
First, there was Richie Bear. At the time of my accident, I was working as a staffing assistant & customer service trainer at one of the Rich's department stores. Rich's was an Atlanta institution, especially at Christmas. Each year on Thanksgiving, the downtown store would have the lighting of the "Great Tree" on top of their 5-story building. They also had Santa & his reindeer & the Pink Pig - a pig-shaped train ride for kids. In 1986, Rich's introduced Richie Bear - a big, white, stuffed bear sold during the Christmas season as a charity fundraiser. As Customer Service Trainer, Richie became "my baby" for our branch, so to speak. It was my responsibility to train the sales staff on all things Richie. By the time of our Richie kick-off meeting, I was so tired of Richie that I, a (at the time) teddy bear collector, told the store manager that I never wanted to see another Richie again! So, naturally, I received FIVE of them as gifts while at Shepherd, the 1st being from the employees at my store, delivered by my aforementioned store manager. With a crooked grin on his face he said, "I know you never wanted to see him again, but we just HAD to." And those silly little bears DID cheer my room a bit.
Richie wasn't my room's only holiday touch. I received TONS of Christmas cards, which my nurses taped up all over my walls. I also got a few plants & balloons, & my stepmother's boss even sent me a decorated & lit table-top Christmas tree. They all helped make my room very Christmasy.
Throughout December we had a lot of visitors to Shepherd. They brought cookies, visited & went caroling down the halls.
On Christmas Eve, the nurses moved a cot into my room & my mom spent the night with me. That was wonderful. On Christmas morning, my sister's priest surprised us with a visit. He brought us Communion. That simple act touched my heart deeply & has always given Brother Joel a very special place in my heart.
Later, my entire (local) family came to spend Christmas together. Honestly, it was a bit surreal having my step-family & "real" family celebrating together. But there we all were - me, Mama, Daddy, my stepmother, her mother, my sister & her husband & 3 girls, my brother & his wife & stepdaughter, my 3 stepbrothers, 1 of their fiances, & my friend Mary & her boyfriend. We all gathered in the gym & they sat on the mat tables as we opened presents.
That year made such an impression on me that I even remember many of the gifts that I received. I remember thinking, "What can they possible give a quadriplegic besides sweats!?" Well, they did a pretty darn good job on creativity. My sister's family gave me a handmade teddy bear made by my sister out of an antique quilt that had been made by my mother's mother. My brother's family gave me a gold teddy bear charm for a necklace. My dad's mother - the families official "queen" of gift-giving - sent me a $50 savings bond (which I have never cashed). But the best things they all gave me were their love, their support & their presence. They will never know how much it meant to me to be surrounded by them on that difficult Christmas day.
Little did I know things were about to get even more difficult. As the day wore, on my mother started feeling bad, so my dad & stepmom followed or took her home, only to end up taking her to South Fulton Hospital. She spent a week there with heart problems, & ended up having triple-bypass surgery at Crawford Long Hospital in February . Then, on New Years Day, my dad came to visit & surprise me with a special lunch from Longhorn Steak House. He surprised me, all right, by having a heart attack as he walked through my door. Thankfully, it was mild AND, Mary & her boyfriend were with me AND we were in a hospital. (If you're gonna have a heart attack, have it in a hospital!) He spent that next week at Piedmont Hospital & St. Joseph's Hospital. Eventually, everyone turned out to be fine. We even started a family joke became that that my sister could now write a Fodor's Guide Book to Atlanta hospitals, having eaten & slept in so many!
Yes, that Christmas was a challenge, but it had what mattered most - family. Whether by blood or by love, family is what matters most at Christmas. So if you don't have a family, why not drop by your local hospital & "adopt" one. I assure you, they will be blessed, & so will you!
I wish each of you a very Merry Christmas filled with joy & love.