When Life Meets The Fairy Tale

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At this time of the year there are so many expectations. It’s as if we’ve bought into a collective fairy tale, and it goes something like this:

It’s Christmas morning. A large, happy, healthy, attractive, educated, polite, loving family gathers in tasteful bathrobes and slippers under a tastefully decorated tree in a tastefully decorated, expansive home. Beautiful little children are appropriately excited, and the well-behaved, well-groomed dog lazes nearby. A fire crackles in the hearth.

Let’s put you in the scene, now. Your handsome, loving spouse sits with you on the couch, your head on his shoulder, his arm around you. He pulls out the most beautifully wrapped box. You open it, eyes wide. It’s perfect. You kiss passionately. Your attractive and healthy parents link arms and smile in appreciation for such a wonderful son-in-law. His equally attractive and healthy parents beam smiles in their heroic son’s direction.

And everyone lives happily ever after, having had The Perfect Christmas.

Nice story, huh? But real life often fails to match up to this fairy tale, and we feel somehow cheated, disappointed, less than, or maybe even mad.

Because real life can be messy.

Maybe this is the first Christmas you’ve had to plan, organize and shop for — because your wife will be in Baghdad this year.

Maybe this year you won’t get a gift from your spouse — because his Alzheimer’s has robbed him of the ability to think of you as anything but that nice woman who visits him every day.

Maybe this year you’ll be alone on Christmas morning, because it’s your ex-spouse’s turn to have the kids.

Maybe there won’t be a perfect present under the tree because there’s not enough money for the tree, let alone gifts.

Maybe you’ll be missing your mother, who passed away in the spring. Maybe you’re, once again, the only single person in the room on Christmas morning. Maybe you’re in the middle of chemotherapy this Christmas.

There are plenty of ways your life is different from the fairy tale, huh? No wonder so many of us are snappish, moody and melancholy.

Because our lives don’t match the fairy tale.

And that, my friends, is OK.

Because if your wife is in Baghdad this Christmas, you can still give your kids the best Christmas you know how to. And your spouse with Alzheimer’s? His gentle wonder that such a nice lady is there with him is a precious gift. And when your kids spend Christmas morning with your ex-spouse, you are telling your kids that their own relationship with their dad is important — can you be more loving than that?

In all of our real lives, there are great challenges — and great gifts. When you feel angry or depressed or unhappy that your real life doesn’t measure up to the manufactured, unreal fairy tale — take heart. Just accept your own, unique life — messy, loud, fractured, silly, disorganized, untasteful. Because it’s all yours. And it’s perfect, just the way it is.

Honestly, would you have it any other way?

So, love it because it’s yours. Love it because it’s very real. Love it because love is what Christmas is all about.

The Sacrifice of Veterans

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Living in the Washington, DC area as I do, I’m surrounded by icons of our nation’s history. Nearly every day I cross the Potomac River and am greeted by the majestic Lincoln Memorial, with the Washington Monument obelisk just behind it, the stately Jefferson Memorial off to the right. Out of habit I look to the Capitol Dome — if it’s lit, I know that Congress is in session. The Iwo Jima Memorial is a favorite — my father’s apartment has overlooked it for at least twenty years — and each of the sculpted men straining to plant the flag is like an old friend.

Whenever I see these monuments I try not to take them for granted. I try to remember that I feel lucky and blessed to live in this country. Every once in a while, I am reminded that not all the monuments in this town are so easily seen.

A few years ago, I took my kids to lunch at a McDonald’s near their school. We pulled in and noticed a van unloading some young men in hospital scrubs. This being a big city, we didn’t pay too much attention. I did notice that the guys were young, scrubbed, with short haircuts — and giddy like kids.

It wasn’t until we were inside, in line, that I could read one of the young men’s t-shirt. It said: “Don’t touch me here — bullet hole.” And, “Please don’t hug me — broken rib!” He had circled areas and notes all over his front, and his back. All four of the young men had similar markings on their shirts, and pants.

That’s when I realized — these were wounded soldiers. Recovering soldiers. Not much older than my son. Happy as all get out to be away from Walter Reed Army Hospital for just a few minutes. Happy to just be standing there, ordinary guys, ordering a Double Quarter Pounder with Cheese and fries.

Just a few weeks ago, I was shopping for groceries and noticed a woman — model tall, polished ponytail, a little bit younger than me, Ingrid Bergman cheekbones. That alone would have caused me to notice her. But she was wearing a runner’s prosthesis on her right leg, and her left leg was pockmarked by small, healing wounds from her ankle to the hem of her runner’s shorts. Shrapnel wounds, I guessed. I weighed the idea that it could have been a car accident. But the way she carried herself? Like a soldier. That’s when I knew how she’d been hurt.

For a moment, I didn’t know how to manage my own feelings. I wanted to offer to push her cart because that wasn’t easy for her, or to pay for her groceries, or at least tell her I appreciated her sacrifice.

Because I haven’t sacrificed very much during this war, to be honest. Unlike my grandmother, I haven’t had to do without, save ration coupons, worry about loved ones serving. No, I’ve had it pretty easy.

And this woman in the grocery store — she lost that leg doing something I did not do. She served and she sacrificed. I followed her for a few minutes, wondering if I should say something, wondering if she wanted to talk about it. Wondering if calling attention to her would be the right thing or the wrong thing to do.

In the end, I did nothing. Nothing more than say a silent, grateful prayer for her and her family. With hopes that her external and internal wounds will heal.

On this Veteran’s Day, let’s remember the men and women of the past who have served our country since the Revolutionary War, but let’s take special note — and special care — of those who are serving today.

Their sacrifice is its own towering monument to our country. And for that, I am grateful.