Two months after I left for Taiwan, I got a phone call. “Jess, your mom and I have something to tell you . . .” My parents were getting divorced. After nearly 28 years, my mom had made up her mind — it was over.
The conversation wasn’t long. There wasn’t much to say. I couldn’t say I was shocked. I’d seen the disconnect between my parents for years — both of them trying, each in their own way, to bridge the gap. Both of them failing. I’d convinced myself that they were going to make it, knowing, deep down, I was wrong.
After we got off the phone, I sat on my black bedspread and stared at the brightly polished wood floor that I’d scrubbed and scrubbed when I’d first arrived. Outside my window, the dark sky began to rain. I didn’t notice. My mind was empty; my emotions, numb. I wondered, blankly, how my brother would take the news.
The next few months were a blur. The divorce was difficult news to tell my Christian coworkers. People from my background didn’t get divorced. It was just something you didn’t do. At work, I had to put on a happy face for my students. Each week, 80 bright-eyed 5th grade Taiwanese students arrived at our English camp. What did 9- to 12-year-olds know about being 6,500 miles from home or what it would be like to have no home to go home to when you went home?
My parents sold my childhood house quickly. When I flew back to the States for a short visit that August, it was to boxes filled with my things placed in a second bedroom in my dad’s apartment. I remember driving past my old house. It was hard to believe it was no longer mine.
That Christmas, my dad and brother visited me in Taipei. I showed them where I worked and all of the cool things I’d uncovered there. They learned I wasn’t kidding when I told them Taiwan could be cold — thanks to my tile floors and painted brick walls without insulation, I had to buy portable heaters so they would survive. We took a weekend trip to Hong Kong. My dad and brother had to duck everywhere we went: Not many Asians are 6-plus feet tall.
It was a magical trip, all in all, but something was missing. Where was Mom?
That trip was the beginning of my understanding of what it was going to be like to come from a broken home. My family was never going to be a single unit ever again. I spent the next two years in Asia and thus never really faced this new reality, however, until I moved home from Hong Kong in August of 2012. I moved in with my dad. I rarely saw my mom, who lived in a townhouse about twenty minutes away.
It was the holidays, though, that were the hardest.
My mom spent Thanksgiving with my brother and his then-girlfriend (now fiancée), and my dad was on call. I seriously considered helping at a homeless kitchen that day — which I knew demonstrated the true meaning of the holiday, anyway — but quite frankly was too depressed. I slept in until noon instead.
My mom’s dad died at the beginning of December 2012, and when Christmas rolled around, it didn’t really feel like Christmas, either. My brother would be spending the day with his girlfriend and her family; we’d planned to do Christmas with my mom a few days late. My dad was again on call, so . . .
Suddenly, I had an idea.
Something that’s always bothered me about the holidays is the emphasis on material things. All of the advertisements show families sitting around crackling fireplaces with stockings neatly hung and Christmas trees overflowing with presents. Everyone is smiling and sipping egg nog and hot cocoa. It’s this pseudo reality where, for at least one day, everything is supposed to be perfect. No one talks about the homeless man on the street corner who won’t be sitting at a mahogany table but, rather, will be taking his place in line at a soup kitchen that day. No one talks about the single mother of three frantically searching for presents at the thrift store. In my home before the divorce, there were always plenty of presents, but something else was missing. What are presents compared to contentedness; plenty of food compared to overwhelming love?
Something else I knew was that true happiness has nothing to do with material things. If I wanted to have a meaningful holiday season, I needed to stop thinking about me and to start thinking about something else.
And so I did. Since my dad would likely be at the hospital, anyway, I spent several hours on Christmas Eve preparing candy canes and cards for patients who would be stuck in the hospital on Christmas. At around 1 p.m. the next day, I drove to the hospital and my dad and I went around to each of the patients’ rooms — about fifty in all — and handed out the goodies I’d created. Many of the patients were elderly. I remember being surprised that a lot of them wanted to open the card and read it right there. I was glad I’d taken the time to write a heart-felt note in each. A few of them got misty-eyed. No one wants to be stuck in the hospital on Christmas.
As I drove away from the hospital that Christmas day, suddenly, I knew what the holiday season really meant. It had nothing to do with what the fanciful images we see on TV. Rather, it was about something else. It wasn’t about what we could get, but how much we could give away . . . Which, ironically, gives us in return more than any amount of presents ever could.
Last Christmas was one of the best Christmases I’ve ever had.
- making the holidays bright — my thoughts on the true meaning of the holiday season, written last year
- mrs. andrews — my post about one patient in particular that we visited last Christmas
- alone in an igloo — how I felt when I first arrived in Taiwan
- the end of an era — post about the passing of my Grandpa Joe