All three girls settled down in front of the fireplace. They knew the drill. We’d had this tradition since they were babies. The night before Christmas they could open two presents: a new ornament and a pair of pajamas.
“How about we start with the oldest this year?” Emily sat up straight, balancing her presents on her lap.
To my surprise, her two younger sisters obliged. Emily opened her ornament and held it up. “New driver,” she read out loud.
Taylor was next. She opened her ornament and gazed at the miniature volleyball player. She flipped over the ornament and smiled as she spotted #24 – her volleyball number – on the back of the jersey.
I motioned to Madison. “You’re up!” She grinned and prepared to rip into the paper.
Suddenly my cell phone rang. Then Curt’s phone buzzed in his pocket. Across the room, our home phone joined in.
What in the world? I grabbed my phone and glanced at the screen. “It’s the school.”
I pushed the speaker button and we all leaned in, listening. The voice of our high school principal filled the living room.
“Good evening staff, students and families. It is with deep sadness that I regret to inform you that our high school lost a great student earlier today.”
The recorded message continued as we sat motionless, trying to comprehend the unbelievable news.
A fourteen-year-old boy had tragically passed away. He was a freshman – the grade right between Emily and Taylor. His younger brother is in Maddie’s class. In our small community, everyone pretty much knows everyone.
I hung up the phone. For awhile, we just stared into space in silent disbelief. Finally, I remembered it was Maddie’s turn to open her gift. But opening gifts didn't seem important anymore.
Throughout Christmas day I couldn't get that phone call out of my mind. My heart ached as I thought about the unimaginable pain this family must be feeling. As we opened our gifts, I pictured the unopened gifts under their family’s tree. When we sat down together for dinner, I thought about the empty chair at their table.
My mind drifted back over the past few weeks. December had been crazy busy. There was Christmas shopping and gift wrapping to be done. A Christmas letter to write. Decorations to drag up from the basement. Two trees to decorate. Cookies to bake. A big ‘ol traditional meal to plan and prepare – complete with turkey and stuffing, mashed potatoes and gravy, corn casserole and cranberries, homemade rolls and pie. And in my desire to make the house look "perfect" before family showed up, there was last-minute cleaning to do.
On Christmas night I grabbed a book from my nightstand and went to bed early. Before long, Madison, all decked out in her new fuzzy jammies, scrambled in beside me. She snuggled close, resting her head against my shoulder. And we sat together, doing absolutely nothing, for a very long time.
It’s hard to describe the emotions I felt as my “baby” cuddled close beside me that night. I'll try to sum it up with six words.
Madison started to yawn, but then turned away, attempting to stifle it. She looked up at me and exhaled a heavy sigh. “So I guess that means I have to go to bed.”
“Nope,” I said. “You need to stay right here.”
She raised an eyebrow.
“And do you know why I want you to stay here?” I didn't give her the chance to answer. “Because there’s nowhere else in this whole wide world I’d rather be than sitting right here, snuggling with you.”
“Nowhere?” Her eyes widened.
“Nowhere,” I said. And I meant it with all my heart.