My most vivid memory of Christmas happened in 1974 when I was seven years old. It was a Christmas I will never, ever forget. My parents were very strict and made sure that my brothers and I fulfilled our responsibilities before we opened our presents. That particular Christmas, my responsibility was to walk and feed our family dog, Bootsie, before we could open our presents. Like most dogs in the ‘70’s, Bootsie lived outside. I called her name but there was no movement. I entered her pen and kept calling to her but she was dead in her doghouse. I dropped to the ground in front of her and cried hysterically. I looked up to heaven and yelled as loud as I could. “I hate You. How could You let her die? It’s Christmas!” I made my way back to the house; tears in my eyes as I told my parents. Christmas meant nothing to me anymore and that year my presents remained wrapped.
There is a reason I am telling you this. I am now much older and have a better understanding of what Christmas is all about. As a child, it was about the presents, being off school and being happy. No one, not even an animal, was supposed to die on Christmas. Sadly, I was to learn that year that death is a part of life whether I wanted it or not. But as I matured, I also learned that Christmas isn’t about the gifts. It is about being with those we love and remembering those that have passed. It is about love, peace and humanity. It is about people setting differences aside, if only for a day, to share friendship, families and memories with each other: to live and let live. It is also a time for each of us to look after those that are more vulnerable at this time of the year like those that have lost a loved one, those that are depressed, those that are injured or just those that have no one to share the season.
We all have memories of Christmas; some better than others. After spending nearly thirty years in emergency response and later law enforcement, I started to believe I had seen everything. They were the best years of my life and at times the worst. I saw life for what it was at a very young age: unpredictable. Some events were so horrific and they truly made me question God and the presence of “love, peace and humanity,” that was supposed to represent our Heavenly Father and the Christmas season. How could people do these things to each other? Yet at the same time, I saw people living life as a true representation of God’s love by giving unselfishly of their time to help those that they did not even know simply because they cared about their fellow human being.
I have many friends in EMS, firefighting and law enforcement and they have relayed stories of delivering babies on Christmas Day, rescuing victims from burning houses, pulling victims from the wreckage of auto accidents or even responding to the domestic disturbance and assault that unfortunately happens over the holidays, when families get together all at the cost of foregoing their own Christmas celebration with their families. But their stories didn’t always have a happy ending. There were those that were rescued that succumbed to burns or smoke inhalation, those that suffered such traumatic injuries from accidents that their lives changed forever. There were those children that were rushed to the hospital because of child abuse, spouses attacked during domestic disturbances and the unfortunate individual who found the season so overwhelming that they took their own life. From time to time, one of these responders loses his or her own life while protecting us on Christmas.
Sometimes, a Christmas memory comes about in a strange manner that we don’t immediately understand. Mine came when I was a rookie police officer. An officer from a neighboring county called me to meet him at a parking lot … which was very out of character. The K-9 officer had a reputation of being a loner, very strict, possessing no sense of humor and his K-9 partner would rip one to shreds if anyone got close. He scared me as a teenager and even though I was now an officer myself and his equal, I still wasn’t comfortable. What could he possibly want with me on Christmas Eve? When we met, he handed me a cup of coffee and a muffin; with a smile, he wished me a Merry Christmas. We talked for about twenty minutes as if we had been best friends for years. It was the first time I saw his K-9 lay quietly on the back seat. He asked how thing were going for me in the field and he shared some insights with me about the job that he had gained over the years so I wouldn’t let my guard down. As we said goodbye to return to our jurisdictions, he shouted out the window to me, again with a smile, “Stay safe officer.” I never met up with him again while on duty but from that day forward, his acceptance of me as his equal garnered a whole new respect I had for him. His words of wisdom that night were a gift that always stayed with me … even now when I have left law enforcement.
Children don’t always understand why things happen and neither do many adults. I couldn’t understand how a season that was so supposed to bring so much joy to the world could also have so much heartache. I couldn’t understand why my dog had to die on Christmas morning, or why this officer called me out of the clear blue to share words of wisdom; I understand now that the circle of life is unpredictable, that those we love do die and that there are bad people out there. For every bad person or event, there is so much good in the world that we need to reflect on, and what better time when we are gathered together with family and friends at Christmas.