"As children we believed
The grandest sight to see
Was something lovely wrapped beneath the tree.
Well, heaven surely knows
That packages and bows
Can never heal a hurting human soul..."
–Grown-Up Christmas List
I got up before my parents, before my sister, and walked slowly down the hall to our small living room. It was still dark, the curtains were pulled shut, and our Christmas tree stood silent in the shadows. There was only a faint light that leaked in around the curtain's edge from the nearest streetlight outside.
And there in the shadows beneath the tree, I saw the outline of the Big Wheel I had asked for, and the Baby Alive my sister had asked for.
The joy in my heart completely eclipsed any fear I had being up so early in the darkness. It also eclipsed any sadness and fear we still had from the latest fight our parents had gotten into on the way home from our grandparents the night before, from our dad calling our mom some pretty horrible names, from things crashing throughout the house long after we went to bed, from the screaming and crying outside our rooms.
But here, in the quiet of early Christmas morning, there was finally some peace and these amazing gifts under the tree. It didn't matter that we didn't have much money; we never really new the difference growing up anyway, thanks to our mom.
I don't remember how long I stood there staring at the gift shadows. The smell of evergreen, cigarettes and stale beer was almost comforting in a strange way. At some point I finally turned and headed back up the hallway, but instead of going into my bedroom and waiting for the family to wake up, I went in to wake my sister, to tell her what awaited her under the tree.
That didn't go over very well. I thought she'd be thrilled. She was not. Instead, she cried. I was mortified. I had no idea that was going to happen. I tried to calm her down, to explain how great it was she was getting a Baby Alive, but to no avail. Our mom explained shortly after that how I spoiled the surprise for my sister. That she really wanted to be the one to find and see her present first.
I felt horrible. Christmas morning moved on, and so did my sister. While our mom fixed breakfast, we played with our new toys, and our father sat on the couch drinking coffee and smoking a cigarette. I remember him smiling through tears as he said:
"Merry Christmas, kids. There's no place like home."
My mom cried softly in the kitchen as she cooked. That moment in time was the greatest gift we could have ever asked for, something that repelled the darkness and sadness growing up in domestic violence. It was the gift of hope. Hope that maybe everything would be all right, that maybe our father would stop drinking and being so angry and unhappy all the time. That maybe we could be a family again. Forever.
We were a family again, but not with him, so in a way, the gift of hope paid off. But I'll never forget what he said, even if I'm mixing memories, which happens as we get older. We were fortunate to have lovely family and friends who supported us and helped carry us through some tough times.
Fast forward to today – my wife and I work hard (which is thankfully easy for us) in providing emotional stability and love and an environment of personal growth and resiliency. We're also able to give them things we never dreamed of when we were growing up, as my wife had experienced some similar parallels as a child as well.
This is why we give back when we can, volunteer locally, practice Kidpower and encourage our girls to give back as well, to donate their toys they no longer play with and to save their money to give to a program that will help others. The past few years we've adopted a family via Monarch Services during the holidays, a program founded in 1977 to offer safe shelter and services to domestic violence victims. We get a list of things they want, usually a mother and her children, and then we purchase them and give them to the agency, but we don't know who they are; we'll never meet them. Their anonymity is protected for obvious reasons, especially if they're still in harm's way. We do get a thank you card from them after Christmas, and we're just glad we could give them some gifts that the mother isn't in the position to provide otherwise.
This year it's a mother and three boys and that's all we know. As we shopped for them and picked out toys for the boys, I knew these presents would be well received (who doesn't want to be a superhero encased in protective metal), but I bet I knew deep down what they really wished for.
We do these things because we can, and we encourage others who can to do the same, to support programs that help others who need it, whatever that is, throughout the year and not just during the holidays. For us, we participate in and support programs that help victims of domestic violence and sexual assault. More than 1 in 3 women (35.6%) and more than 1 in 4 men (28.5%) in the United States have experienced rape, physical violence and/or stalking by an intimate partner in their lifetime, and nearly half of all women and men in the United States have experienced psychological aggression by an intimate partner in their lifetime (48.4% and 48.8%, respectively).
That's why our wish is that atop their Christmas list is the gift of actionable hope.