Christmas 1999

We’re spending Christmas with my parents in Las Vegas this year.

My parents moved from the house I grew up in more than a decade ago (just a few weeks before I graduated from high school), and so I’m used to coming to the “new” house when we come to visit.

But when I think of Christmas with my parents, I think of that old house, and I especially think of the Christmas of 1999.

A few weeks before Christmas that year, my youngest brother, Shepard, was diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor.

The doctor recommend that my parents take Shepard to San Francisco for brain surgery. “If this was my child,” he told them, “I wouldn’t send him to anyone in Las Vegas.”

My mom, Shepard, and my dad’s mom spent about a week in San Francisco (my dad was there for the actual surgery, then returned home to be with us other four children and to work), while we waited for news at home and tried to go about normal life.

The night they returned home, we all went to the airport to greet them. This was still nearly two years before 9/11, so you could go up to the actual gate.

I think we all felt a little nervous about seeing Shepard with a shaved head and enormous scar and stitches on the back of his head, but when he was actually there, his same sweet self, we were all so relieved to see him that we all squeezed in to hug and kiss him.

My mom told us about a kind gentleman on her flight who offered her his first class tickets (Shepard’s stitches were done in heavy black thread and with a blanket stitch, so you couldn’t miss them if you tried), but my mom insisted they were fine and that the flight was very short anyway.

A few minutes later, the man came back, saying he’d been to the ticket desk and upgraded her tickets and that this was something he and his wife really wanted to do, and merry Christmas. I can’t even type that sentence without getting teary.

Since my dad’s return a few days earlier, we had worked feverishly to get all the Christmas decorations up inside and the lights on the outside of the house hung before my mom and Shepard returned.

When we pulled up the house, my mom commented on the lights, but Shepard, sitting in the back seat, didn’t see them.

Then, as we all piled out of the car, he looked up at the house, lit up in the dark with hundreds of tiny lights, and whispered, “Home.”

Everyone got a little teary.

That was a Christmas our whole family remembers. There was so much gratitude and love, but also nervous anticipation for what might lay ahead, with chemotherapy was fast approaching in January.

It was also Shepard’s last Christmas. He died 26 days before Christmas in 2000. His presents were already wrapped under the tree – presents we’ve never unwrapped and that we put back under the tree year after year (I’d bought, but not wrapped, a little umbrella for him that I gave to Ella for her third birthday, 12 and a half years later).

I’ll never be able to think about Christmas without thinking of that Christmas.

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  1. Oh goodness, J. I have that hoarseness in my throat from where you are trying desperately not to cry (at work). Thank you for sharing this sweet memory.

  2. I noticed his stocking hanging next to your dad's in one of your recent posts. It would certainly be a wonderful thing if in the near future other families didn't have to share your experience.

  3. My heart just breaks reading this post! A boy in our ward who is also two is currently going through the same thing! They got the brain tumor removed in September and by the time they started radiation in October it was growing again already. They just finished the one shot they'll ever have with radiation and if the tumor grows again there is pretty much nothing they can do. I'm so sorry for what you and your family have had to cope and deal with!

  4. I don't remember that top picture. I'm sure it's in his book – I need to get it out and read through it again in the near future. But this isn't a photo that has been shown in the past when we all remember him this time of year. No matter how many years go by, there are some things that will forever bring a stitch to the breath and a tear to the eye, Shepard is one of those. (The gifts under the tree every year is a new item for me, I didn't know you did that – very sweet)

  5. As you know, childhood cancer is something close to my own heart as well. I didn't now Aflac donated money specific to pediatric cancer. It seems many organizations designate money for cancer research but not very much of that is funneled to pediatric cancer specifically.

  6. oh… and here I am in the midst of editing, tears running down my face. What a tender story. He was dearly loved.

  7. This was really hard for me to read. Although I remember bits and pieces of this, I think I view it from an entire new perspective now as a mom and as a mom who has had a child with cancer. What amazing and sweet memories you have of that last Christmas. I can only imagine how full all your hearts felt.

  8. thanks for sharing this tender story about your family. I have loved following you on Instagram this past year and now i even love you more. It’s crazy how we look around and think everyone has this perfect life with no sadness or hard things. Then you realize that everyone has a story. Everyone has something that makes them who they are. We buried a son ten years ago due to suicide. I never ever thought I’d be on that path… and it has taken me ten years to say the word suicide… God bless us all! And keep sharing your beautiful light!

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