Just over ten years ago, the week of Thanksgiving 1999, my family found out that my youngest brother, Shepard, had a brain tumor. He spent the weekend in the hospital, until the doctors determined that he would need brain surgery.

The doctor recommend that my parents take Shepard to San Francisco for brain surgery. “If it was my child,” he told them, “I wouldn’t send him to anyone in Las Vegas.” (This has become something of a running joke in my family, as we have now heard this from friends and neighbors about nearly every possible health issue you can have – one wonders if there really could be no competent doctors in the Las Vegas area).

My mom, Shepard, and Grannie spent about a week in San Francisco (my dad was there for the actual surgery, then returned home to be with us and to work), while we waited for the news about whether the tumor was benign or malignant, if the surgery would get it all, if chemo would be necessary.

The night my mom and Shepard flew home, we all went to the airport to greet them. This was still nearly two years before 9/11, of course, so you could go up to the actual gate. I think we all felt a little nervous – Shepard had a large horseshoe shaped scar on the back of his head with huge black stitches (they actually used a blanket stitch – they could not have been more conspicuous if they tried), and we knew his head had been shaved for surgery, but when he was actually there, his normal fiery 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 (like I said, there was no way NOT to notice Shepard’s scar), 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. The kindness of strangers, indeed.

Since my dad’s return a few days earlier, we had worked feverishly to get all the Christmas decorations up and the lights on the house hung so that it would look festive and welcoming for Mom and Shepard’s return. When we pulled up the house, my mom commented on the lights, of course, but Shepard, in the back seat, didn’t see them. Then, as we all tumbled out of the car, and he was removed from his seat, he looked up at the house, lit up in the dark with hundreds of tiny lights, and whispered, “Home.” We all got a little teary.

That was a Christmas to remember – such a combination of heart wrenching gratitude and family love, but also tinged with fear and nervous anticipation for what might lay ahead, as we all knew chemotherapy was fast approaching in January.

It was also the last Christmas. Shepard 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.

It’s not a Christmas you’d ask for, but it’s one I’m grateful for anyway. Grateful to be reminded that family is really the most important thing, grateful to know that people, strangers, can be kinder and more generous than you might ever be, grateful that even difficult times can be full of joy and sweet moments.

You Might Also Like


  • Reply Jess December 11, 2009 at 4:06 pm

    I cried reading this. I'm so sorry about your brother. But what a beautiful tribute. And in a way it's nice that his memory and your love for him are intertwined with this holiday for you.

  • Reply Amy Sorensen December 11, 2009 at 4:09 pm

    Oh, wow. What a sweet, and bittersweet, experience. Thank you for sharing it with us. Isn't it amazing how, when those anniversaries come up, the little details matter so much? HUGS.

  • Reply Jennifer Lee December 11, 2009 at 4:12 pm

    I hope you know how much I love you.

  • Reply Kristi December 11, 2009 at 4:14 pm

    Wow Janssen, thanks for sharing that. I can't imagine how hard that must have been and continues to be. And every story I hear that involves your parents in any way makes me admire them and aspire to be like them all the more. The few brushes with tragedy I have had had made me realize how remarkably strong the people who deal with it are.

  • Reply Natasha @ Maw Books December 11, 2009 at 4:28 pm

    Thanks Janssen for sharing your story with us. Totally made me cry. Hugs to you.

  • Reply Chris December 11, 2009 at 4:36 pm

    Christmas is bittersweet for so many. Thank you for sharing this.

  • Reply Lisa December 11, 2009 at 4:50 pm

    Tha man at the airport totally made me cry. And the rest of it too. How old was your brother?

  • Reply Peaceful Reader December 11, 2009 at 4:52 pm

    Thanks for sharing your family's story. There are just no words to help a family going through this but the man upgrading their plane tickets was a wonderful gesture!

  • Reply Melinda December 11, 2009 at 4:55 pm

    Oh Janssen, thank you for sharing this tender story. I'm so sorry for your loss.

  • Reply Elizabeth December 11, 2009 at 5:06 pm

    Oh, Janssen, you made me cry reading this. It was so lovely and so sad.
    Thank you for sharing it.

  • Reply lacie tidwell December 11, 2009 at 5:26 pm

    That was a really tough year- but it's the tough experiences that bring people together (or tear them apart) (sidenote- second paragraph it says Crawford instead of Shepherd) your family is amazing!

  • Reply David and Sammy December 11, 2009 at 5:37 pm

    Thank you for sharing. I know it must be hard but it's such a great reminder to us all. What a fitting name he has. Hope you guys have a wonderful Christmas.

  • Reply Noelle December 11, 2009 at 5:44 pm

    Wow, beautifully written. Thank you for this sweet post Janssen.

  • Reply Ashley and Dave December 11, 2009 at 6:03 pm

    you made me cry. I feel blessed that I got to go to your house for a few times the summer in between these christmases for my teeth. Of course, Shepard didnt want anything to do with me because he didnt know me and wasnt a happy camper because of the chemo. But I still feel blessed to be with him and get to know him a little, something that the rest of my siblings didnt get a chance to do.

  • Reply ellen December 11, 2009 at 6:16 pm

    Thanks for sharing your sweet story.

  • Reply Heather December 11, 2009 at 7:10 pm

    Thank you for sharing such a tender story. It will bless the lives of all who read it.

  • Reply Braden December 11, 2009 at 7:22 pm


  • Reply Miriam December 11, 2009 at 7:27 pm

    When ever I hear this story I learn a little tidbit I'd never heard before. The part about Shepard's unwrapped gifts going under the tree each year is a new part of the tale for me. Your parents were here on Shepard's passing date this year, it was ever present on my mind during their visit.

  • Reply Jenny December 11, 2009 at 7:30 pm

    Beautiful, Janssen.

  • Reply P December 11, 2009 at 7:36 pm

    That totally made me cry. What a beautiful memory!

  • Reply Emily December 11, 2009 at 7:43 pm

    That was beautiful, Janssen. Thanks for sharing it.

  • Reply Jen Robinson December 11, 2009 at 7:51 pm

    Wow, Janssen. Just, wow… Thanks for sharing this, and for reminding us all about what's really important.

  • Reply Packrat December 11, 2009 at 7:56 pm

    Oh, my…

  • Reply Chelsea December 11, 2009 at 8:07 pm

    Like everyone else that read this, it made me cry. I love hearing stories of him from you. They are so touching and sweet. I know that my Mom used to send and angel ornament to your family every year to remember him. I don't know if she still does this or not.

  • Reply Bart December 11, 2009 at 8:09 pm

    Very touching post, Janssen. Trying to hold back the tears on the plane as we prepare for take off has not been easy. Can't wait to be back with you in just a few short hours.

  • Reply Becky December 11, 2009 at 8:10 pm

    My heart goes out to you.

  • Reply Janelle December 11, 2009 at 8:18 pm

    Thank you for sharing such a sweet tribute.

  • Reply Becca December 11, 2009 at 9:59 pm

    This is beautiful, Janssen.

  • Reply artemisia December 11, 2009 at 10:14 pm

    I am so sorry, but am so touched by your gratitude. I am still so sorry.

    The kindness people can show, especially strangers, can carry us on through so much. I am so thankful that gentleman and his wife had the courage to care for your mother and Shepard.

    It makes the holiday something different, doesn't it? We lost our mom to cancer on Christmas Eve coming up on 17 years ago, and boy, this season is FULL in every sense of the word.

    I will most definitely be thinking of you this Christmas, and every Christmas to come.

    God bless!

  • Reply chelon:) December 11, 2009 at 10:18 pm

    so touching. thanks for sharing. i hope your holidays are filled with joy and love 🙂

  • Reply sprite December 11, 2009 at 10:42 pm

    Thank you for sharing such a sorrowful (and beautiful) part of your family's story.

  • Reply Saskia Tielens December 11, 2009 at 11:50 pm

    Thanks for sharing your story. It's a beautiful tradition to keep putting Shepard's presents under the tree, and I was touched you thought to share it with us. Holidays can be so bittersweet (something the coca-cold commercials and Christmas movies never warn us about) and it's good to see that you've found a way to deal with that.

  • Reply Allison December 12, 2009 at 12:05 am

    What a beautifully written tribute to your brother. I want to be like the man on the plane who upgraded their tickets. If he only knew what a profound impact his kind gesture would make on your family. Thank you for sharing this story. Merry Christmas. 🙂

  • Reply Brad December 12, 2009 at 12:33 am

    What a great story. Thank you for sharing. That will have Monica teary-eyed too if she hasn't seen it already.

  • Reply Alice December 12, 2009 at 5:04 am

    Thank you for putting things in perspective some times we get so off base during this time of year. We love you very much.

  • Reply Ben and Summer December 12, 2009 at 5:24 am

    Beautiful story, janssen. Thank you. I'm giving my kiddos an extra hug tonight!

  • Reply Sheyenne December 12, 2009 at 6:17 am

    Beautiful story. Thank you.

  • Reply tootie December 12, 2009 at 7:04 pm

    What a beautiful tribute to your brother. Thank you for the reminder that life is short, and we need to be grateful for the time we have with each other.

    Thank you for sharing this story with us!

  • Reply Rachel December 13, 2009 at 3:30 am

    That is such a sweet story, thanks for sharing.

  • Reply megan December 13, 2009 at 3:29 pm

    Love this post, Janssen. So well written, and full of Christmas, Shepherd, and your family. I'll never forget hearing your mom tell about Shepherd's diagnosis, illness, and death. I think she is amazing, as is the rest of your family. I don't know what else to say…I never do.

    See you at Christmas. Thanks for putting me in a Christmas mindset.

  • Reply Monica December 14, 2009 at 2:35 am

    This definitely put my trial-less life in perspective.

    Thank you for sharing such a personal and, I dare say, sacred part of your life.

  • Reply heidikins December 14, 2009 at 2:39 am

    I have tears running down my face, I knew about Shepard, but this touched me so much.

    Lots of love,

  • Reply McCulloch Family December 14, 2009 at 1:26 pm

    Thank you for sharing this story with such a beautiful perspective, I cannot imagine how hard that was and is for your entire family – especially your immediate family. I also admire the strength of your parents.

  • Reply Shelly December 14, 2009 at 4:32 pm

    Thank you for sharing your story. So sad, but so touching. What sweet people at the airport. How sweet you and your brothers and sisters were. Am crying again.

  • Reply Katie December 14, 2009 at 4:33 pm

    Oh jeez,

    I read the second installment of NieNie's story and then this BACK TO BACK!

    My manager is going to think I'm having some personal issues or something.

    Thanks so much for sharing this. It really meant a lot to me.

  • Reply emandtrev December 14, 2009 at 5:50 pm

    This brought tears to my eyes. What a tender and loving post. Thank you for sharing it with us. Many hugs to you…

  • Reply La Petite Chic December 15, 2009 at 2:05 am

    Oh gosh, that made me cry. My dad lost his baby sister soon before Christmas many years ago and has also held onto her wrapped gifts. Thanks for sharing your beautiful story with us.

  • Leave a Reply