Before I jump into a bummer of a story about my worst holiday season, I first want to say that I’ve had many, many great Christmases. I have fond memories of celebrating the holiday as a child surrounded by a mountain of toys, which is of course the primary reason for a kid to celebrate Christmas. I remember later as a young adult when I discovered that the magic of the holiday wasn’t in the material things but in spending time with family and friends. My experience came full circle 17 years ago when my eldest child was born, and I got to witness him (and later, his two siblings) light up at the very thought of the holiday season.
I’m a very fortunate guy. I’ve had more happy holiday memories than a lot of people on this big rock, and I try to remember every day that I won the genetic lottery by having been born to a loving family in a nation where we have the freedom to celebrate (or abstain from) the holidays. However, there was one Christmas many years ago that I’ll remember for all the wrong reasons. It was my worst Christmas ever, and I hope its tragedy is never surpassed.
It was December of 1980. Texas had just come through the worst summer on record, with something like 70 straight days of triple-digit temperatures. I was just an elementary schooler then, younger than any of my kids is today. My younger brother and I were part of a fractured family; our parents had divorced years earlier and had separately moved on to other relationships. As a result, my brother and I lived with my maternal grandmother, a living situation that factored heavily into the outcome of this story.
Like all kids of that age, we were totally awash in the spirit of Christmas, which is to say, we were ready for the toys! That year I was wishing for a Simon Says and a camera of my own. My brother and I were gearing up for 3 different celebrations: a big gathering with my dad’s entire family on Christmas eve, another event with most of my mom’s family, and a smaller celebration with just my mom, her boyfriend, my grandmother, my brother and me.
It was the night of Friday, December 19th – exactly 40 years ago tonight. I had fallen asleep on the couch in the living room watching TV, and I was awakened by sound of the ringing phone in the middle of the night (kids, this was back when telephone ringers had actual bells in them). I could tell by the alarm in my grandmother’s voice that this phone call brought some really bad news. Still just barely awake, I asked my grandmother what was going on. “Your mom has had an accident, and she’s in the hospital.” My grandmother left in a rush, leaving us in the care of another relative.
Mom was in accident? I couldn’t quite comprehend it at the time. When you’re 8 years old, your parents are indestructible, and going into the hospital is something that old people do just before they die. I knew things were out of order, but I didn’t realize just how bad it was.
What I wasn’t told that night was that my mom’s home had literally exploded a few hours earlier. Apparently, a slow leak had allowed gas to build up, and without warning the place erupted into an enormous fireball, consuming the entire upper residence of the garage apartment. My mom and her boyfriend Tony were still awake at the time, but the ferocity of the explosion and their burns temporarily trapped them in the living room.
The front door would not budge, leaving my mom with no option but to find a window from which to jump. Stunned, badly burned, and unable to see, she found her way to the bedroom and jumped out the window onto the narrow staircase below. Despite her extensive injuries, she was able to stumble into the cold night and across the street to a neighbor, who gave her comfort until the paramedics arrived.
My mom’s boyfriend somehow got out as well, though to this day no one knows how. The fire department showed up quickly, and as firefighters worked to extinguish the blaze, my mom and Tony were tended to by paramedics. They were rushed in waiting ambulances to the local emergency room just a few miles away, where it was determined that the extent of their burns surpassed the capabilities of that hospital. They were both placed on board an air ambulance to head south toward Parkland Hospital in Dallas; however, the pilots received word that the facility was full, so they were flown instead to the burn unit in Oklahoma City.
Back at Home…
The next day, my brother and I were told about what had happened, though mercifully our relatives kept most of the details from us. We were merely days away from Christmas at this point, and I recall for a moment being as distraught about “missing” Christmas as I was about the fire. I can even remember selfishly wondering if any of our presents had survived the fire.
My grandmother stayed at the hospital with my mom, and several of our relatives stepped up to work as a platoon to make sure we were taken care of. Of the many awful memories of that night and the months that followed, the one bright spot was that had a selfless family network willing and able to take us in. They made sure that we not only had a place to stay and our essential needs met, but went out of their way to try to give us a Christmas as close to normal as possible under the circumstances. We spent several days with my paternal grandparents, had a lengthy stay with a great aunt and uncle (it seemed like months, though it was probably no more than a few weeks), and other relatives jumped in to keep us distracted and pass the time.
As Christmas came and went, I recall becoming more and more unsettled. Even though our family situation was difficult, I was still worried sick over her. Would she ever come home from the hospital? Would things ever return to normal? What would happen to my brother and me if she died? My family members didn’t take us to visit my mom while she was in the burn unit, but in retrospect this was probably a blessing as we wouldn’t have wanted to see her in that condition. Still, for this young kid, this was all too difficult to fully comprehend.
I can’t imagine what kind of hell my mom went through during recovery. She had extensive third degree burns across her arm and hand, which eventually required a skin graft. These days, they can perform skin grafts using the epidermis of cadavers (and even artificial skin from what I’ve heard), but in 1980, the most common method was to take skin from the very patient you’re treating. In my mom’s case, they had to take a large chunk of skin from her leg to repair her arm and hand, leaving her with not one but two major wounds to heal.
I don’t recall how long she was in the hospital, but it seemed like an eternity. I remember her coming back home, thin and fragile and bandaged. I remember her screams as the bandages were changed and the skin staples were pulled. I remember her struggling through months of physical rehabilitation to regain her strength. In comparison, my suffering was trivial; I was a spectator, and she was the participant. In her later years, she rarely spoke about the fire or the months after, and I can’t blame her.
Some people believe that everything happens for a reason. I can’t say for sure, but I’m more inclined to believe in chaos theory, that people sometimes find incredible fortune or suffering based on a series of unrelated and unpredictable events. Whatever the case, I am thankful for several things here. I’m happy that my brother and I weren’t in the house at the time. Even though we were often embarrassed in front of peers at school that we lived with our grandmother and not our parents, who knows what would have happened if we had been living with her and were in that apartment that night. I’m thankful that my mom had the presence of mind to jump out the window when the door didn’t work. And I’m forever grateful for the relatives that stepped up and took care of two very scared little boys at a moment’s notice.
I wrote a piece the other day that read in part, “… an easy life can make you complacent and soft.” I would not have chosen to experience the Christmas of 1980 in that way, and I certainly wouldn’t want to see my loved ones experience the physical pain. Yet still, having gone through that experience, I am more able to keep perspective when things go wrong. Last Christmas was the first one without my mom (she did in the fall of last year), and the COVID-19 pandemic is keeping us away from most of our relatives this holiday season. While each of the last two Christmases has had its challenges, they are nothing compared to the tragedy of 40 Christmases ago. The experience of that long-ago December helps me to remember the blessings I have in spite of adversity.
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