While listening to a friend describe travel plans with her family for the holidays, I’m reminded of the Christmas of 2000. In mid-December of that year, my son, Ben, an eager new Army officer stationed in Kitzingen, Germany, suddenly experienced grand mal seizures and was rushed to a neurological hospital in nearby Würzburg. Doctors there diagnosed Ben with a brain tumor. The Army immediately discharged him from his duties, and arranged to send him to Walter Reed Hospital in Washington D.C., with surgery scheduled for December 26.
My son’s father, his wife and I traveled together from our homes in the greater Kansas City area to Germany to be with Ben and his young family. Still in shock, we had a surreal early Christmas party for our two little grandsons so they could open gifts. Within 48 hours we all flew to Washington, D.C. while the Army quickly packed up the family’s belongings. At that time, there were accommodations for families on the campus of Walter Reed Hospital, and we were given rooms in which to stay throughout Ben’s surgery and initial recovery.
Now, 18 years later, some of the details are becoming foggy. I remember that my younger son, Zac, also flew to D.C., along with his three stepsisters. My then husband joined us there as well. Coincidentally, my daughter-in-law’s parents live in Alexandria, where she grew up, only about 30 minutes from Walter Reed. She and my grandsons stayed with them.
There we were in small, motel-like rooms at a hospital on Christmas Eve. Ben’s stepmother bought Christmas stockings for everyone, the felt red and white kind from a discount store, and used glue and glitter to spell out our names. We all rushed out to shop for small gifts for each person, like freeze-dried ice cream from the Space and Air Museum at The Smithsonian, or from drugstores or shops we passed by. That night we crowded together in one room to eat snacks and open our stockings. We listened to Christmas music on a radio. The next morning, on Christmas day, we went to Ben’s in-laws’ house to feast at their amazing Christmas buffet, drinking homemade eggnog while dancing and playing instruments along with their traditional Puerto Rican music.
On December 26 we sat together in the hospital waiting room during Ben’s surgery, which went as well as could be expected. The surgeon told us he removed as much of the brain tumor as possible, but that it was a glioblastoma multiforme, which we learned would eventually return and is always terminal. After a round of radiation treatments, Ben, his wife and children moved back to the Kansas City area.
We celebrated three more Christmases with Ben before he died on July 25, 2004. This same extended family plus more grandchildren and spouses usually gathers for dinner on Ben’s birthday, December 7, to remember him and the profound impact he had on all of us. This time of year is always difficult for me, as it is for anyone who has lost a loved one. The memory of that unusual Christmas of 2000, which wasn’t fancy or traditional yet filled with love, makes me smile.