I just got back from spending Christmas with my in-laws in Michigan. It was a wonderful trip—we visited with relatives we don’t see much, we ate lots of good food, and we spent time just relaxing and catching up with my husband’s parents and family.
It was the first Christmas I didn’t spend with my side of the family, and the differences were compelling. Of course, there were obvious ones: Christmas Eve was much quieter and peaceful than the boisterous, crowded Italian Christmas Eves of my past. There was no spaghetti, meatballs, or traditional fish dishes, but there were plenty of delicious roasts, potatoes, and desserts like apple crisp. Instead of the frenzied gift exchange, we opened our gifts one by one; instead of Midnight Mass, we went to a 5pm Lutheran service—and I loved every second of it, just like I love the traditions I’ve known since childhood.
Over the course of the four days, I couldn’t help noticing lots of other fundamental differences, namely that for the first time in my life, I saw what a healthy Christmas looked like for a healthy family.
My mother-in-law cooked meal after meal, and was able to chop, mix, scrub, and lift. Between her spine problems, reconstructed shoulders, and bone-crushing degenerative joint disease and advanced rheumatoid arthritis, my mother hasn’t been able to do any of these things in such a long time. My father-in-law spent time clearing brush in the backyard, moving large limbs and getting his hands dirty. When he was done, he went on a walk with us and then helped vacuum the living room. Between his muscle disease and his heart problems, the weakness, pain, and fatigue that physical exertion often causes my father means he can’t do things he’d like to do, like putter in his own backyard, move things for my mother, or run to the grocery store without paying for it later.
I wasn’t used to long car rides or shopping trips that didn’t translate into a day’s recuperation, or how getting the house ready for company didn’t mean being in so much pain afterwards that sitting up seems like a monumental effort. I wasn’t used to not having to build in extra time to recover from tasks, or not worrying that a family party would do more harm than benefit to my parents. There was no nausea from chemotherapy, no heating pads or ice packs to procure, no last minute prescriptions to pick up at Walgreens, no stress or frustration or struggle.
In essence, I wasn’t used to daily tasks and holiday preparations being so effortless, to life being so calm and even keel. And in the middle of all the celebration and tradition, I felt a twinge of sadness for the family I left in Boston. They would trade all the Christmas gifts in the world for one day of living like this, and for everything they do have—joy, love, support, friends, etc—this is the one gift they will never have. They don’t resent or lament that, but once I saw what it could be like, once I saw how the healthy lived, I couldn’t help but wish for it for them.