Holidays. How I used to love them. Especially when my son was 5. Christmas Eve was always the best. There was a house full of people, tables laden with food, and music filled the air. After Tanner was in bed, the adults would break out the cards and play penny poker until wee hours of the night. Everyone would leave and I was tasked with assembling the one big gift from Santa that would be under our tree for Tanner to find Christmas morning. My son would be dressed in red Dr Denton footy pj’s and I would see the sparkle in his eye when he saw what Santa left him.
Years passed, and before I realized it, my son outgrew his Dr Dentons. More years seemed to pass faster and suddenly Tanner was wearing an Army uniform. The first few years, he was able to make it home for the holidays. Suddenly, he told me he wouldn’t be home for Christmas. He would be in Iraq…in Desert Camo. I couldn’t breathe. My son would be in a war zone for Christmas. I knew I couldn’t cope with the picture in my mind, so I asked friends for help.
This was the start of Operation Tanner Claus. I set out to make sure each Soldier in his unit, all 289, had a gift to unwrap on Christmas morning. Would only be dollar gifts like cards, dice, Matchbox cars, puzzle books, just a present. My friends did an amazing job as word spread of Operation Tanner Claus. We managed to wrap and ship over 600 Christmas gifts, a four-foot tree, lights, ornaments, and even an inflatable snowman.
Tanner kept everything hidden until the middle of the night, and with the help of another Soldier, they decorated the mess hall. When morning broke and Soldiers walked in, they were greeted by three tables piled high with gifts and a decorated hall. Operation Tanner Claus was a rousing success!
Back home though, when the last items were shipped on December 10th, reality struck me. For the first time in 25 years, I would not see my son for Christmas. I managed to pen the following.
It is snowing again as I back the car out of the garage for one final trip to the store. I could have sworn the package said four D-cell batteries, not eight. One lonely strand of battery-operated lights to adorn an eighteen-inch Christmas tree and tiny plastic ornaments, will fill the last few inches of a tightly packed box. I find it difficult to pack and ship “Christmas” to a Soldier deployed in active combat, especially when that Soldier happens to be my son, the only child I have.
My little boy, who once wore red Dr. Denton pajamas with feet, will proudly dress in Desert Camouflage and combat boots this Christmas. My son Tanner, will flush his eyes with Visine in 100-degree temperatures instead of feeling snowflakes falling gently on his face. Military cuisine mixed with desert sand will be his dinner, consumed while sitting on the floor of a tent, in place of his normal holiday meal at home surrounded by family and friends. Bombs and bullets will replace the revelry of Christmas carols.
For 25 years, Tanner and I have created and shared our own traditions. As a child, my son was allowed one “early” present on the afternoon of Christmas Eve…one that would occupy him while I finished cooking and setting the dinner table. I wrap that special present this year, its label clearly stating, “Early Christmas Gift,” and place it in the box on top, separated by paper. I can see the smile on his face when he realizes that although a world apart, our tradition will continue. I manage to include a small canned ham, pop-top cans of vegetables, potatoes, and fruit. There are candy canes and homemade Christmas cookies, gently set in tin containers surrounded by bubble wrap. Hidden inside brightly colored paper, is a CD player with Christmas music and a month’s supply of AA batteries. I add a brand-new calendar, allowing him to mark the days until his return. What am I forgetting?
Ripping open boxes of decorations from years gone by, I finally find his miniature stocking, a small snow globe, and the most important piece of tradition: the matching snowman candle holders and tapers. Both lit with one match, our candles have cast a warm glow on the table every year. These symbols will separate for the first time…one making its solitary journey to brighten the darkest Christmas. Gathering the remnants of happier times, I gingerly place this candle among Tanner’s holiday cheer, along with the stocking and globe.
“My son, I am striving to provide you with the best Christmas I possibly can. I wish I knew how to wrap my heart, my love, and send it nestled among the tissue paper. Do you recognize the significance of each item I have sent? Can you see past the contents of this box, Tanner? Are you able to feel the Christmas spirit, tucked inside and sealed tightly with packing tape? Can you feel me holding you as I whisper softly, ‘Merry Christmas, my son?’ I am there with you. We both know that I am. Miles may separate us, but nothing can keep us apart at Christmas.” It is now 8:00 a.m. in Connecticut on the morning of Christmas Eve, making it 4:00 pm in Iraq. I picture a Soldier on his bunk, opening a corrugated box containing love and prayers, folded delicately among layers of papers. My tears blend with a slow smile as I wonder if my son actually waited until 4:00 pm to open his early present. I think not, and my imagination creates a cascading slideshow of images … ones that find me alternating between tears and laughter, while I visualize Tanner’s reaction to each carefully chosen item.
Sitting in a tent in the desert, my son opens “Christmas” with a smile, inter-fused with sorrow and a longing for home. As he lights his candle, he daydreams…forming his own picture show…of me packing the car with gifts for our family, along with my contributions to the evening meal at my sister’s house. His eyes close as he forces the heat and sand to restructure itself to winter’s chill and swirling snowflakes.
I sit at a bare table, placing my lone candle in its center. As I strike the match, I feel the presence of my son…traveling within the glow of his candle, to be by my side this Christmas Eve. My eyes close, holding the image of my little boy in his red Dr. Dentons.
About The Author:
Arlene R. O’Neil is the parent of a US Soldier, and Author of “Broken Spokes,” Arlene’s first published novel. In addition to being an author, Arlene is an editor and proofreader. She may be reached at email@example.com
As of this writing Tanner O’Neil has officially retired after 20 years of dedicated service to our country. He will be home with me this Christmas.
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