The message flashed across my computer screen last week, cutting through my thoughts of airline schedules and Christmas gifts and worries about whether I had enough warm clothes for my family's pending trip back East.
"Hey, you," said the e-mail from my friend Ralph. "It's Christmas, and I can't help but think about that one so many years ago--one foot in front of the other, one minute at a time. Now, you're running full-stride into a happy life."
Sometimes it feels more like stumbling than running, I told him. And that happy life seems like a mirage. But looking back, I realize he's right. I have come a long way from the difficult Christmas his message recalls: the year my daughters and I ventured back to Ohio not to celebrate the holiday, but to attend their father's funeral.
This year we're back in Ohio again, sharing Christmas with folks who will always be in-laws, no matter how long ago their son died. And if there's a pall attending this visit, we pretend not to notice, in our cookie-baking, tree-decorating frenzy.
But once I settle my girls into bed tonight, I plan to steal some quiet time and reflect on that long-ago Christmas Eve, when this newly widowed, frightened mom hid in the bathroom to cry and grieve.
Then, I wondered how I'd ever find the energy to tend my children, the wisdom to raise them, the strength to carry us all through difficult times.
Now I know that one way to light a path through the future is to look back into the darkness you've left behind.
Their dad died suddenly, one week before Christmas, 1993. One moment, my daughters and I were hanging lights on the tree, singing "Silent Night," making gingerbread cookies. The next, a grim-faced policeman was at our door.
I relied on my friends to get me through. Kimberly came at once and helped put the girls to bed, then made the round of telephone calls--the hospital, coroner, mortuaries. Roxane took on the job of spreading the news. Mary and Doug did my Christmas shopping. Bob loaned us money for airplane tickets. Karen left her own kids in Dayton and drove five hours to Toledo, to prop me up at the funeral.
Relatives showered my girls with presents, as if the bounty could obscure the reason they'd come. But our photos from that Christmas visit show a frazzled woman with swollen eyes, and three solemn, dull-eyed little girls, lost to the joy that is the season's promise.
Ask my girls and they don't remember much, just that it snowed the day after Christmas and they rode down a hill on their cousins' sleds.
But there's one memory I'll never forget: the soft, sad voice of my 3-year-old, who had but one answer to the oft-asked question, "What would you like to get for Christmas?"
"I wish Santa would bring me a magic wand. So I could make my Daddy get up."
If I want a measure of how far we've come, I need only check her list this Christmas: A Walkman. A CD by Blink 182. A Razor scooter, preferably blue.
As I had every Christmas Eve, I read my girls "The Night Before Christmas" that year. But this time, there'd be no tucking them in and walking away, no waiting for the sound of their soft, even breathing--my signal to set out their gifts from Santa, my permission to retire to bed.
They were scared and sleepless and full of questions. And I grew more weary with each answer: Yes, Daddy is really dead. No, he would not be home when we got there. Yes, Santa would manage to find us, even without the cluster of lighted bells that Daddy had always hung outside.
The only way they could go to sleep, they said, was if I would lie down beside them. But I was so tired from the week's ordeal, I knew I'd sink into slumber and not wake until morning . . . when they would arise to empty stockings and a hearth that bore no signs of Santa Claus.
By midnight, I was wild with exhaustion and worry, fighting sleep, overwhelmed by fear. And still, my daughters wouldn't sleep. In desperation, I telephoned my friend, Ralph back in California. By now it was 3 in the morning in Ohio; with any luck, he might still be awake, playing Santa for his kids.
"I can't do this," I whispered when he answered. Through my sobs, I poured out my worries. "If I go to sleep, I won't wake up . . . and the toys won't be there in the morning . . . and there's no one to do this but me anymore."
He calmed me down, we said a prayer, he walked me through the next steps I'd take: "Lay down with the girls and get some sleep. Put the phone next to your pillow. I'll call you in three hours to wake you up. You can put out the presents, then go back to sleep."
At 3 a.m., the telephone rang. "Hey, time to get up. Everything's gonna be OK. You can do this, Sandy."
I slipped out of bed, filled their stockings and arranged their toys by the fireplace, just as Santa always had. And when my children made their way down the hall that next morning, for one blessed moment their pain was gone.
"Santa found us!" the little one marveled, cradling the baby doll he'd brought her. It wasn't quite a magic wand, but the moment had a magic all its own.
They learned that joy can exist in the midst of tragedy. I learned that survival requires both good sense and God.
And at that moment my healing began, as I realized that there are always Magi among us, bearing gifts of love.
Sandy Banks' column runs on Sundays and Tuesdays. Her e-mail address is email@example.com.