Holiday Traditions Bridging a Painful Divide

December 2, 2018

A 3,000-mile separation can’t compete with the family rituals keeping together our ten sons and daughters this Christmas.

I always knew that traditions could create bridges between generations, but this year I learned they can also bridge difficulty and distance. My wife Lisa and I have never been apart for more than a week since we first married, and never apart at all during Christmas.

This year, she and our 11-year-old son Ethan are spending three months on the other side of the country from our family home in Bakersfield, California and away from Ethan’s nine siblings as he teaches cancer a lesson in what resilience looks like. He’s already taught us.

The dictionary tells me that tradition is “the handing down by word-of-mouth or by example from one generation to another without written instruction.” But, it turns out I’m smarter than the dictionary. I also happen to know that tradition is about strengthening relationships, sharing values, honoring ancestors, and helping the next generation carry on what we’ve started. Most importantly, tradition binds us together in ways that circumstances can’t separate.

This family bond and some of the rituals our family has practiced for decades are now helping us overcome the fear and pain this season brought with it when Ethan was diagnosed with Ewing Sarcoma. No parent is prepared to hear news like this, and, like anyone would feel, my first instinct was to protect Ethan and our family. Initially, we just gathered together and hugged and told each other it was going to be OK. That we were all going to be OK.

You see, bone cancer never met a member of the Waite family. Pick a fight with one of us and you take on the whole crew.

At first, these were just words, but because of the relationships we have with each other, it soon grew to be more than that. It turns out I can’t actually protect the members of my family: things will happen to them, will happen to me, that none of us can control. But we can turn to each other during these trials and find comfort and strength. You see, bone cancer never met a member of the Waite family. Pick a fight with one of us and you take on the whole crew.

I’m grateful for this solidarity, and it’s been hard-won. Our closeness is something we earned one tradition, one triumph, one struggle, and one kid at a time. When you set out to create a large family and open your heart to it, you also make yourself vulnerable to the potential pain that can grow in equal measure to your joy. By having ten kids, my wife and I created ten opportunities to expand and redefine what it means to be “the Waite family;” we also found our hearts running around outside of our bodies in the form of these remarkable young people. Their joy is ours, as is their pain.

So, how to keep the feeling of closeness to Ethan and his mom this Christmas season during his treatment while they stay on the other side of the country at the Ronald McDonald House? By staying in close communication and by reinforcing holiday family traditions, many of which are centered on serving the people around us. As easy as it would be to feel sorry for our son, to feel sorry for ourselves, Ethan was the first one to remind us that we were just too busy for that.

Back in Bakersfield, our family regularly works with the community homeless shelter, and annually I get to dress up as Santa, with my kids checking in as Santa’s helpers. As much as they’ve loved scoring loot from under the family tree over the years on Christmas morning, you should see their faces when my kids are the ones helping other children. This family tradition has shaped their hearts as they learned you can’t help but love the people you serve.

This year, one little girl who sat on Santa’s lap asked for a gift that had us all in tears, quietly asking me if Santa might be able to give her a bed of her own this Christmas. My kids’ Nintendo requests looked pale by comparison, and our own trials suddenly had more perspective. Similarly, before taking Ethan to New York City, we went the hospital to adjust his wheelchair and had another powerful lesson in context. The other patient there waiting to upgrade his equipment was a blind man who had no legs. Ethan’s eyes shined with empathy for the man, and with gratitude at the relatively “light” burden he, himself, was carrying.

I write the word “light” with some pause, because among the things we were told for months is that amputation was the prognosis accompanying Ethan’s aggressive case of Ewing Sarcoma. Last month, it was a second opinion from a far-off hospital in New York City that led to our eastward trek (and new hope) after doctors at Memorial Sloan-Kettering told us they might be able to save both Ethan and his left foot. Three months spent apart suddenly seemed a very small price to pay for this miracle. So as we entered the holiday season, our longstanding family traditions, (even done long-distance) have done much to ease the burden of that separation.

We began by carefully reinventing our traditions for our new circumstances.

We began by carefully reinventing them for our new circumstances.

In addition to working with our community homeless shelter, we also have “The 12 Days of Christmas” where we find a local family in need and secretly deliver gifts to their doorstep in the days leading up to Christmas. This year, Ethan and his mom are keeping up this tradition by focusing on the newest patients moving into the Ronald McDonald House. My dynamic duo has been leaving cheerful notes, small gifts, teaching crafts like cut-out paper snowflakes, and performing acts of service to their fellow warriors.

One very simple, but vital, service is babysitting other kids while their guardian runs errands outside the house—patients aren’t allowed to be unaccompanied at any time, even if there is a blizzard outside and their adults need to run important errands. Ethan and Lisa’s hope is to make their fellow patients and parents feel like they’re inside the big warm hug that they, themselves both received upon arrival—as well as reminding each other of one waiting for them back home.

It’s also a family tradition to attend the Bakersfield annual Christmas parade and watch holiday movies together as a family. While we can’t actually replace this, the Ronald McDonald House is sure trying their best. No less than the Santa from the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade came to visit the kids, bringing Macy’s gifts to each of them, including Ethan.

And as for family movie time: they’ve been treated to once-in-a-lifetime advanced screenings of Mary Poppins, and Spiderman: Into the Spiderverse with the films’ main stars visiting with the kids after the film, taking time to get to know each of their stories and pose for photos. (Emily Blunt wanted to know Ethan’s favorite part of the movie. You can imagine the animated phone calls he had with his siblings after that!) So the ten brothers and sisters are not in the same living room watching the same movies, but they are sharing stories of what they’re watching, and appreciating the blessings—big and small—that are all around them.

Another one of our longtime traditions is attending “A Night in Bethlehem,” an outdoor interactive pageant staged by a local church. We’re not members of their congregation but they’ve always made us feel so welcome, and we appreciate what good neighbors they are to the whole town. Likewise, Ethan and Lisa have felt welcomed into communities they’ve only just joined for the next three months—the hospital, the housing, and a local branch of our church. We’re finding that there are no strangers among people whose native language is kindness.

It’s unlikely that you’d look at our family Christmas tree and describe it as a showstopper in terms of how it looks. The ornaments aren’t part of some grand theme or color scheme—but they’re almost all heirlooms in the best sense of the word. We gave each of our kids a special ornament over the years, as did my mom to us when Lisa and I were first married. We hung it from our first tree with a little piece of yarn and that is still what we use today. Nothing on the tree matches, so it’s a wonderful mash-up of styles. To look at this Christmas tree from a distance you might think: oh, nothing magical here. But move in closer and start hearing the stories behind the ornaments and you start to learn the story of our family, of what it means to be a Waite. That’s where the magic is.

And while we’re telling that story a little differently this year, there is magic when you look around. Ethan still has a long road ahead of him, but he’s surrounded by remarkable beauty and by people who care about him. Everyone from local fireman to Harley Davison motorcycle gangs have thrown parties for the kids in the Ronald McDonald House lobby that is filled with trees decorated by famous decorators. Ethan loves the parties and the trees and he says they make him feel great—especially because of all of the goodwill that goes into making this children’s home for cancer patients feel like such a wonderland.

But he wouldn’t trade those magnificent sparkling trees for the one waiting for him back home, or the people behind our family tree. His brothers and sisters and I are all in New York in spirit with Ethan and their mom, a boundless feeling of love that I’m certain other families can relate to. Your traditions are different than ours, but they bind you together with the same way they bind us. We do this together; we’re in this together.

Jim Waite is a financial planner and author. Born and raised in Bakersfield, CA he now raises his ten children there along with hid wife Lisa. 
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