My Christmas memories from my childhood are grand. My parents and grandparents spared no expense in spoiling my brother and me. The wonder and excitement of the Christmas season kept us filled with anticipation throughout the year, for what seemed like an eternal wait for the next year’s advent calendar to appear.
As a young adult, my Christmas experience began to change. My last Christmas where I truly felt a connection to the meaning of the holiday was in 2003. My brother Michael had just returned home from Iraq and we were all united as a complete family for the season. We celebrated the marriage of Michael and his wife Blythe the week after that Christmas. That holiday season holds some of my greatest memories. Little did we know, this would be our last Christmas as a complete family. Michael would be killed less than a month later in a Huey helicopter crash. From that point forward, every holiday and family gathering took on a whole new meaning. There would forever be an empty chair at the table.
Three years later I found myself spending Christmas in Iraq. It was my second tour and by default I became the platoon commander. I was in over my head and I had come to realize just how dire my situation was.
On Christmas Day 2006, I had arranged for my platoon to remain at Camp al Qaim to perform maintenance on our vehicles and equipment. It would be our only day off where we did not go out the wire during that deployment. My Marines were in good spirits and had decorated our Command and Operations Center. I remember some of them wearing Santa hats and watching Christmas movies around a trash barrel that was being used as a warming fire. I was content that the Marines were enjoying themselves, but I remember the distinct feeling that I felt absolutely no connection to Christmas. The excitement that I experienced from the Christmases of my youth was no longer present. The war had become a meat grinder and I was a witness to the savagery. I was aware at that moment that many families were receiving the news of their loved ones’ deaths, and I felt there was nothing to celebrate. On Christmas night for the first time I penned a letter to my mother in the event that I was killed in action.
Throughout the many Christmas seasons that have followed 2006, I have struggled to find balance. For many of those years I did the best I could to avoid the season. I was lucky, I had married a wonderful woman who loved the Christmas season and took on the complete burden of doing all the shopping, food preparation and wrapping of gifts. I had become a non-factor in the holiday. I was merely present for the gatherings and gift exchange. The month of December is an unpleasant month for me. I had become somewhat of an expert at keeping a smile on my face and yet my brother’s empty chair was still present. Compiled with the survivor’s guilt from two years in Iraq, I had lost the ability to enjoy Christmas. My mind wouldn’t allow it. As with most activities I used to enjoy, I had learned to suppress anything that brought me joy. It wasn’t fair for me to partake in the Season of Joy if my dead friends could not.
In 2012, I became a father and now have two sons. Watching them grow and seeing the wonder and amazement that they experience each Christmas has brought meaning back to the season for me. I owe it to them to make sure that they are given the same wonderful Christmas experience that I had as a child. Last year, I took my son Michael to Baugher’s Restaurant for lunch. Michael had recently been expressing his belief that Santa and the North Pole were a myth. As we walked to the booth to be seated, we passed a man seated with very distinct white hair and beard. Michael couldn’t take his eyes off of the man and asked me if I thought he was Santa Claus. I could tell the man was aware of Michael’s stare. I told Michael that I was pretty sure that it was Santa and that he was probably “off duty”. I was able to convince my reluctant son to walk over and talk to the man. Amazingly the man proceeded to produce a good and naughty list and checked it to ensure Michael was in the “good” column. Santa then presented Michael with a gold coin which sealed the deal. Michael was again a believer!
In many ways, my boys have helped to fill that empty chair left by my brother. Although December is still a terrible month for me, I am learning to find that pathway back to the joy of Christmas from my childhood. Maybe one day I can find my way back and connect with the child I once was at Christmas.
Sean Lawlor is a Marine Corps veteran who lives in Carroll County.