My most memorable Christmas was spent at Johns Hopkins Hospital in 1978.

My mother, 53 at the time, was a cancer patient there. Beginning in 1972, she had endured a seesaw existence as cancer was detected, surged, then went away for a while. She had recently suffered a collapse requiring her hospitalization.

My wife, Ann, and I stopped by to see Mom the afternoon of Christmas Eve, and she was in good spirits. The hospital was decorated appropriately. The kids on her ward were in high spirits, but they always got to me, parading around in hospital gowns with bare skulls and rolling IVs. I thanked my lucky stars none of my childhood Christmases was spent in a hospital ward. We headed back to Bel Air and attended Christmas Eve service at church, per usual. When we got home, I considered driving back to Baltimore again just to see her, but I realized the loneliness was mine, not hers. So we admired our Christmas tree and went to bed.

Christmas Day dawned cold and bright. Early afternoon, Ann and I converged on Mom's room with my three adult brothers, my 7-year-old nephew, and Dad. Because we each generally visited her separately, the gathering of all of us in one half of a semi-private room was quite hectic. Ann had made a family favorite - nuts 'n' bolts (party mix) and cheese stars - and De, Jim and Ted brought out some cookies and candies. Mom could partake in nothing, being fed at the time by an alimentary feeding line into her chest, but I think she enjoyed the smells and the idea of goodies.

Everyone produced presents. Mom was always complaining about cold feet in the hospital, and I was pleased that she immediately put on the down booties that Ann and I had picked out for her. Dad started pulling out parcels and bags. Mom had the trait - perhaps biological in women - to acquire potential presents all year long, which she would normally sort out at Christmas time, then fill in any gaps with additional Christmas shopping. She had apparently instructed my Dad to pull any suspicious bag or package from her usual hiding places, and we all laughed as Dad would produce a package, she'd inspect its contents and try to figure out the intended recipient. In one case, he produced a bag of old clothes that had been set aside for Goodwill.

None of us could have cared less - about puzzling presents, about no wrapping paper, about the lack of Christmas dinner, about standing around in a hospital room munching snacks around a hospital bed.

But that's what made it so memorable. It wasn't even the fact that it proved to be my mother's last Christmas (she died the following September). It was so special because Christmas had been stripped to its bare essence. No Christmas decoration or special food or thoughtful present was going to disguise the oncology unit of Johns Hopkins Hospital. Yet it made absolutely no difference. All our family members were there, sharing this special time, enjoying each other's company, pretending that it was a simple extension of all our Christmas traditions.

Those traditions were gone and not missed. The memories of Christmas past were overshadowed by the camaraderie of that moment. And the prospects of Christmas future - with the 11 additional grandchildren and three daughters-in-law that Mom would never know - weren't even contemplated, let alone mourned. The celebration lasted only about 90 minutes; Ann and I left immediately to head south for Christmas with her parents in North Carolina.

I've had trouble at Christmastime ever since, even as Ann's and my four children have grown up celebrating with our own traditions. Of course, I miss my Mom. But my main difficulty is seeing past all the hype, all the attention to meaningless effort, all the excitement about things that don't really matter - to the exclusion of the one thing that does.

Then I think about Christmas at Johns Hopkins. I don't recommend it, but it was my most memorable Christmas.

Don DeArmon lives in Frederick. His e-mail is

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