Four years ago, our 13-month old son, Reid, was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia, an aggressive blood cancer. Just one week after Halloween and three weeks before Thanksgiving, our lives were changed forever. I still remember a photo we had taken just before the diagnosis — Reid adorable in his frog costume; our family all smiles and unsuspecting.
For months afterward, I would look at that picture and wonder how I could not have known that such a horrible disease was lurking in his body, cleverly hidden behind blue eyes, blonde hair and that little froggy onesie.
We spent our first two weeks at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital inpatient, in a whirlwind of statistics, chemotherapy and fear. We were told how serious Reid's cancer was and that he would need intensive chemotherapy to beat it — treatment that would make him very ill and immune-compromised for the better part of a year. We had to stay at St. Jude, and we had to quickly rearrange every aspect of our lives, from our daughter's schooling to my husband's job. Even our poor dog needed someone to care for her.
I remember walking out of the hospital after those first weeks, carrying my now very sick son into patient housing that St. Jude provided us free of charge. I was exhausted and sad, heavy with the weight of things to come and an intense feeling of helplessness. It was Thanksgiving week, and the promise of Christmas cheer hung in the air.
I remember very vividly feeling bitter. Each warm, cozy home reminded me of where we would not be. Each smiling, healthy child reminded me of what we did not have. We managed to stay out of the hospital on Thanksgiving Day, but by the time Christmas Eve arrived, we were back inpatient.
I prayed to spend Christmas at "home" with our children, but it was not to be. Reid contracted the flu and was incredibly sick. Meanwhile, our little girl was only 3 and ecstatic over Santa's impending visit. As a mother, this was one of the most helpless times of my life. How could I even begin to provide a magical holiday when I was worried her brother might die?
As they would prove again and again throughout our seven-month stay, St. Jude knew exactly what to do. Early Christmas morning, Santa Claus himself arrived at our hospital door. Since no one was allowed into the room without gowning up, we watched through the window as he carefully put protective garments over his red suit and a mask over his white beard.
That morning, December 25, 2013, St. Jude brought Christmas magic to us. Laden with cheer, Santa hugged my daughter, held my son and gave them all of the things that we could not. There were toys, yes. But he also brought along hope and joy — the two things we needed the most.
The entire St. Jude staff wished us joy and blessings, many missing time with their own families so that they could be by our side on Christmas Day. My bitterness dissolved, and the true meaning of Christmas took its place.
Now, as the years pass and we spend holidays in our warm, cozy home with our smiling, healthy children, I never take a moment for granted. Every season, I remember the kindness, love and generosity that St. Jude provided during a time of despair and heartache. I still have the hospital calendar from that Christmas morning — a reminder that the holidays aren't about where you are or what you receive, but who you're with.
We are so grateful to St. Jude for saving our son's life, so that we are able to have both of our children home for the holidays. It is our deepest wish that children all over the world may feel happy, safe and loved this holiday season…no matter where they rest their heads.