Saturday, December 20, 2014

A good jacket keeps you warm and dry

I've always thought that Christmas was a holiday best spent with family and loved ones.  It's a time to be together and share in the warmth and love of family and celebrate the company and joys of friendship.  And since leaving home after high school, I can honestly say that living on my own, I've spent more Christmases by myself, usually working, than being with family.  I don't mind.  I really don't.  I actually swap work days with coworkers who want to be home with their families for Christmas; and in return, they work for me on New Year's Eve and New Year's Day.  I figured, well, it would be nice for these parents to spend Christmas with their children.  Especially since I so fondly remember how wonderful it was to spend those Christmases a long time ago with my parents and my family.

Some of my best memories growing up are from Christmases so many years ago, when I was just a little boy, so full of joy and smiles, playing with my two young brothers, and helping my mother and father put up Christmas decorations. We would play holiday music and hang colorful lights and shiny ornaments on our plastic green tree.  The three of us youngest boys, my two brothers and I, put the decorations on the lower branches, while my parents and older brothers and sisters put the decorations on the higher branches beyond our reach.  Some years, we had an angel top the tree; other years, we used a star.  Angel or star, it didn't matter.  The tree was always so beautiful, especially when we turned on those sparkling colorful lights. 

Every year, the first night we put up the Christmas tree and turned on the lights, my two brothers and I would beg our parents to let us sleep in the living room to be near the beautiful Christmas tree all decked out with bright, colorful ornaments and magical, dazzling lights.  And every time, my dad would pretend to think really long and hard about it, while we eagerly waited and pleaded.  And every time, my dad would smile and say, "Okay, just for tonight," and my brothers and I would cheer and squeal with joy and laughter, hug our parents, then rush to our room to grab our pillows and blankets and start setting up our sleeping area/pillow fort in the living room, close to the twinkling, fantastic Christmas tree.

I loved the holiday season when I was growing up.  I relished the beautiful bright colors and the happy holiday music.  I enjoyed munching down on the holiday treats with my two brothers and being surrounded by the cheerful atmosphere.  And truth be told, I liked getting presents, all wrapped up in spectacularly colorful paper and topped with shiny ribbons.  But more important than anything else, I loved being around my family, being close to my parents and watching my mother and father laughing, singing, and dancing to holiday music while my brothers and I played in the living room.  I clearly remember being overwhelmed with a sense of happiness, of pure love.  I was surrounded by warmth, and joy, and I truly felt safe, knowing that I had a loving family and a wonderful home.  I belonged.  I was with the people that I loved and those people loved me in return.  It was a wonderful, amazing, utterly joyful experience.  Everything felt right and I truly felt happy.

But life isn't always happy.  And in a very short while after those few happy Christmases, I learned just how cruel and terrible life could be.  My father passed away the spring I turned 8.  The rest of the year was just awful and painful to live through.  That first Christmas after my father passed away was the hardest one to get through.  It was also the last one where I felt like a child.  Somehow, that sense of bliss and carefree existence I once had as a young child was gone forever.  It was a life changing realization to know that death happens, and we can never tell when it comes, only know that it comes for us all in the end.  Nothing forces a child to grow up faster than tragedy and trauma.  And the loss of my father was a truly terrible and traumatic experience.  One that I've never gotten over.  One that I've learned to live with and grieve for the rest of my life.

And as sad and terrible it was to lose my father, I was very fortunate to still have my mother.  And those Christmases I had with her were wonderful and special in their own way.  Watching her that first Christmas after my father passed away was very hard for me.  Because I could see that underneath her cheerful spirit and efforts to keep us happy and carry on our holiday traditions, there were these brief moments of sadness in her eyes when she was by herself, lost in thoughts.  I would watch her, while hiding around the corner, somehow sensing that she needed to be alone for now, not knowing how I could comfort her and feeling like I was intruding on a private moment at the same time.  She would be sad, and that made me sad, and I felt helpless, because I didn't know what to do.

Sometimes, I'd see my mother crying, when she thought she was all alone, the only one still up so late at night.  And those were the hardest moments to deal with, because then I'd cry, too.  I would stay out of sight, tears running down my face and trying to sob as quietly as possible, so I wouldn't disturb my mom, even though I just wanted to hug her and have her comfort me, only I didn't know how to deal with her sadness.  It felt selfish to want comfort from her, when she was hurting and needed comfort herself, and I didn't know what to do, or if there was anything I could do.  Most nights, I'd wake up, suddenly thinking of my dad, that he'd be home soon, after working late nights as he sometimes did during the busy season.  I'd get up and be halfway down the hallway towards the front door, waiting to greet him, only to remember that he was gone.  And I'd go back to bed and cry myself to sleep, wondering why God hated me and why he was so cruel to my family. 

Watching my mother get us through the holidays was a revelation.  My eyes were opened; the death of my father was a terrible and life altering awakening; I was seeing the dark and tragic side of life, the suffering and the dying; but I was also seeing the true nature of things and became more aware of the people and the world around me.  I learned what it meant to have true strength, what it meant to sacrifice, and what it meant to truly love and find a way not just to survive, but to thrive and keep on living and hoping, even if the world had become a dark and unforgiving place.  I learned to cherish life and live every day to the fullest.  And while we mourned the loss of my father, we also celebrated the good things in our lives, that we still had each other, and our mother made us feel loved and happy.  We still had a home and a wonderful, loving family.

And as hard and tough life became after my father passed away, my mother somehow found a way to make sure that we would always be safe and have a good life.  She even took the time to help out others who were less fortunate than us, giving them a place to stay til they were able to get their own home, feeding those who had nothing, and helping others get back on their feet when life knocked them down.  People always said that my mother was very kind.  I always thought that she was very strong and had unbelievable strength of character and will.  I'd be lucky to have just an ounce of her spirit and strength. 

In my darkest hours, when it all becomes too much, and I feel as if I've nothing left to give and no way out of an overwhelming and hopeless situation, I'd think of my mother, and I'd ask myself, 'What would she do?', and somehow, I'd find the strength and the will to go on and overcome whatever obstacles and challenges that stood in my way.  In the midst of my lowest point and deepest desperation, she has been my salvation and my reason to keep on going, to never give up, to find a way and keep moving forward.  If she could survive the terrible tragedies that destroyed her life, and if she could find the strength and will and wisdom to move on and keep on living a full life, then so could I.  And I've never forgotten the sacrifices she made and the life lessons she taught us, and I've told her how much I loved her and appreciated all she had done to give me the tools and skills I would need to survive and succeed in life.

I learned from my mother the joys of giving and sharing.  To me, it was a miracle and magic to see her make other people happy, by doing small acts of kindness and helping those in need.  It really did make me feel good to see others smile because I had given them an unexpected present, a kind word, or thanks in appreciation for all that they've done.  I started saving my money and started working odd jobs to make money so that I'd have enough to buy presents for family and friends.  It didn't have to be a big expensive gift; it just had to be something to remind that person that I cared for them and wanted them to have a good holiday season. 

I remember the very first gift that I ever bought for someone out of money that I'd earned.  I was 9, and I'd collected enough aluminum cans for recycling to earn 50 cents.  It was enough to buy one can of 7UP soda, and I gave that to my mother as a birthday present that night.  It was the only thing I could afford with the money I had made.  It wasn't as expensive as the fancy birthday dinner my older siblings had given my mother; it wasn't as priceless as some of the presents she had gotten over the years; but to my mother, at that moment, it was just as valuable and precious as any jewel she had ever been given in her entire life.  The look of surprise and disbelief on her face was only outmatched by the sincere gratitude and appreciation she gave me in return.  It was just a can of soda, but to my mother, it was the greatest birthday gift she could've gotten that night, and she made sure to tell me how much she loved me and thanked me for thinking of her and getting her a gift.  And for me, that was all that I needed to embrace and find joy in giving to others.  Sure the world can be a tough and harsh place, but it can also be a kind and wonderful place when we take the time and effort to tell people and show them that we care.

I heartily cherish and lovingly think of the last Christmas that I spent at home.  I was 17, in my last year of high school, and I had a plan to leave home and be on my own.  I was excited and eager to start living life on my own, to be independent, and to follow my own dreams and seek out my own adventures and fortune.  But I was also a little sad because in a few months, I would be leaving my family behind, and I wouldn't be around my mother anymore. 

While some teenagers experienced growing pains and arguments and conflict with their parents, I wasn't one of them.  I was actually very close to my mother, and we kept the lines of communication opened and showed respect to each other.  Because I had lost my father at such a young age, I held on to my mother and cherished her as much as I could, because I learned how truly terrible and painful and awful it was to lose a loved one without warning and never get a chance to say goodbye or tell them how much you love them.  Yeah, I was moody and angsty and volatile at times, but what teenager isn't?  Thankfully, I was given space to sort out my thoughts and emotions, and I was always made aware that my mother would be there if I needed anything or just wanted to talk.  And while she didn't always agree with some of my choices, she did offer guidance and let me try things my way, learn from my own mistakes, failures, and successes.  She would be there to help me back up if I fell or got lost; and she would be there to cheer me on as I reached a goal or earned an achievement.

Sometimes, my older brothers and sisters would tease me for being such a brat and pain to them.  They'd call me a mama's boy, and I'd gladly acknowledge it and proudly say, "I sure am a mama's boy, because I love my mama!", and sometimes, my mother would add, "And your mama loves you!", just for laughs, and that would usually put a stop to the teasing from the older siblings.  What else could they do after being confronted with the plain and simple truth?  My mother had a great sense of humor, and everyone loved to hang around her, whether it was at church or the PTA or at work.  Sometimes, in our front yard, she'd be surrounded by people who enjoyed her sense of humor and loved to hear her make conversation and make them laugh.

I fondly remember that last holiday season I spent with my family.  It was the Friday after the delicious and fun and festive Thanksgiving feast we had on Thursday.  We were recovering from gorging ourselves on the amazing, tasty, rich food and the chaotic company of the entire large, loud, and lively family crammed into one house.  It was a bright, sunny day as we sat in the living room, just me and my mother, listening to holiday music and reading--me, a travel magazine and my mother, a book.  My brothers were out with friends.  My visiting nephews and nieces, my older siblings children, were asleep in the bedrooms, while their parents were out shopping and socializing.  My mother asked me what I wanted for Christmas.  She'd asked me this every holiday season since my father passed away.  And I answered like I always did, "Nothing," the same answer I'd given since after that first Christmas after my father died.  And I really did mean it.  I couldn't think of anything that I wanted for Christmas. 

My mother kept asking me, telling me that she really wanted to get me something special for holidays.  And I told her, "Mom, I can't think of anything that I want or need for the holidays.  I have everything that I want or need to make me happy.  I have a good life because you gave it to me, and I have a safe, loving home because you worked hard to make it so.  I can't think of anything better than the love and life you've given us."  And I meant it.

I could see the tears well up in my mother's eyes.  But she didn't cry.  She just smiled at me, like I had done something to make her proud, and she was beaming with joy.  And I thought that I had done a good job of telling my mother what I felt, and that I really couldn't think of anything that I wanted for Christmas that would make me any happier.

But my mother found a way.  My mother knew that I wanted to leave home and strike out on my own.  I wanted to travel.  It was a wanderlust I had inherited from my father.  In his younger days, he travelled across oceans and continents, living in different countries and roaming the world for adventures.  Then he met my mother and he happily settled down, far away from the place where he was born and raised.  My mother recognized this wanderlust in me, and she prepared me as best she could, teaching me life skills that I would need and sharing wisdom that came from experience.  She even surprised me by buying me nice new luggage for my birthday that year. 

I remember spending most of my last year in high school having these conversations with my mother; conversations where I told her how much I loved her and how much I appreciated all that she had done for me.  And she'd listen and offer me advice on life, and I tried my best to remember her counsel and listen to her.  It was as if that whole year was one long farewell.  And I'm really glad that I had that time to really talk with her and thank her and share that time with her.  It made me feel good to know that I had her support and her love, and that in some ways, we had said everything that needed to be said.  And I will always be grateful for that time and those conversations.

That last Christmas with my family, I remember my nieces and nephews playing with their new toys, wrapping paper and ribbons scattered on the floor.  Holiday music was playing on the radio.  The house was alive with noise, laughter, and the smell of food wafted in the air .  Cheerful holiday decorations hung on the walls and windows, and the Christmas tree looked beautiful as always, decked out with shiny ornaments and twinkling colored lights. My two brothers, the ones I was closest to in age and relationship, were enjoying their gifts and playing with my nieces and nephews; my older brothers and sisters and their spouses were in the background, laughing, eating, talking.  My mother sat in her chair, holding my youngest niece at the time, just a few months old; my mom was singing a holiday tune to her; it was a tune my father and mother liked to sing.  I tried to commit this very moment to memory, taking in all the joy and warmth surrounding this occasion. 

I soon found myself lost in thought, thinking about Christmases past and wondering what the future held for me and my family.  I was woken out of my reverie by my mother, still holding the baby in one hand and handing me a good sized gift box in the other hand.  I was surprised at the size of the box, since I usually expected clothes this time of year, especially since I never told anyone what I wanted for Christmas.  And while this box was in the shape of a clothes box, it was much bigger than what I was used to.  Maybe it was a whole bunch of clothes! 

I didn't have any expectations about the box when I took off the wrapping.  I was just happy to have new clothes.  But it wasn't new clothes.  It was something more precious and more valuable than I could ever have imagined.  I did not think that I could ever a receive a present that would make me feel any more happier than I was.  But I was wrong.  My mother found a way.  I held my breath and tuned out everyone as I stared at my gift.  It was as if time had stopped and I found myself humbled and surprised at such a wonderful, unexpected, and truly magnificent gift.  My mother had given me my father's bomber jacket.

I immediately flashed back to memories of my father wearing his jacket when he was leaving the house for work or to run errands.  I remember him coming home from work and we'd run up to him when he came through the door.  He'd get down to hug us and I remember the feel of the jacket and the scent of Old Spice coming off my father and his jacket.  He always had a smile and hug for us, and he always felt so solid, so strong, and so warm whenever he embraced us.  It made me feel happy, feel safe, feel loved.  I remember him wearing his jacket when we drove around town or when he was picking us up from school.  I remember my two brothers and I trying on Dad's jacket when he left it hanging on a dining room chair.  It was so big and heavy and warm and soft on the inside and it smelled of my dad.

Now, that jacket was in my hands.  It still felt warm and soft and strong.  I couldn't believe that my mother would give me my father's jacket.  The last time I saw it, it was in a steamer trunk where my mother kept her wedding dress and other important items.  I suddenly realized that my two brothers were next to me, touching the jacket, asking about the jacket.  I looked at my mother, and she smiled and said, "I thought you might need something to keep you warm and dry if it ever gets cold and rainy on your travels."

Suddenly, I was overwhelmed with long buried memories and deeper, hidden emotions.  I wanted to cry then and there.  But I held it together for the sake of the children.  I didn't want them to worry and I wasn't going to bring up sad memories at this time.  For crying out loud, it was Christmas!  It was supposed to be a happy time for all.  I felt a lump in my chest, it was all I could do to keep myself from bursting into tears; that wouldn't be cool. 

At 17, you think you have to be strong, to be stoic to be cool; at 17, you're still an idiot; at least I was.  But at 17, I also knew that I had been given an important gift, one that signified that I was old enough now to appreciate what I had, and that I was loved and had the support of my loved ones.  I stood up and hugged my mother, thanked her for the priceless gift and returned to the sofa where my two brothers were waiting.  My brother who was a year older asked if this was our father's jacket.  And I said yes, it was.  He became quiet, lost in thought as he stroked the jacket.  I don't think he was jealous; not my brother.  After all, for his 18th birthday, my mother had given him my father's watch.
My youngest brother, however, had a confused look on his face.  He needed confirmation that it was our father's jacket.  I let him try it on.  And my other brother and I told him of how we used to try it on when we were younger.  My young brother put it on and treated it very reverently.  After a while, he said he remembers how heavy but warm and soft this jacket was, and he did remember clinging to it when Dad lifted him up and carried him around. 

And suddenly I remembered it, too; my little brother as a baby, laughing and squealing and clinging on tightly to my dad as my father scooped him up and swung him up in the air a few times before hugging him close to his chest  and kissing him and carrying him in his arms for a while.  I remember my baby brother's tiny fingers as they gripped on that jacket; I remember his lively smile as he clung to our father; and I remember the times when I'd see his tiny head falling asleep upon the jacket on my father's shoulder, his little face so content, so at peace while my father rocked him to sleep, sometimes singing or humming a song to help my baby brother fall asleep.

That jacket was a part of my father's identity.  So many of brothers' and my memories of our father involved him wearing his jacket.  Not that he wore it all the time, but for us, his youngest three boys, our best memories of our father were the ones when he spent time hugging us before leaving for work wearing his jacket, or of us eagerly waiting for him to come home after work, hanging out on the porch in the evening, restlessly keeping watch for dad to come home.  And when we'd see his truck coming up the road towards our home, we'd jump and scream with joy, yelling out loud to everyone in the house that dad was home.  We'd wave excitedly at his truck and eagerly waited for him stop the truck by the house, get out of the truck,  and we'd rush into his arms as he bent down to scoop us up against his chest, our faces rubbing against that soft jacket that covered his strong, warm body that held us in a big hug.  I remember my two brothers and me feeling so happy and so safe and so glad to have our dad home.  Every child just wants to be happy and be loved; and nothing makes a child happier or safer or truly feel loved like a good hug from loving parent.

I remember my father wearing that jacket when we'd work outside the house doing chores, working in the garden or tending to the animals on the farm, raking leaves or doing maintenance on our home.  He'd wear it when we'd all go for a ride in the truck for ice cream to treat ourselves after a long day's hard work or just to celebrate.  Sometimes, he'd play with my brothers and I outside after work, still wearing his jacket.  A few times, I remember falling asleep at an outdoors community or family gathering, or maybe after a day spent at the beach or park or out in the woods, and I'd wake to find that jacket covering me like a warm protective blanket; other times, it was a pillow to cradle our heads when we passed out for an afternoon nap.  I remember old fotos of my father when he was a young, single man out and about in the world, wearing his jacket.  He'd had it on his adventures long before he met our mother.  And it was one of the few things that belonged to him that my mother kept after he passed on.  That jacket was an iconic part of my father's identity.  Superman had his red cape; my father had his bomber jacket.

And now, that jacket was mine.  Of all the gifts that I've ever been lucky enough to receive, this was one of the most precious and most important that I've ever gotten in my life.  When you're 17, you think you're invincible and so sure that you know everything there is to know about the world; at 17, my mother showed me that there was still so much that I had to learn, and after all these years, I'm realizing that I know absolutely nothing at all.  17 year olds are stupid.  Actually, anyone at any age can be pretty stupid.  But even 17 year olds can have moments of clarity.  And when I was given that jacket as a gift that Christmas, I had a moment of clarity.  I knew that I had been given a tremendous gift, a great honor, a blessing and a symbol of trust and hope and love.

Later on that night after everyone had gone to sleep--the adults, mostly from gorging themselves on the holiday food and spirits, and the kids, from staying up so late and worn out after playing with their new toys--I put on that jacket and took a walk under the stars and moonlight.  It wasn't unusual for me take a midnight stroll.  I've been doing it for a few years since I turned 14 and couldn't just lay in bed awake all night.  I was a night person.  It was another trait that I had inherited from my father.  He was a night owl, too. 

When I was younger, I'd stay up late, pretend to be asleep when my brothers and I were sent to our room for bedtime.  I'd be up til just before 10 pm, waiting for my father to return home from those long days at work during the busy season.  I'd sit at the window, under the night skies, dark when overcast with clouds, and rich with stars like diamonds on black velvet with a pearl moon on clear nights.  I'd be lost in daydreams while I watched for the headlights of my dad's truck to shine through the dark woods as the pickup would come along slowly on the dirt road that led to our house.  As soon as I saw those headlights, I'd run out of the room and right out to the living room to wait by the front door to greet my dad. 

My mother had gotten used to me staying up late, waiting for my father to come home those late nights.  She'd given up on sending me back to bed for being up at such a late hour.  She'd come to the realization that I was a night person like my father.  And as long as I'd be quiet and not wake anyone else up, I'd be allowed to stay up late.  And as long as I still got up on time the next day for school or chores or church, I could stay up a little late.  I had no problems with getting up early back then; but it was a whole different story in high school however, when I just wanted to sleep in late after staying up all night.

I enjoyed waiting up for my dad to come home those late nights.  He'd come through the door and hug me before he'd greet my mother.  We'd go in the kitchen and sit at the table where my mother would fix him a plate of food to eat and a beer to drink.  My parents would talk for a little bit.  Most times, my mother would leave afterwards, kissing me goodnight before she went to bed.  That just left my father and me.  And when you come from a big family with many siblings, any one to one time with a parent is an amazing and most sought after opportunity.  And I loved spending those late nights talking to my dad. 

He'd eat and ask me questions.  I wasn't hungry, having had dinner earlier with the rest of the family, but I loved answering my dad's questions about my day.  And he seemed to enjoy listening to me to go on and on about what I and my brothers did that day; what we saw; who we talked to or played with; what chores we did, like feeding the animals and weeding the garden or picking up leaves or gathering firewood; what things we had planned for tomorrow; how we were doing at school or at community functions and events; whether we were listening to our mother; and he'd remind us to be safe when we explored our surroundings, which included the great woods that surrounded our farm and fields. 

I'd ask him a few questions about his day; and he kept his answers short and simple.  Mostly, he just wanted to listen to how my day was with my brothers; and I loved sharing my day and my thoughts with him.  It didn't matter if we had spent the day climbing trees or playing tag or hide and seek, or pretending to be pirates looking for treasure, or spacemen battling hostile aliens, or ninjas on a secret mission; my dad wanted to hear it all.  He'd laugh at our adventures; he'd smile; sometimes, he'd raise an eyebrow if we did something that seemed a little risky or daring or borderline pushing the limits.  But mostly, he let me drone on and on about my day.  He had a way of listening that made me feel like I could ask him anything and tell him anything, that I could trust him to give me good advice or just to hear me sort out my thoughts.  I really miss that; I truly do.

And as I headed out of the house in the dark hours of that Christmas night, I needed to sort out my thoughts, to help work out the competing and complex emotions and thinking that had stirred up chaos and questions in my heart and my mind.  Some nights, I become overwhelmed with the need to go for a walk to sort things out.  This was one of those nights.  And lately, these restless nights were becoming more and more frequent.

It was a quiet night and I felt as if I were the only person awake in the world.  The stars were out and the air was chilly, but that jacket kept me nice and warm.  A little while later, I found myself by my father's grave.  Suddenly, I was overwhelmed with emotion and memories that I could not help but cry.  It was just too much for me to bear.  I was a small child again, waking up from a bad dream in the middle of the night, wandering down the hallway to find my father to comfort me, only to realize painfully that the nightmare was real, that my father really was gone, and I'd go back to bed and cry myself to sleep, silently sobbing to keep anyone from waking, to see me crying, alone and miserable til exhaustion and sorrow lulled me to sleep.  My heart ached and my soul was still mourning the devastating and painful loss of my father after all these years. 

I thought about my Dad and how much I missed him and wished he was still here with us.  I thought about my Mom and I cried because I wanted so much for her.  I wanted her to be happy.  I was so moved by her giving me my father's jacket and showing how much she loved me.  She wished me well and supported me in my plans to leave home and be on my own.  I had this need inside to get out and see the world beyond our borders, to leave my small town behind and see the big cities and places I've read about so many times in books and seen on tv.  There was a fire inside of me that was burning to see the world; a drive to see what's out there.  I thought about my two brothers and how I was leaving them behind; I was going to miss them; I was really going to miss my family.  But I knew that I had their love and support and I would be fine. 

I stayed at my father's grave til I stopped crying.  I told him of my plans after high school, how I wanted to see the world and live on my own.  I told him how much I missed him and how much I loved him and how much I wanted to make him and my mother proud.  And how I would never, ever forget him.  And whatever happened or wherever I went, I would always have a piece of him with me.

I loved my jacket.  It was one of the most precious gifts that I have ever received.  That last year living at home, I wore it everywhere--to school, to work, and when I was going out and it was chilly or rainy.  I thought it made me look cool; my friends certainly said so, as did a few strangers.  I certainly felt cool.  That vintage sleek look gave me an extra boost of confidence and just enough cockiness to flirt with girls and have a good time, not really caring what the world thought of me.  My already flourishing social life exploded exponentially as I ventured out to try new things and hang out with new people and make new friends.  That jacket made me feel just a little bolder and a little more adventurous.  I loved that jacket and took very good care of it.  It was becoming a part of my identity, and I was making new memories and having wonderful new experiences with it.  A few times, when I would leave it hanging on the back of a dining chair, I would catch my nephews and nieces trying it on, and I'd smile and think back to when my two brothers and I did the same thing.

Six months later, I had graduated high school and found a way to make a living far away from home.  I remember packing only a carry on bag and my backpack.  I wanted to travel light and take only the essentials.  Anything of value I left at home; except for that jacket.  I was taking it with me on my new life. 

The day before I was to leave home, I was hanging out with my two brothers, just sitting on the porch, and talking about everything and nothing.  I was really going to miss this, hanging out with them.  The 3 of us had been together for as long as I could remember.  We stuck up for each other and looked out for each other; part of it comes from being only 1 year apart in age; the other comes from being so many years younger than our much older siblings.  We were friends and brothers.  We had shared many adventures together.  We shared our tragedies and sorrows; our fortunes and our joys.  We shared a  bond unlike any other, and we shared a connection that was closer than to any of the others.  We could just sit in silence and speak volumes without ever saying a word.

And as we sat there on the porch and watched the sun start to set, it finally hit us that this would be our last time hanging out together, for a long while, possibly forever.  I felt an overwhelming sense of melancholy, that I was leaving behind not just my closest brothers, but my friends and fellow adventurers and explorers, my true band of brothers.  And as the sun sunk lower across the horizon, I couldn't help but think that this was the metaphor of my life.  The sun had set upon the days of my brothers and I hanging out together, and I was the one who was ending it.  As the skies changed from orange to lavender, the stars started appearing along the darkening heavens.  A chill started rising with the soft evening breeze.  I felt a sense of sadness and I was conflicted between my desire to leave and see the world or stay and enjoy the company and friendship of my brothers.

I wished that there was a way I could've taken my brothers with me, but life had laid out different paths for all of us.  And we had chosen to take those different paths to find our own way into the world.  It was the end of an era, and I mourned the loss, because now, we were truly no longer children, but young men on the cusp of manhood, poised to venture out into the unknown; independent, free, absolutely terrified and excited at the same time.

Life had shown just how cruel and vicious it could be when it suddenly took away my father.  It shattered my family and my childhood in so many ways.  But I had my mother and my brothers and we rebuilt our lives and we still had each other, we still had a home.  So long as we had each other, we were going to be all right.  Except now, I had chosen to leave, and it would once again change the family in ways that I could not imagine.  But this time, it was by choice that I had decided to leave, and I had always known since I first became aware of the world outside that I was going to leave home and see that world.  My family sensed this, and they've always supported this. That's what family does:  It supports and protects.

Still, it was very sad to realize that I was leaving behind a home and a loving family.  And sitting on that porch with my brothers, a small part of me was ready to give up and stay home, where it was safe and I felt loved and be with the familiar and comforting.  But I knew that deep down inside, I had to go.  It was in my nature and I cannot change who I am.  But I still mourned leaving behind my family, my brothers, and my home.

I looked at my older brother, sitting there, looking out at the night sky, quiet, contemplative.  He never cried, unless it was a truly terrible and tragic event, like the passing of our father.  Most times, he kept his feelings inside, to keep others from seeing him cry.  I did the same thing.  We never cried in front of other people, except at funerals.  We tried to keep it together for the sake of everyone else, and held focus and got things done, handled our business, and when the crisis was over, we'd find a private place to be alone and grieve.  I think that seeing our mother devastated by the passing of our father had changed us.  We had never seen our mother cry and grieve like that, to be in so much pain, to suffer so, and we didn't ever want to see her like that again.  We never cried because we didn't want her to suffer, so we kept it together, like she did, when she had to pull herself together to take care of her family and raise her youngest three boys alone.

My youngest brother, however, was always a gentle soul.  He cried when he was sad, when he was hurt, whenever he felt overwhelmed with emotion.  In a way, he was the most honest and bravest of the three of us.  He was my mother's baby, our baby brother.  And though there were times when my older brother and I were mean to him, those times were very few and far in between.  Rather, we were always overprotective and always looked out for our baby brother.  And looking at him staring out at the horizon, I could just make out the tears shimmering in his eyes, and I almost broke down and cried, because I did not want to see him cry, and I realized that he was sad because I was leaving, that I had made him sad.  In trying to follow my own heart and chasing my dreams, I had inadverdently hurt the ones I loved.  I was a selfish person; I was a terrible person; because I couldn't change who I was and what I wanted, and I was going to follow this path, even if it meant hurting the ones I loved.

I took off my jacket--my father's jacket, my most precious possession.  The night chill gave me goosebumps.  But it also invigorated me.  I handed it to my youngest brother, surprising him out of his thoughts.  "Here," I said, "Put this on."

My youngest brother took the jacket and put it on.  My older brother was watching us silently.  I told my baby brother, "I want you to keep this for me.  I don't want to take it with me and risk losing it."  My youngest brother looked surprised.

I continued, "This way, you'll have something to keep you warm and dry," the look of awe and gratitude in his face was almost enough to make me cry.  I struggled to keep my voice from shaking, to keep myself from crying as I continued, "This jacket once belonged to Dad.  It kept him warm and dry.  And when I wore it, it kept me warm and dry.  Now, you'll have a piece of Dad with you, and a little piece of me with it."

I could only meet my youngest brother's eyes briefly, which shone with such reverence and pride and humility and gratefulness that I looked way before I could cry.  I caught my older brother's glance quickly, his eyes were shimmering, but he had a grin and nodded.  We looked away to the horizon again, before the tears threatened to overcome us all.  Our baby brother was very young when our father died.  He barely remembers him; and he frequently looks at old pictures of our father to remind himself of what dad looked like.  He has these few memories of our father, but those few are so full of love and warmth.  I wished that our father was around much longer, to give my baby brother more memories of him at least.  And my older brother and I had told our baby brother all we could remember of our father; but it was never enough.  He could never get enough stories about our father from our mother and older siblings and other people who knew our father.  Truth was, we never could get enough, because nothing could replace the loss of our father from our lives.

At least with this jacket, my baby brother had something physical to hold on to.  Something solid and real.  Something that would keep him warm and dry.  Something to remind him that our father loved him dearly, and that I did, too.  Later that night, I told my mother what I had done with my jacket.  And she had that look again, where her eyes welled up, but she didn't cry, rather she smiled, she nodded, and told me that I had done the right thing, a wonderful thing.  And I certainly hoped so.

Over the past few months, I had relied on that jacket to give me warmth and comfort.  In a way, I had begun to think of it as my armor, my protection against the outside world.  It would keep me safe when I ventured out into the unknown.  But that night, I realized that I didn't need that jacket as my armor. My mother had taught me life skills to survive and thrive, and growing up with my two brothers had given me the strength, the wisdom, and the experience that I needed to overcome any challenges life threw at me.  I was going to be fine.  My family was going to be fine.  And my baby brother would have a piece of Dad and a little bit of me to keep him warm and dry, and remind him that he was loved by his family.

I admit that in the years since I left home, there were times when I wished I had that jacket with me.  Those were the times when life almost overwhelmed me.  But I survived and kept moving forward.  Then there were times when it was cold and I forgot to take something to keep me warm and dry, and then I really wished I had that jacket.  But that's due to poor planning and unpreparedness on my part.  Now, I travel with a warm jacket and keep a spare in the car.  Still, there are times when I'm alone and I think of my family, my father, my mother, my brothers, and I wish I had that jacket, if only as physical proof that I was loved and grew up in a loving home and had a wonderful father, a loving mother, and great brothers.  But those times are very rare and brief.

The last time I saw that jacket was a few years ago.  I had finally returned home after so many years of being away. It was the first time that the whole family, including my older siblings were together again.  We were standing under the roof of the hospital, watching the heavy rainfall, trying to decide if we should wait for it to ease up or run to the car and go home late that night.  It was me, my two brothers, my eldest niece, my closest nephew, and my eldest sister--these were the people I was closest to in all of my family.  We had just left the ICU, where our mother had just passed away, peacefully, surrounded by those who loved her.

Everyone had tears in their eyes; except for me.  The heavens cried for me that night.  I was relieved that my mother had found peace, that she was finally free from suffering.  And I was glad that I was able to come home and spend what little time we had left together.  And I was so grateful that she was free of pain and suffering, and that she had laughed and smiled and her eyes twinkled with joy during her last hour with us.  When my father died, it was a sudden tragedy that destroyed my life and childhood.  But with my mother's passing, I found a sense of peace and tranquility, of relief knowing that she was no longer in pain, and that she left us surrounded by love and happiness.  Then it struck me, that I had no father, and now I had no mother.  I was now an orphan, and I was all alone in the world.  And it was a strange and undefinable feeling.

I was woken out of my thoughts by my youngest brother, asking me, if I wanted my jacket back.  He had been wearing it all this time and after all these years.  I looked at his tear stained face and shook my head no, and told him that he should keep that jacket a little while longer.  Before my mother got sick, she had given my youngest brother my father's wedding ring.  And when she was rushed to the hospital, it was my baby brother who took her wedding ring to keep it safe.  I thought it right that he should keep both.

Looking at my brother standing next to me wearing that jacket, I couldn't help but think back to that last Christmas I spent with my family so many years ago.  I was 17 and thought that I knew everything, when I really didn't.  I was just an optimistic fool full of hopes and dreams.   I still am, only I'm a lot more wiser now.  Some things in life you can only learn by experience, and sometimes, experience hurts.  I stood there looking out at the rain, wishing that I had more time with my mother.  I wished that I had come home more often and spent more holidays at home.  I wish that I could've spent one more day listening to her talk, listening to her laugh, and listening to her sing and just say whatever, just so I could hear her voice once more.  Just one more day.  What I wouldn't give for just one more day.  Oh, how my heart ached for just one more day with my mom.

But those are the thoughts of a grieving person.  And what's done is done; no going back. And the truth was, though I loved my family, my life was far from the place were I was born and raised.  The last time I did come back home so many years before, I was struck with the realization that I really didn't belong here anymore, that my life truly did belong to the world outside, far away from here.  Christmas at home was never the same after I left.  My older siblings started having holiday gatherings at their own homes, and my mother and baby brother started traveling to these different homes for the holidays.  Sure, my mother's house was decked out for the holidays, and there were a few more holidays held at my mother's house, but by then, not everyone was able to make it, either because they were celebrating elsewhere or were far from home.  As for me, instead of flying home, I sent that money for the cost of a ticket to my mom.  That money funded her trips with my baby brother to other places to see family and friends and enjoy long vacations.  She and my baby brother rather enjoyed doing that, and often times they took some of my nieces and nephews with them on their travels.

Looking at the jacket that kept my youngest brother warm and dry and comforted, I thought of my father, and how he wore that same jacket when he hugged us and picked us up, how sad we were when he left the house for work, and how happy we were when he came back home.  It was a part of him, and it kept him warm and safe and dry.  I thought back to that last Christmas with my family, thinking of how moved I was that my mother thought I was worthy enough and needed that jacket to keep me safe and warm and dry.  I realized that jacket did give me what I needed:  The courage to move forward, knowing that I had the support and love of my loved ones.  That jacket had given my baby brother something to hold on to, to remind him that he had a father who loved him, even if he could barely remember him.  And it reminded him that he had a mother and a whole family who loved him, too.

I realized now why that jacket was so important to me.  It represented love and home.  It made me realize that I was loved by my family and I had a home full of love and support.  Every child should have that.  And I was lucky and blessed to have that growing up.  And I'm still lucky because I have friends that I count as family.  Family is, after all, the people you love and hold most dear.  And friends are the family you get to choose.

A good jacket is a lot like family: strong, dependable, and able to help you weather any storm.  Of course, there are times when a crazy family can feel like a strait jacket.  But a good family is like a good jacket.  It keeps you safe and warm.  It protects you and keeps you dry when the weather gets rough.  And at times when that jacket makes you feel a little hot, you can take it off for a while and cool off; and if you find that you don't need that jacket for now, you can put it up somewhere safe, knowing that it'll always be there for you when you need it.  And if you take the time and care for that jacket, that jacket will last a long time, and in turn, it will take very good care of you when you need it and protect the ones you love and hold most dear.

So for this holiday season, I hope you are among loved ones, friends and family, and if you have children, I hope you take the time to tell them how much you love them and spend time with them.  Do this for all your friends and loved ones.  It's the most important gift you can give them this holiday.  I hope that you are in a place where you are safe and sound, in contact with friends and loved ones, and count your blessings, and know that your actions and intentions do have a great influence on the ones you love and the world around you.  I hope you find kindness and warmth and a sense of home.  I hope you are safe and happy.  And I hope that you have a good jacket to keep you warm and dry.

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