I found out I was pregnant with my first child at the beginning of December 1995. I wanted to surprise my husband with that knowledge as a Christmas gift, so I wrapped the little positive pregnancy test up in a jewelry box and put it under the tree with his name on it, all the while, keeping my pregnancy secret. On Christmas morning, he unwrapped the box, and we elatedly celebrated the little blue “+” sign together.
I took a piece of duct tape, created a hanger from it, taped it to the pregnancy test, and hung it on the tree as an ornament. When we took our other ornaments off the tree, I saved the pregnancy test with the other ornaments to be taken out again the following year. Our son was born in Sept. 1996. As we looked excitedly at that test hanging on the tree, we could never have predicted how much joy and sorrow, pride and shame, that little urine-soaked “+” sign would bring us.
Thus began my tradition of creating a themed Christmas tree, highlighting the troubles and triumphs of my life.
My second and third positive pregnancy tests were taken nowhere near Christmas, but I dutifully saved the tests and added them to the tree in the years following the second and third sons’ births.
As my boys grew, the pregnancy tests always were part of the tree. A constant battle of placement arose in our house, with me wanting them front and center, and the boys, embarrassed, hiding them in the back of the tree. In addition to their embarrassment, they were disgusted that I had saved something with pee on it. (their pee is evidently fine when saved in the nooks and crannies of their bathroom, but mine on a pregnancy test is not).
In this way, our themed Christmas tree became the keeper of life’s mementos. A place to yearly visit the triumphs and struggles of all the preceding years. It became the keeper of hockey and lacrosse tournament medals, state championship medals, and signs of our struggle and triumph over not one, but two cancers in our household.
My middle son spent two years of his life growing a new tibia (main lower leg bone) after 23.5 cm were removed due to bone cancer. Every day, twice a day, we used two 10mm wrenches to turn screws on 4 struts to pull on the bone, creating a new little fracture, stimulating the bone to grow. It was clearly a horrible, painful, and scary time in our lives, but none of us is unaware of the miracle of growing a new leg. The wrenches and one of the struts that held the screws to enable this process are proudly a part of our themed Christmas tree.
Yearly, at Christmas, we get to hold the two wrenches and strut and remember our shared experience. That memory helps us to focus on how lucky we are to be standing in our living room together today, each of us with two legs, regardless of the health and personal struggles the year has held.
This year, I will be reminded that in my family’s personal lives, so far, the hardship of COVID is nothing to us. NOTHING. I understand that this is not true for millions of families around the world, and am not making light of COVID’s absolute devastation. Because although we have not been personally touched by COVID, the mementos on our themed Christmas tree remind us to not complain about the sacrifices we have to make now. My family knows that if you can grow a new leg, you can do anything. We can wear masks and practice scrupulous social distancing, and we can get COVID under control.
When I got breast cancer 1.5 years into my son’s journey with leg cancer, I felt the need to memorialize the amazing life changes that cancer gifted me as well. I had much less to choose from with my cancer than we did with my son’s. The only tangible sign of my treatment (surgery, chemo, and radiation) was the little jell standoff pad the technicians put around my nipple so as not to fry my nipple off during radiation. When radiation finished in February 2018, I asked to keep the little radioactive bugger with the idea that it too needed to hang on my tree. I saved it in my jewelry box until the following Christmas, and when we put up our themed Christmas tree, added it to the collection of memorialized trials and triumphs.
As my boys have become young adults, they excitedly pull out all the ornaments, reminiscing about their origin, thinking about what we as a family have been through, and reveling in our strength and resilience. We may not have the prettiest tree in town, and Better Homes and Gardens won’t be calling to schedule a photoshoot, but to me, our themed Christmas tree represents our life journey. And life ain’t always pretty, but that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be rejoiced.