Growing up in NY, the holidays – Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Years- meant getting together with my parents, brother, paternal uncles, aunts, cousins and other extended family who all lived in the tri-state area. Family get-togethers included anywhere from 20-40 family members depending on who joined us. Different families would take turn hosting holiday get-togethers at their homes. On Thanksgiving, my cousins and I would ask the adults and children to go around the room and express what they were thankful for. This was a beautiful exercise. On Christmas, no matter where we were, we had a huge celebration. As a young child, I remember that no matter where Christmas was, we had a big tree with what seemed like unlimited gifts under it. It was a magical experience. As my sibling and older cousins went off to boarding schools and college, the meaning of the holidays changed. I began to associate the holidays with the time of the year that I got to see my brother and my older cousins.
Although what I have described is something that many others can relate to, there were also some non-traditional holidays. One Thanksgiving, my family decided that instead of spending the day with each other, we would help the homeless. All of my extended family members in the tri-state area got together and spent the day making sandwiches (what seemed like thousands but were probably close to hundreds) to be distributed later that day. We also bought several blankets. We got into multiple cars and descended on Port Authority Bus Terminal in NYC. After arriving there, we split into groups and distributed sandwiches, juice boxes, and fruit in paper bags along with blankets to as many homeless individuals as we could find. At the end of the day, it was the most fulfilling feeling in the world to know that we chose to help those less fortunate. I had no idea at the time that this would not be my only experience with a non-traditional holiday season and had no way of anticipating the changes to come.
It was when I started to rarely spend holidays with family that I started to truly realize the importance of family holidays. My thanksgivings from 2003 to 2005 were spent with my head buried in my very heavy law textbooks. During the winters, I would spend several weeks, including Christmas in India. Although I loved being with my parents, I missed our big family get-togethers. In 2006 and 2007, I lived in Asia and could not come home for the holidays. As holiday time was approaching in 2008 and I had just moved to Singapore after spending the summer in the U.S., I did not expect to spend my holidays in the U.S. and in NY.
On October 30th, 2008, my life changed drastically. I had just returned from a trip to Bali and was having lunch with a friend in Singapore. I walked in the door of my condo that I had lived in for just two weeks when I got a call from my mom that my father was in the hospital and had a mini-stroke. I immediately booked a ticket home thinking I would be there a week or two and ended up staying for nine months. My father spent most of the month in the hospital but he was determined to join the rest of our family Thanksgiving. Since he had just been discharged the day before thanksgiving, my mother and I had our reservations. No one expected him to be there as he was being administered a heavy dose of IV medication at home. He did not let this stop him. Although he had an external pump which he kept in a fanny pack, connected to a bag of medicine and connected to tubing that went all the way to a line in his arm, he woke up, showered, got ready and was determined to go. That day, my extended family knew that I would be joining them, but when my father walked down the stairs and surprised his brothers, sisters-in-law, nieces and nephews, he was greeted with a huge round of applause and cheers.
Although his health improved, he was re-admitted for what would be a 50 day hospitalization. About a year ago, on December 19th 2008, he had open heart surgery to put in a mechanical heart, known as a Left Ventricular Assist Device. This is a pump which is inserted into ones’ stomach with a line directly to the heart and an external tube connecting to a system controller. This system controller must be plugged into a machine every night for 10-12 hours (which he did for the next four months) or can run temporarily on batteries that the patient must carry around which last for three hours.
All of this did not prevent my family from spending Christmas together. Even though my father was recovering in the Cardio-Thoracic Intensive Care Unit (CTICU) at Columbia Presbyterian Hospital, everyone made it to the hospital that day on Christmas. Although the hospital was very strict and made us wear gloves, gowns and masks, all of my approximately thirty family members went in to wish him a merry Christmas one by one. Thanksgiving and Christmas 2008 were by far my most memorable, as it was the first time in many years that I was able to spend both holidays with my extended family. More importantly, they were the last holidays that I was able to spend with my father who passed away on October 1st, 2009, due to an infection just six months after a successful heart transplant operation.
My reason for sharing my story with you is to encourage you to appreciate everyone you’re around this holiday season. Due to unpredictable circumstances, you may not always get a chance to spend the holidays with everyone you wish. Tell those around you that you love them and cherish each moment and memory you have with them. I know I will.