It may have been our most steady holiday tradition—my Dad was always the last person downstairs every Christmas morning.
In a family of three (four if you count the dog), maybe this isn’t such a big deal; nonetheless, the consistency was impressive. It’s one thing to be a little tardy for a year here and there, but to make it your trademark behavior is something else entirely.
Like most kids, I was usually the first one down the stairs to wait anxiously in the family room for everyone else to wake up. I always felt that sparkle deep in my bones that only a childhood Christmas morning can replicate. I’d look down the stairs and see the twinkling tree that Mom and Dad had meticulously decorated in the living room (except for that one year when the whole thing came crashing down), and like most kids, I’d be blown away by all of the presents that had been left under the tree. Looking back and realizing how much effort, time, and money had gone into those presents, I appreciate them and that feeling all the more…
And, like most kids, I’d also do my best to do some sneaky investigative work. I’d cautiously search for the presents under the three that were labeled “Ty” either with my Mom’s familiar loopy cursive script, or my by Dad’s precise, all-capital penmanship that I inherited (although his was much more precise). Dad’s tags always had some ridiculous moniker in the “To” and “From” lines. “To: Tyler-O, From: Daddy-O.” “To: The Boy, From: The Parents.” “To: Ty, From: Yo Daddy.” Even with Christmas tags, he couldn’t let a moment go by without trying to be funny.
But he could let moments go by on Christmas morning before lumbering down the stairs. I would wait downstairs with all the patience of a hungry infant. After shaking a few boxes here and there, I’d try and walk around and creak all the right floorboards in the hopes that it might wake up Mom and Dad and cause them to come downstairs. I’d turn on the television and put the volume just a little too high. Maybe sing a spontaneous Christmas carol here and there. A fake cough might do the trick. I also got pretty good at finding ways to cause our dog to bark incessantly in an effort to commence the Christmas morning festivities (thanks, Willow!).
Usually what felt like an eternity in kid-dom was only a half hour or so, and Mom would make her way down the stairs. “Merry Christmas, Ty!” she’d say to me with a hug and a kiss, and then she’d ask me if I saw all the presents under the tree (“OF COURSE I DID! AND I DIDN’T SHAKE OR ATTEMPT TO UNWRAP THE CORNER OF A SINGLE BOX!”). Then, Mom would get to work in the kitchen preparing her famous Christmas breakfast feast: a delicious ham and pepper-jack potato quiche always accompanied by cinnamon rolls and sparkling cider to make us feel fancy.
And while she worked, Dad would sleep.
And sleep a bit more.
And I, a young and impatient child, would stew and pace in the living room.
It’s okay to have a few “Silent Nights” around Christmas, but when you start to turn those into silent mornings and you have a seven-year-old downstairs with a rabid penchant for tearing through boxes like the Tasmanian Devil through a forest of giant sequoias, your parental slumber becomes treasonous.
At a certain point, it would even start to irritate Mom—probably because she was irritated by my irritation. Mom would start to yell up the stairs in the hopes that Dad would eventually come down; and eventually, albeit entirely too late, he always did. Dad would pop down the stairs with a smile on his face like no one had been yelling at him for the past hour-and-a-half to get up and make his way downstairs. When it came to verbal abuse, Dad was Teflon. He never let anything stick to him. If he knew that one of us was mad at him, he’d turn the sickening sweetness up a few notches, and then a few notches more until we finally gave in because we knew we’d never win.
Donning his typical dark-colored matching sweat suit with the elastic around the ankles, Dad would make his way over to me and give me a hug and a pat on the head as he wished me a Merry Christmas. I’d grumble something under my breath about getting him back for his tardiness by making him painstakingly assemble and install batteries in the 14 toys I was about to receive, but Dad didn’t care about any of those threats.
He only cared about the joy. The togetherness. The presence. That was what mattered to him.
Inevitably, Dad would have come down at the perfectly imperfect time when Mom was in the middle of her quiche construction, so we would have to wait a few moments longer before we got into the gift opening. I’d tap my kid-sized slippers impatiently as we waited, and it never failed that the second Mom came into the room, Dad would exclaim “Oh! Wait. I forgot my camera. Hang on.”
For what seemed like an excruciatingly-long time to fetch a camera, Dad would go upstairs and rummage through his things until he located the camera. And checked the batteries. And put the spare battery on the charger. And deleted some photos of a random cornstalk field that he had taken to free up space. And grab the spare memory card. And clean the lens. And then spend a few moments looking at the 244 pictures he had taken at the Blue Angels show from the previous year. And repairing the broken zipper on the camera case.
The man had many, many gifts; but speed on Christmas morning wasn’t one of them.
After making sure every possible camera catastrophe had been properly prevented, Dad would come back downstairs to be greeted by my face whose redness matched the glowing bulbs on the tree in the family room.
“Alright,” Dad would say. “What do you say we give Willow a gift to get things started?”
“THE DOG?!” I’d shriek with unbridled adolescent fury. “YOU CANNOT BE SERIOUS RIGHT NOW!”
Dad would laugh and laugh. And then, he’d hand a package over the dog.
We always had dogs that enjoyed unwrapping presents, which was quite the feat looking back on things. And as much as Dad enjoyed watching them unwrap the gifts and laughing about it, he also enjoyed taking thousands of photos of them while doing it. Beep, flash. Beep, flash. Beep, flash. Over and over again, the shutter of Dad’s digital camera would snap and snap while capturing what my Dad thought was the most amazing feat man’s best friend had ever accomplished.
Eventually, Dad would give into my tantrums and wailing, and within minutes my tempest will have receded and I’d be fully immersed in the glee of opening gifts on Christmas morning. My parents were always wonderful gift-givers. They would buy me toys that were just perfect for me, and I have many fond memories of those gifts. The art desk with the revolving marker stand and light-up tracing table. The Fischer Price castle and pirate ship with working boulder cannons where I’d let my imagination run free for hours. Bicycles. Hockey sticks. Books. They were always so, so very generous.
But looking back, it’s funny to think about how many of my memories are not related to the toys I received. Don’t get me wrong, I loved the toys. In fact, I’m a thirty-three-year-old man who still loves toys. Although the toys I received were wonderful, as I grow older and life becomes more and more precious, I realize that it’s the Christmastime memories made with my Mom and Dad that are often so much more special. Partially because that’s what happens when you age; but they’re also more special because I realize how irreplaceable those moments truly are now that my Dad is gone.
Yes, we still have wonderful Christmases; but we don’t have Dad. We all miss him tremendously, and some holidays, it’s just unbearable. We miss watching him laugh when our dogs opened gifts (and we miss the loss of vision from the incessant camera flashes). We miss rolling our eyes at his ridiculous Christmas gift tags while secretly laughing at them behind our criticisms. We miss watching him enjoy Mom’s famous Christmas quiche with a can of Coca-Cola. We miss watching him watch A Christmas Story twelve times in a row and laughing at the tongue-meets-flagpole scene hysterically every time like it was the first time he had ever seen it.
We miss my Dad because he helped us make so many wonderful memories. And as much as I hate to admit it, I think that my Dad’s slow pace on Christmas day is what makes many of those memories so indelible.
I think the reason I can soak up those memories so well is, ironically, because of the way my Dad forced us all to slow down. On Christmas Day, and in nearly all the days of his life, my Dad was one of those guys who was truly present in every single moment. Nearly everyone who knew my Dad can attest to the fact that he was a man who was always fully present and immersed in whatever he was doing at any given moment. My Dad wasn’t distracted by much when he was around people. When he was having a conversation, he was fully in that conversation. When he was eating a meal, he was fully enjoying the flavors, the setting, and the company. When Dad was working, he was fully engaged in the detail of the work he was doing, ensuring that every little component of the job had been done correctly. And on Christmas Day, Dad wasn’t waiting for what’s next; he was experiencing what’s now.
For my Dad, it wasn’t about the presents; it was about the presence.
My Dad was never the guy who was just trying to speed through life so he could get on to the next thing; and boy, is that a lesson he is still teaching me today. Unfortunately, for some reasons good and for other reasons not so good, life has gotten more hectic for all of us, me included. And for as long as I can remember, I have tended to be the guy who is always looking ahead to what’s on the horizon—the next present, the next experience, the next day. When Paige and I go to Disney World, I’m the guy in line trying to line up a Fastpass for the next ride rather than appreciating all the detail that the Imagineers have put into the queue for us to enjoy as we wait. It’s very, very hard for me to just live in the moment, and I’ve always known that’s my shortcoming.
But my Dad was a presence pro. In everything he did, he was there and completely free of distraction. Because my Dad took things slow in life, I think it allowed him to fully appreciate and remember what he was doing at any given moment. When Dad was there with you, he was all in. He wasn’t mindlessly scrolling through his phone. He wasn’t stressing over the schedule and how many things he had to get to the next day. He wasn’t checking his email. He wasn’t complaining about everything he needed to do. He was just there, enjoying life, enjoying his family, and slowing things down so he could make memories.
I miss that about him because it is so rare in my life that I can just slow down, disconnect, and be truly in the moment. I miss it because it’s so rare in the world around me. Everything we do says “go go go” but everything my Dad did was slow, slow, slow. And now, with years of perspective and the pain of his loss still aching in my soul, I can see that my Dad was right. I can see why he treated every single moment, every interaction, and every experience like it was a precious treasure.
It’s because it was. And sometimes, unfortunately, you only realize how precious it was until it’s no longer there.
I miss those Christmas mornings with my Dad because the slowness of the day always forced me to sit back and recognized how wonderfully special he truly was. Because the world mostly shuts down on Christmas Day, it forces us all inward and brings us home to the things we should appreciate most. Like faith and family, health and happiness.
On this Christmas morning (and hopefully on the many more left to come in my life), I’ll honor my Dad and do what he did by trying my best to be present with those that I love. In spite of all the craziness that’s constantly fluttering in the world around us, I’ll close the doors and just focus on the goodness that exists inside our home and those of my family and friends.
And during a Christmas that will no doubt be unusual for all of us, I hope we can realize the value and importance of the treasured time we spend with others. Yes, we should appreciate life on this day, but more importantly, we should place a premium on living life and living it to the fullest. We should do our best to be present in every moment of this holiday.
Sometimes it takes writing to disentangle our thoughts and help us see clearly, and as I think through this particular message and reflect on my earthly Father, I realize that the entire reason for the Christmas holiday stems from my Heavenly Father’s desire to be present with us. At Christmas, we celebrate God sending His one and only Son to this world to be born in a humble manger. The gift of Jesus Christ was a symbol of God’s desire to do more than just watch our lives from a distance. The greatest Christmas gift was about coming close to us and walking side-by-side with us as we traverse through this life. Jesus left His throne and came down to all of us to be with us. He
For God, Christmas wasn’t about presents. Christmas was about presence. I’m thankful that I had a Dad here on earth who realized this truth. Looking back, I know that my Dad’s constant presence was an extension of his faith. He read between the lines of the Christmas story told in the Bible, and in order to live out that message, he did everything he could to just be present with people any chance he had.
Looking back, I know that his presence was the greatest gift my Dad ever gave me. I’m thankful for that gift, and even though he won’t be here with me in person on this Christmas Day, I know that he will be watching down over all of us, celebrating from a seat in heaven in the presence of The One for whom we rejoice.
And I know that God won’t get impatient with him if he decides to sleep in just a little bit longer that morning.
Dad, Although the first year without you was hard, it seems as if every single Christmas gets harder and harder in its own way because your presence feels so distant. Although the years have worn on, however, my memories of you seem to become more vivid and full of life because they are so unbelievably important to me. Dad, thank you for helping us create memories on Christmas Day and on every other day. Thank you for always treating time with those you loved as a precious treasure. I often marvel at how you could make each person you interacted with feel so loved and so valued. I honestly think it was because you disconnected from everything in life but that very moment within which you were in that allowed you to connect so intimately with each person. Dad, thank you for always connecting with me, and with your family, and with the people who miss you so dearly. How I wish we had many more Christmas mornings together, even if you were slow to rise, slow to get moving, and slow to satisfy the primal urge for gift-opening within the heart of your adolescent son. I love you, Dad, and I miss you dearly. I wish you were here with us to see and live through all of the exciting moments of our lives. You would have been immersed in every little moment just like you were when you were with us. Dad, thank you for the presence. I miss it, but I know that someday, on the other side of eternity, I’ll get the chance to experience it again. Until that day, Merry Christmas, Bub.
“The LORD is my shepherd. I lack nothing.
He makes me lie down in green pastures,
He leads me beside quiet waters,
He refreshes my soul.
He guides me along the rights paths
for His name’s sake.
Even though I walk through the darkest valley,
I will fear no evil,
for You are with me;
Your rod and Your staff,
they comfort me.
You prepare a table before me
in the presence of my enemies.
You anoint my head with oil;
my cup overflows.
Surely your goodness and love will follow me
all the days of my life,
and I will dwell in the house of the LORD
forever.” Psalm 23 (NIV)