Not all Christmas Eve’s are happily celebrated.

The holiday season is a festive and memorable time for most people. But it can also be a depressing and vulnerable time for those without family members or who are single. For those who have lost loved ones during this time of year, it can be an excruciating reminder.

I’ll never forget the Christmas Eve phone call I received three years ago. “He’s gone, Nate – Gregg is gone.”

Incredible Neighbors, Close Friends

Gregg and his wife were more than good neighbors, we became close friends as we shared many “lawn talks” and meals. Lawn talks are those impromptu conversations while standing in front lawns or hollering back and forth as we empty mailboxes after work. We also enjoyed cookouts and holiday meals together.

Two years ago in July, Gregg asked if I and my children would be interested in a trip to the beach. They had planned a family gathering and made the necessary reservations only to have some unexpected cancellations. As the fees were nonrefundable, they hoped to recover some of their expense. Since the price was a fraction of the normal cost, it was an easy decision to spend time at the beach with friends and family.

The beach setting was beautiful as we submerged ourselves in the sand, surf, and sun. Relaxing on the beach or beside the pool have always been family favorite activities. Very few things can top a long walk down the beach – either during the heat of the day while dodging fellow beach walkers and joggers or at night with the moonlight shimmering off the cascading waves.

A Secret Burden

But this trip was different. While enjoying an evening meal together, Gregg shared something deeply personal. Tears moistened his eyes as he told me he had been diagnosed with a rare blood disorder. Without treatment, he didn’t have much time left. With treatment he could possibly salvage five years or longer.

His medical treatment, which would start in October, would be at a university medical facility out of town and could last several months. So short term living arrangements were made. Gregg’s wife would stay at home and continue working while visiting him as often as possible.

The morning Gregg left, I was placing some letters in my mailbox. He saw me, waved, and drove over to chat. Leaning down so I could look through the  window, I wished him a safe trip and speedy recovery. He asked that I check on his wife and help fix the downstairs toilet. Just small, everyday stuff.

This was the kind of man Gregg was – while facing treatment for a life-threatening illness, his main concern was for his wife.

I reassured him we’d take care of his toilet – he needed to focus on getting well and back to us. Little did I know, it would be our last conversation. If I had it to do all over again, I wouldn’t waste time on toilet talk – I would focus on what is truly important. And I would have prayed with him.

Time Move Along

I had surgery in mid-November and became preoccupied with my own recovery process. Bouncing between physical therapy sessions and follow-up doctor appointments dominated my schedule. Initially, Gregg and I planned to take care of each other’s lawn while the other was recovering. He was supposed to have been well by then. But life doesn’t always work out as planned.

Gregg’s wife updated me on his worsening situation just before Thanksgiving. Numerous medications prescribed to treat his illness created severe side effects. To address those side effects, more medications were prescribed. He slowly deteriorated as all these chemicals burned through him.

Gregg’s body finally gave out and he passed into eternity on Christmas Eve in 2011.

Fitting Memorial

Year-end activities hold new meaning for me. As families gather around fireplaces or dinner tables, I remember a dear friend who is sorely missed. Sure, I miss his insight on having and maintaining the perfect lawn. But I also miss his big smile and infectious laughter. I miss his loving dedication and intense affection for his wife. Mostly, I miss his friendship.

Each year during the holidays, I honor his memory by remembering him and being grateful for the privilege of having known him. In His own way, God used my brief final visit with Gregg to change me. I reflect on eternity often. The shortness of this precious earthly life is more clear. I am more willing to pray with people who are facing hardships. Also, I am more aware of the hollow loneliness experienced by those who have lost loved ones.

I hope and pray this holiday season is filled with happiness and joy as you gather with family and friends. But amidst all the tinsel, wrapping paper, decorations, and meals, I urge you not to take your loved ones for granted. Tell them how much they mean to you. Invest in them while you can. Pray with them. Hug them. Encourage them. Make each holiday season the best one ever – you never know which could be the last.

Published in “Christmas Moments” book.

image_pdfView as PDF & Print