Garry Bryant, Deseret News archives
A monument honoring 27 miners killed in the 1984 Wilberg mine accident stands in Castledale, Utah.

This is the sixth of seven winners in the Deseret News' annual Christmas writing contest, "Christmas I Remember Best."

On Christmas Day 1984, my small home town of Castle Dale in Emery County felt still and unnatural. Eyes were filled with despair, bewilderment or sorrow. Wilberg Mine, just outside of town, was an inferno, and 27 miners and company officials were trapped deep within the workings. The rescue attempt had become a body-recovery operation. Almost everyone in town had a loved one either trapped in the mine, working on one of the rescue teams or providing support to the teams.

I was 15 years old. My sister Heidi, 12, and my brother Stephen, 8, and I were alone. A short distance away our mother, a county emergency medical technician, worked at the medical unit set up to evaluate mine rescuers for carbon monoxide poisoning, smoke inhalation and other potential health hazards after ascending from their searches. No one had been rescued from the mine.

Our father, exhausted from four long days working at the mine office, supporting rescue teams, working with miners' families and dealing with media, sat in an isolated room of the house staring out a large window, his expression unreadable. For the first time in my life, I thought he looked old.

Heidi and Stephen and I had opened our presents early. Stephen raced around the house joyfully, his He-Man and Skeletor characters locked in mortal combat. But Heidi kept asking when Mom would be home. Was she going into the mine herself? Would she get burned in the fire? What was wrong with Dad? I knew the answer to none of her questions.

But even then, Christmas Day was Christmas Day. I decided to make the best of it for Heidi and Stephen. My cooking repertoire was small back then, but I chose my best dish — spaghetti — for our Christmas dinner. Selecting the best china, I heaped each plate with pasta and covered it with spaghetti sauce. Then I made glasses of chocolate milk and decorated the table with candy canes and candles. Dad didn't come to the table. He had finally fallen asleep. But Heidi's eyes brightened when she saw the table and she stopped asking about Mom.

After dinner, we pulled on red knit hats and mittens and dragged inflated inner tubes up the hill near our house. On the way, I taught Heidi and Stephen the words to a new Christmas Song, "Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer," which sent Heidi into fits of giggles. Over and over we raced down the hill. Soon friends joined us, and for a couple of hours it really did seem like Christmas.

When the snow around us began to look pink and blue in the early Christmas sunset, we started for home. In front of our house, Stephen threw his tube into the snow and laid on it, looking up at the cold, brightening moon. Heidi and I lay on our tubes on either side of him, and we held his hands. I thought about my Christmas efforts and how inadequate they seemed compared to our usual Christmas — the magnificent dinner, the house full of family and friends, the gifts hidden by Santa, the caroling and the homemade divinity. I felt tears threatening.

"This is the best Christmas I've ever had in my whole life," Stephen suddenly said, his childlike voice bursting with enthusiasm. Heidi looked at me. She said quietly, "I love you."

A light streamed across the yard and I saw Dad in the front doorway. We raced to him and he gathered us in his arms. We went inside and warmed our red hands and noses at the fire. Then, my father fell to his knees for a prayer. He prayed for blessings for our family and pled for the safety of our mother and other relatives at the mine. He prayed for the miners. Then, his voice rich with emotion, he offered thanks for each of us, his children. I felt his love to the core. More than that, I felt the beginning of a new consciousness, an adult appreciation of how much my father loved us and how much my parents had sacrificed to raise us. And I said my own prayer of thanks. It was unforgettable.