This is the fourth of nine winners in the Deseret News annual Christmas writing contest, "Christmas I Remember Best."
Christmas is a joyous season of personal reflection, gift-giving and service, and it can serve as an anchor of hope in times of excruciating difficulty. Our story is a combination of both.
For many years, Christmas signaled a time of abundant compassion and thoughtfulness for our oldest son, Josh, and it was infectious for all of us. In the weeks (and at times, months) leading up to Christmas, Josh was always busy preparing his gifts for family and friends, and almost all of his gifts came with perplexing twists. He thoroughly enjoyed designing gifts that required the receiver to decipher a code, figure out a complex puzzle with GPS coordinates, or follow an elaborate trail of clues that would guide the person to the eventual present.
Some of his gifts required discovering secret panels in boxes or making trips into the backyard under buried snow. Each year, the glee in his eyes was very apparent as family members wrung their hands in desperation, trying to figure out the maze of hints he left. His reward was simply watching people smile in the process of discovery.
Yet, amid these fun-filled times were the private struggles of mental illness that affected his personal life and our home.
For 10 years, Josh had tried to remain optimistic in spite of dealing with chronic depression and other mental health issues that were so debilitating that, at times, rendered him incapacitated and curled up under his bed. It was as if a 900-pound gorilla had been sitting on his chest. Repeated hospitalizations and other treatments provided him some relief, but the emotional despair would return.
However, in spite of these problems, there were equal periods where he found great delight in service, satisfaction in learning and music, and an enriching spiritual connection with the divine. In fact, the self-realization of his own problems seemed to greatly magnify and amplify his compassion toward others.
Not wanting to be defined by his mental illness, Josh tried to function beyond it, and much relief came during the Christmas season and many days in between when he could shower others with small acts of kindness and warm wishes.
For Christmas 2011, Josh designed the ultimate present for his mother. Patterning his idea after a can of store-bought peach slices, he decided to give her a can of cement chunks. He spent about four weeks formulating and producing actual small chunks of cement out of his own mold design and then producing a syrup to fill an empty fruit can. Then, Josh created a professional-looking label using his computer and sealed the entire contents into a can using a soldering iron. Finally, he printed the clue to the actual location of his mom’s gift in Spanish on the can.
Josh shared some of his creative ideas with me, and his excitement just kept bubbling over in his expressions. He then expanded the idea and planned to give almost identical gifts to his aunt and psychologist. During such times, his depression seemed to dissipate and optimism replaced hopelessness.
When Christmas finally arrived that year, our family exchanged gifts, and Josh and I shared our own puzzle presents with each other, but the greatest anticipation on his mind was the gift that he was giving his mother.
After my wife looked at the can, opened it up, and fished around through the contents with no idea on what to look for, Josh kindly directed the clue on the label, which led her to his bedroom where she found her actual gift.
Hugs were exchanged and spirits lifted. Josh’s gift turned out to be the highlight of his day, and as the day closed, you could see Josh already hatching plans for gifts for the following year.1 comment on this story
Unfortunately, our next Christmas passed without him. In May of 2012, Josh died by suicide. Although our hearts are still heavy with loss, we find great comfort and healing in trying to turn our grief and sorrow into joy.
Josh’s immeasurable love for his family and friends has served as a signpost and moral compass to me on how to support those who need it most. He demonstrated that while Christmas Day only comes once a year, the need to reach beyond oneself in service should be a part of our daily ritual.
And for this lesson, I am proud to be his father.