Love is what’s in the room with you at Christmas if you stop opening presents and listen.
I sat in front of the fireplace in early December with a red notebook on my lap, ready to make my Christmas list and hunt for the perfect presents. I printed the names of each of our children: Ross, Alexa, Maddie and… Ryan. Tears formed in my eyes as I looked at his name.
I glanced over at the stockings hanging from the mantel, landing on Ryan’s. After Christmas, we’d take it down and pack it away without ever stuffing it.
You see, in July 2014, Ryan, our oldest, my stepson, was killed in a tragic accident.
Without him, the fabric of our family will always be frayed and torn. There will be an empty place, an empty plate at our dinner table, and a smile missing from our holiday pictures.
Turning back to my list, I traced Ryan’s name with my fingers. Those letters on the page brought sorrow into this season of happiness.
Maybe we’d start a new tradition, but what? I paused, looking at his name again, and then I prayed, “Please show me something we can do at Christmas in Ryan’s memory to give us a sense of hope to ease our hearts. Amen.”
A few days later, I was sitting in my writing chair scrolling through Facebook when I saw a story called, “For the Man Who Hated Christmas,” by Nancy W. Gavin. I clicked on the link. The story was about Nancy’s husband, Mike, and how he hated the commercial aspect of Christmas and the usual gifts. So, one year she made a special donation in Mike’s name. That Christmas Eve, she placed an envelope on the tree with a note inside telling him what she’d done, and that this was his gift from her. Well, Mike loved his gift so much that the tradition continued, growing with each passing year.
Nancy’s story inspired me and gave me an idea for a way to honor Ryan’s memory and help others, too. I decided to keep it a secret and make it a gift for the whole family. So, I did my research and planning during the day while I was the only one home.
I purchased a wooden ornament with a picture of Ryan on the front and a message engraved on the back. I wrote a letter explaining the plan and placed it in a Christmas Memories book I bought. I cut out scraps of paper and put them in a bag for a drawing
Then, I wrapped it all up, hid it with the rest of the gifts and waited.
The excitement about this new family tradition had me counting down the days until our holiday celebration. It had ignited something else in me, too. For the first year since Ryan died, I felt joy in the small moments, like singing “It’s Beginning to Look a Lot like Christmas,” and watching A Charlie Brown Christmas. Once again, I was filled with the spirit of the season.
At last, it was the night before we would open our gifts. After everyone else had gone to bed, I tiptoed down the stairs and added the special box to the pile of gifts. I held the ornament in my hand, looking at Ryan’s smiling face in the glow of the tree lights, and then I turned it around to read the message inscribed on the back:
Ryan Michael Wozniak Was a gift In his memory we give these gifts This Christmas And his gift goes on… 1988-2014
Reaching up, I hung it front and center on the tree. I stood for a few more moments, wondering if the rest of the family would think the idea was as great as I did. As I looked at the picture of Ryan’s smiling face one more time, I wondered how he’d feel knowing his life had touched so many, and then I went back to bed with my heart filled with anticipation. I spent the rest of the night like a little kid, tossing and turning, looking at the clock to see if it was time yet.
After breakfast, we tore into the stack of gifts under the tree. The special gift was the last one opened. I had my husband Michael, Ryan’s dad, open the package, but I said I would read the letter as I didn’t know if he would be able to read my handwriting.
For Ryan’s 28th year, I donated $280 in memory of him this Christmas. Here is how the donations were made:
13 Christmas meals for people at Haven of Rest Ministries. 12 Chicken Soup for the Soul: Angels and Miracles books with the story I wrote called “Hummingbirds from Heaven” (23) in memory of Ryan, gifted to people who have lost someone they love this year. 2 donations to the Angel Tree providing two children with a Christmas gift, the Gospel, and a loving message given on behalf of their parent in prison. 1 donation to Arts in Stark to help other artists. 28 donations made in Ryan’s name. 28 more lives touched by his… and Ryan’s gift goes on…
As I read the final sentence, tears filled my eyes, and I had to stop for a moment. I looked around the room and saw more tears. Pretty soon, we were all standing and hugging one another.
Next, it was time for the drawing. I had placed pieces of wrapping paper in a plastic bag. They all said ‘NO’ except for one that said “YES, Christmas 2017.” The person who received the YES would get to decide how the $984 would be donated in memory of Ryan for Christmas 2017. I hoped we would be able to continue this tradition for years to come.
Later that night, after everyone had gone home, Michael and I snuggled on the couch eating popcorn while watching It’s a Wonderful Life. He grabbed my hand and whispered, “Ryan’s gift was my favorite gift this year. I only wish he would have been here to see it.”
I squeezed his hand as tears threatened again. “Mine, too. And me, too,” I said in a low voice. “Do you ever wonder if God gives our loved ones a glimpse into our homes for our special occasions, like for holidays?”
“It’s a nice idea, and if so, I’m sure he smiled at what he saw. Finally, a way to remember him at Christmas.” He smiled, and we watched as George Bailey learned what a blessing he’d been during his lifetime.
Just like Ryan.
—Amy Catlin Wozniak
*Ryan’s Gift – #34 originally appeared in Chicken Soup for the Soul: The Wonder of Christmas: 101 Stories about the Joy of the Season – October 16, 2018