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For T2T Newsletter. Day 470.

Although we can say Merry Christmas again, it didn’t happen overnight. With time, Tunnel to Towers, and a tiny village, we found a way.

When I lost Roger on June 29, 2009, the dark, jagged shadow of sorrow encapsulated me, imprisoned me in my present grief, denied me a clear view of a future, and it firmly obstructed my memories of the past. I turned my head away from Roger’s favorite holiday, Christmas, holiday meals at our family table with spirited little boys, and even our snowy Yuletide wedding:

On a snowy December night in 1995, the white gazebo in Easthampton, MA was nestled safely inside the town rotary, the circular roof lazily draped with white Christmas lights revealed the freshly fallen snow, illuminated the path I would take in my rented wedding dress, the one that would lead me to my Marine in his dress blues. He was smiling.

With our dearest loved ones as witnesses, we sealed our marriage with a kiss, then celebrated our union at the local American Legion. Our colors were red and green to complement the season. Red roses topped our white cake, and red and green balloons, as many as our budget allowed, danced on the ceiling while their ribbons gently swayed. We had ten days left in Massachusetts before we would begin our trek to Camp Lejeune, NC to begin our life together. In that short amount of time, we would celebrate Christmas with our families.

“Open it!” Roger said, looking a little nervous as he handed me a gift the size of a tissue box. We both sat on our knees on the floor of my parents’ living room.

I shyly peeled away the thin wrapping paper to reveal a ceramic bookstore with a hole in the back to place a tiny lightbulb.

“You always loved your Aunt Pat’s village,” he said.

“I love it!” I said to him. He smiled and relaxed his shoulders.

I learned Roger’s love for Christmas very early in our marriage. “Do we have ten dollars?” he asked me.

“I think I have a five and some ones in my purse or look in the change jug. There should be coin wrappers in there, too,” I answered.

He went into our room and came back a few minutes later with an orange roll of quarters in his hand. Ten dollars. “I’ll be back in a bit,” he said. I chuckled to myself at this “big bad Marine” and his obsession with figurines.

About an hour later he walked into the house with an accidental grin, another power strip, some fake snow, and a tiny wishing well.

I imagined his obsession with it would pass like a phase, a fad, but it didn’t. Instead, it grew.

Years later, we would find ourselves with four sons, Tyler, Samuel, Maxwell, and Baylee. We had a very sweet and very small three-bedroom house in Jacksonville, NC.

“I need to get a sheet of plywood,” he said. He was sitting on the floor surrounded by extension cords and bright white pillow stuffing.

“Wow for what!?”

“I can’t fit the village on the piano anymore.” His compact collection grew from four village pieces to fifteen or more with roads, skating rinks, and overflowing handfuls of miniature pine trees.

“Hun, we don’t have the room,” I said.

Every holiday season, once it was all set up, there was a grand reveal. The boys and I would all sit in a dark room on a silent night, our faces aimed at the tiny houses.

“Ready?” he would say nervously.

“Yes!” We all giggled.

He would plug in the lights and the little town would come to life.

The tiny village grew each year, and from 1996 until 2008 he added to it. The years he was deployed for training or for war, I would slap it up and take a quick photo to send to him. It made me miss him more, but I knew I had to do it. It was my obligation.

After June 29, 2009, that obligation became permanent.

Roger was a Marine, an EMT, a firefighter, and while serving in the NC Army National Guard, he was killed in Iraq. The Humvee he was driving hit an IED that was buried in the sand. He was killed instantly.

We suffered the deepest sorrow and didn’t know how to go on. We were lost and consumed with sadness. The months after he died dashed by and before we knew it, the holidays appeared. The desire to ignore Christmas tempted me, but instead I quickly set up his village, plugged in the power strip with shaking hands, and my voice cracked as I quietly said, “ready?” I thought it would break me, but I felt a little lighter, almost energized.

The village homes have always seemed to contain love and warmth. Roger’s Christmas spirit lights them, warms them, and brings them to life. Through the tiny windows I see Christmas Eves from the past when he would become giddy. I see him in his flannel pajamas, the first one awake on Christmas morning, sweet coffee in his hand, his crooked smile.

Years later, the boys and I decided to move to MA. It didn’t take long for us to realize it was a mistake. We felt trapped and were desperate to move back to North Carolina, but with high taxes and the pandemic, we could not make it happen. We were not able to spend Christmas with our oldest son, Tyler, and our hope was fading. Gloomy moods threatened our holiday, but Roger’s village gave us hope.

It sat on our mantle, warm lights mirroring that hope. I knew Roger heard me. I hoped he heard me.

“Hun, please help us find our way home,” I whispered.

Weeks later, on my birthday, I received a phone call. It was Nancy Gass from Tunnel to Towers.

“Guess what!” she said to me. Her voice was excited.

“What?”

“You’re getting a house!”

Tunnel to Towers was going to send us home! No longer would we be separated for Sunday dinners, sunrises at the beach, and especially Christmas. Home.

Tunnel to Towers gave us a house, but they also gifted us with time. Time to understand our grief. Time to simply figure it all out. When I set up his village for the first time in our new home, I did it slowly. I bought new bulbs and glued together the tiny chips of ceramic that rested at the bottom of the plastic storage bin. I added a pair of yellow chickens and a small flagpole with our nation’s colors to stand proudly next to the fire department.

I do feel, though, that the obsession with making the village perfect and needing to add a little to it each year has occupied my Christmas spirit. It’s like Roger is over my right shoulder saying, “You really do need to buy that covered bridge” or “I think you need to add more evergreens.” It is an honor to take the reins of his sleigh with ungloved hands.

The boys will still wait in a dark room until I say “ready?” and we ooh and ahh after I press the orange button on the power strip. We cry still, but not every year.

The boys and I stare into the little bookstore and sense its warmth. For me, the fire department is where I feel his presence the most. Roger’s tiny village offers me hope, time has shown me how to run towards the memories and not hide from them, and now, thanks to Tunnel to Towers, we are truly home. We can say Merry Christmas again, and we freely and sincerely mean it.

3 thoughts on “For T2T Newsletter. Day 470.”

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