I struggled to make ends meet. I worked hard and sacrificed every ounce of personal life in order to pay my bills and keep Oliver and myself fed, even if it was on Ramen Noodles. Much to the chagrin of some people around me, I would work 12 hour days 5 days a week when asked, never so much as a hint of hesitation in my voice. I would jump at the chance to see a better pay check, knowing that if I could make just a little more money, I could move up to Hot Dogs and frozen Pot Pies. On the biggest paycheck I ever got durring that time, I even bought a small pint of Ben and Jerrys Ice Cream, certainly a luxury in those days.
I missed having a bath tub and brushing my teeth over a sink. I missed having an air conditioner on the hot days and a heater on the cold days. I missed having a door knob on the inside of my door. I missed having carpet under my feet, new sheets, fluffy pillows, clean laundry and real food. All of the things I missed just drove me to work harder though. On my days off, I found myself at a loss for something to do. I would watch TV for a bit, write for a while, and stay walled up in the boat house all day long. I couldn't afford the gas to go anywhere. I didn't have any nice clothes anymore after being robbed. The one great thing about working at my job was the lack of choices over what to wear. I had a uniform I wore daily and I was ok with that. It took out the embarassment of having to wear the same jeans and T-shirt day in and day out for weeks at a time. I had a severe lack of options only 7 months ago.
I vowed the day I saw someone cry over how I brushed my teeth over the toilet that I would make some changes to my life, and the goal I had set before myself was my 30th birthday, December 11th of last year. I made that goal in Mid-October. Through a lot of hard work, determination, perseverance and the friends I made along the way, I not only reached my goal, but blew it out of the water.
I managed to get a promotion to being Supervisor at work. With that promotion and meager raise, I was able to start looking for a new place to live. I couldn't afford much more than I already paid, though. Still, on a strict budget and tight belt, I could afford a place of my own in a nicer neighborhood. Luckily I had worked very hard over the past few years to clean up my credit, or even that wouldn't have been possible.
By November 15th I had signed a lease on an apartment in one of the nicest areas in all of Los Angeles County, a little place called Belmont Shore. I went from living in South Central to living at the beach, so close I could smell the salt spray as I slept. I didn't officially move in until the end of November, but I finally had a nice home.
It was a tiny apartment, and I knew right off the bat I was going to have a hard time making ends meet each month. I knew the lack of funds would prevent me from having an eventful Christmas, and one thing after another came up causing me to delay the Christmas shopping I had planned to do using my one credit card. Life kept getting in the way, and work WAS life. I was putting in as many hours as I could get away with just in order to pay my bills.
I lived out of piles of boxes heaped in my new living room floor for weeks, hardly able to find a clean shirt or fresh pair of socks among the candles, cables and clutter tossed among the cardboard walls. I slept on a blanket tossed on the floor, but it was a carpeted floor and to some degree was more comfortable than the bed I had been borrowing - because it was MINE. Finally, a week after my 30th birthday I had managed to save enough money to buy a dresser at Ikea. I stayed up until 3:00 am putting it together. I unpacked before work the next day, working as hard as ever to get things in order.
Though I expected absolutely nothing for Christmas, Karma has always had a way of catching up to me, good or bad. I had focused so hard through the past 6 months to do better for myself that I had failed to realize that I was making friends along the way. All I could think of was providing a roof over my own head, taking better care of the Cat and never having to spit into a toilet again.
I wouldn't say it really began raining gifts or anything, but a few surprises certainly had a way of making me feel that way. First there was my Uncle Roger. After many years of not hearing from him, he got in touch with me and we started communicating through emails, daily. He told me things about my family I never would have known without him. I now have a photo of my Grandmother and Grandfather on their wedding day I don't think I had ever seen before. As if that wasn't gift enough, suddenly I got a birthday card in the mail from this long lost Uncle, making me feel overjoyed that someone was thinking about me. My Uncle has since grown to be one of the many voices I look towards for an honest opinion and a kind word when I need them most.
People who knew me well knew that I didn't lock the doors to my car because of an odd distrust in society. I would have rather had a thief open the door and realize there's nothing worth stealing than leaving me with the cost of fixing a broken window only to come to the same conclusion. I never kept anything of value in my car whatsoever, so I didn't even worry about locking the trunk release inside the cab of the car most of the time. Someone who knew me very well took advantage of this. One day after work I went to throw my backpack in the trunk of my car only to suddenly be left gasping for air. Someone anonymous had placed a 20" LCD Flat screen 1080P HiDef TV in the trunk of my car with a pretty little gift receipt. I almost cried. In fact, I'm not ashamed to admit that I think I did cry on the way home.
A few days later, on the 21st of December, I was promoted at work AGAIN to being the Head Honcho on site. Suddenly I could loosen my belt a single notch and I knew without a doubt that I would be ok. I had worked hard, but I had gotten what I needed and wanted in order to survive. It couldn't have come at a better time. It still took a little time for that last raise to hit my checks, but I knew it was on its way. The promotion was exactly what I had wanted for Christmas. Thanks, Santa.
On the morning of December 23rd I was called to the main office at the end of my shift. The Office personnel had drawn numbers to select which baskets of food and treats they would take home to their families from the many gifts they had received. The three left over were given to me, the Maintenance guy and the head of Housekeeping. I chose the Belgium Chocolates, of course, though not for myself. I instantly had a plan for them.
That night, on the night of Christmas Eve, I went down to Lake Elsinore to spend the evening with a wonderful Dutch family that took me in completely. They were such wonderful people with huge American Bulldogs as lap-dogs. Even the dogs took me in. I felt instantly loved. They were so wonderful to invite me into their home on Christmas Eve and let me stay the night, since I didn't have any family around and didn't have to work until the afternoon on Christmas. I had decided to give up my Christmas night in order to let more of my employees enjoy the Holiday. Karma again. That night after we sat down to eat, Lou asked me if I wanted to open my gifts. Flabbergasted, I stuttered and sputtered, obviously not knowing what to say. I felt bad for only having brought the small box of Belgium Chocolates I was regifting.
I didn't know or care what this family had gotten for me - just to know they loved me that much sent me over the edge. It had been one of the hardest years I'd ever had to survive, and to come out on the other end like this didn't seem possible back in July. My entire life had changed in the matter of 5 months. Most of it I made happen, but certain things, like me sitting there with four dogs at my feet holding two brightly wrapped gifts of blue and gold in my lap, were completely a surprise and never were a part of the plan. Tears were brimming in my eyes.
At the urging of my small audience of Lou and Gabe with the four dogs, I opened the big one first. It was large enough to fit all the way across my lap and cover my legs entirely. I pulled the bright blue paper back to reveal a cardboard box underneath. I expected the gift to not be what I saw on the box until I noticed that the box was still sealed. It was a brand new Blu-Ray player, Wireless capable and played regular DVDs as well. I couldn’t contain it any longer. I didn’t let either Gabe or Lou see me, but I cried.
Remember I said there was a second gift? Lou and I had been walking through a Borders just a few days before Christmas, browsing. I wanted to show Lou the Art Book I used to have that went the way of the U-Haul back in July. I guess the excitement showed all over my face when I talked about one particular portrait in the book that I had fallen in love with as I was reading the book from cover to cover.
“What makes this one so special”, Lou told me “is that it’s the exact one we were looking at in the store.” Lou had gone back that night and bought the book. It had been the only one on the shelf at that Borders, and the only one I had seen since I began looking for it in July. Lou had asked me that night if I wanted it and I answered that it cost too much and that I could wait. Well, Merry Christmas to me, here it was resting in my hands. I instantly turned to the page with that portrait I so loved, the Arnolfini Portrait by Jan Van Eyck.
The same man I tried so hard to escape from in Prague invited me over shortly after Christmas for dinner. It was a wonderful evening I was able to spend with a dear friend I've known since October of 2002. Bill's always been good to me, even when I least deserved it. He presented me with two gifts, both of which I cherish. The first was a fabulous book entitled "1001 Paintings To See Before You Die" that I began reading cover to cover that evening. The second gift was a watch to replace the one he gave me so many years ago. It was a gorgeous blue faced Seiko 100M watch with diamonds around the face. I nearly cried when I opened it. I wanted another watch since the one he had given to me was in the Uhaul, but never did I imagine something so beautiful. On the back was an inscription I still look at each time I take off my watch. It reminds me of how well he knows me and how much he has always cared for me.
The greatest gift I got this past Christmas season wasn’t something I could hold in my hands though. It wasn’t the beautiful card that was so personal and sweet from Lou. It’s wasn’t the Blu-Ray player to go with the “mysterious” TV or the wonderful Christmas Dinner left over’s that an employee brought with him to work for me on Christmas night, though that was the first home cooked meal I'd had in months. It wasn't the beautiful watch with the dark blue face. It wasn’t the new apartment, though I admit it was just what I wanted. It wasn’t even the promotion. The greatest gift I was given this season was just this:
Christmas Eve, I sat there at a table with a warm and loving family; Stefan, Vicky, Lou and Gabe – four wonderful people. Under us sat the dogs; Spot, Mugsy, Tyson and Sasha. I was warm, loved, and accepted by a family who didn’t know much about me and didn’t care about that tiny detail. Before we picked up the first bite of food, I followed suit when the family bowed their heads to pray. Sitting between Vicky and Lou, I smiled. I hadn’t said a prayer over food with a family in far too long to remember. Right then, as I searched for the words to explain in a prayer just what I was feeling, I knew that no words were needed. The prayer was not ever in the words, but in the heart behind them. The greatest gift last Christmas Season was that family and the kindness and love they shared with me. The greatest gift of the year was having people who love me there to share in that moment. It was a long drive to Lake Elsinore for Christmas Eve, but it’s a drive I would make a million times over just to relive that night.
It was the greatest Christmas I had ever known.
I’m not big on prayer or waiting to see what happens after a prayer is uttered, but the final gift I will write about today is the gift that I give to each of you.
For in that moment of clarity and thought filled emotion, I thought about all of you out there who helped me to survive this past year. There are some of you I don’t see eye-to-eye with except maybe once a decade. There are those of you I can’t seem to disagree with at any point. There are people who love me and who hate me, who like and dislike me, and who have no reason to pay any attention to me whatsoever. Still, those are the people who helped me to survive.
I thought about the young mother cradling a new baby in her arms, wrapped up in the stolen quilt my Grandmother had made for me. I thought about the guy next door who warned me that the street sweepers were coming and I needed to move my car so I didn’t get a ticket. I thought about the families in South Central who watched over me, making sure I had food. I thought about the boss that believed in me, the friend who helped me move, the people I've loved and those who loved me. I thought about the man I once called a friend. I thought about my wonderful Uncle Roger, my Aunt Debbie who put us in touch, my brother, my son, my father and mother, and even those dogs under the table keeping my feet warm.
May you all have the clarity throughout the coming years that I had in that moment, sitting at that table with my head bowed, thinking about each of you and what you’ve meant to me and to others. I wish you nothing but prosperity and good will for the glorious future to come. May you shine as brightly as a star even on the worst of days and may you never loose hope. If ever you do, just think back to how much this one person’s life changed in the mere matter of five months. I may have lost everything back in April only to loose more in July, but it gave me the will to fight back and survive, an survive I did!
YOU are and were my inspiration. May you always have your inspiration like you’ve provided to those around you.