Ryan Hilligoss, February 8, 2023
In the last several years, the holidays have been a struggle for me. I am not alone. My brother Sean passed away at the age of forty four in 2015 from diabetic ketoacidosis after having lived with juvenile diabetes since the age of three. My mother Donna Barr Hilligoss passed in 2017 after struggling with Parkinson’s and other complications. During that time, I also went through a divorce and the ensuing reduction in time with my two kids. As the rolled around the first few years, I put on a good face and kept it as cheery as possible for the kids sake and in my own self defense. This included going big on outdoor Christmas lights and decorations, fully decorated tree, trips to light shows in the Chicago area and other fun activities. Each passing year has gotten progressively harder. And then this year: I ran out of Christmas spirit. No tree, minimal decorations inside and outside the house, and no light shows. With each year, the Christmas glow dimmed a little more the further I got from the spirits of those I love and echoes of what used to be.
And then, as if from a Hallmark movie script, I was graced with three Christmas miracles.
The Ghost of Christmas Past
For several years, two of my close work friends and I have enjoyed a nice steak dinner out together around the holidays at Wildfire Grill. Having a big dinner out is not a frequent event and since Covid, I don’t see coworkers in person at all. This year we met about a week prior to Christmas on a cold Chicago evening. We were seated, having a good time catching up and having a few drinks. Behind us sat three nice older black ladies who seemed to be enjoying our “spirited” conversation. With my back turned to them, I could hear them getting up to leave the restaurant. And then I felt a pair of hands on my shoulders as one of them leaned close to my ear and sang a few bars of Silent Night. Once she was done singing, she rubbed my back a little and jokingly asked, “You like that don’t you?” Yes, Yes I did. Thank you kindly nice lady. It was as if my mom’s spirit was visiting me, telling me everything is OK and she’s here watching over all of us.
The last few years have left all of us battered and bruised to varying degrees due to Covid, political events and an overwhelming sense of loss. I’ve never been more pessimistic about the country, many of our fellow citizens and humanity in general. I’ve seen levels of ugliness, mean spiritedness and outright hate I’ve never witnessed in my lifetime. Countless times, I’ve seen people seem to take joy in getting a rise out of others and going out of their way to insult others for the sake of feeling better about themselves. Like many others, I’ve withdrawn into a narrow pattern of habits, people I am willing to be around and spend time with, and routines. I’ve stopped watching the news at all on any platforms, only keeping up to date with the Chicago Tribune newspaper I still receive at home. (Yes, you read that right. I still get a physical newspaper delivered to me at home. I know I know, but you’ll have to rip the newspaper from my cold, dead, newsprint stained hands.) It’s changed the way I look at, regard and interact with people in public and privately.
During this same time, I’ve not been in a good financial position for many reasons. To dig myself out of a self made whole, I’ve worked youth sport games as an official, mostly baseball but some softball, volleyball and basketball. I love baseball. I played it as a kid, coached my son, and watch it all the time as an avid St. Louis Cardinals fan. So I enjoy being out there and watching the kids compete, everything from 8U travel to in house and club ball to varsity high school and everything in between. I would do it even if I didn’t need the money but I wouldn’t do it nearly as much. I spend many grueling days handling anywhere from 4-6 games in a day, often in good weather but sometimes in the cold, heat and rain. A day handling anything over4 games is a stretch for me physically and mentally. But I work hard, have gotten good at it and am paid for my time. Because at this point that’s what it is, I am trading my time for more income.
This season, I started handling basketball games at a local private school, 6th grade boys and girls, $40 at a time paid in check. I fell into a habit of putting the checks along with my loose cash in a plain white envelope I keep with my monthly bills. In the week between Christmas and New Years, I went to find the envelope only to find it missing. Frantically I searched everywhere around the house, among all my papers, even going through the trash can and recycling bin thinking I had misplaced it or mistakenly thrown it away. It was nowhere to be found and I had a sickening feeling in my stomach after realizing I had inadvertently put in it with a batch of bills that needed to be mailed out for payment. I ran out to the mailbox in my house slippers with the hope it was still in there or that my post lady had seen it and left it behind since there was no address or stamp on the outside. I grabbed the cold lid, opened it only to see an empty, dark space. In desperation I called the local post office and was told they would keep an eye out but what might happen is when it got to the main sorting office, eventually someone would look inside to see what was in there and maybe see the name and mailing address of the check issuer and mail the envelope back. Being the cynic I am, I thought, “Bullshit. With $120 in cash and another $120 in checks inside, maybe I’ll get the checks back eventually but I’ll never see that cash.” I had just traded 6 ours of my life for $240 dollars by officiating only to casually throw it away.
Two weeks later, I walk into the gymnasium to handle another game. The nice lady who writes me a check each game and hands it to me before the games starts walks up with a check in her hand as I sit on the sideline getting my court shoes on and whistle hung around my neck. I smile and say thank you as usual and she says, “Thanks for coming and doing the game.” She paused, reached into her purse and tells me something funny happened today. She received a blank envelope today along with the rest of the school’s mail. There in her hand is my envelope. I open it and there sits $120 in cash and $120 in checks just like it was weeks prior. I give her a hug and tell her she has no idea how happy she has made me. After all this time of only seeing the dark side of people, my faith in humanity was restored a few degrees.
One common and unexpected consequence of Covid has been the impact on teenagers. between virtual learning, being cutoff from friends and their normal social circle and seeing bad news come crashing down on a minute by minute, hourly, never ending basis through social media. Dark thoughts and times have crept into their minds. The phenomena impacted my son Graham who had always been a good student and well balanced, grounded human being. As the months passed, it’s effects had a visual impact through weight loss and other indicators. At a certain point in time, he decided he wanted to just stay at his mom’s house instead of splitting the time half and half as we had done for a long time. It was hard for me because I had gone to seeing him everyday and being buddies to only seeing him half the time after our divorce and then not all for a while.
Within the last year or so, our relationship has slowly gotten back on track. He’s a freshman at our local community college, takes his studies seriously and has a solid plan for his studies and career path. He has a beautiful, smart and caring girlfriend who has helped him along the way, finding a path to a sunnier place. Most days, the three of us work out at the same gym around the same time. They do they’re thing and I do mine but our paths intermingle throughout.
It’s a few weeks after Christmas. I’ve just gotten done working out and ordered Jimmy John’s sandwiches for all of us. While they continue to work out, I decide to go get the sandwiches, bring them theirs and then head home. I exit the gym door into a cold, dark northern Illinois evening. There is some snow and ice on the ground and salt pellets everywhere scrunching under my feet as I trudge my way a short distance away. The nearby church has a carillon that plays music on the hour, every hour. As I round the corner to return to the gym with dinner, I stop cold in my tracks. It’s 6:00 and the music has started on the church bells. It’s a familiar melody, but I can’t quite place it. It seems out of place for the date. Then it dawns on me as if I’m having an out of mind experience: it’s Silent Night being played mid January. Despite the chill in the air, I am filled with an unexpected warmth from within. My son is 200 yards away in a warm, safe gym, smiling, talking with his lady friend and doing what brings him a little peace each day.
I let out a breath which I see dissipate like a ghost in the the glow of nearby streetlights. I gather myself, and start walking again into the night, feet firmly on the ground, holding onto the thought that Christmas isn’t any one day of the year. It’s a gift which comes to us that fills us with kindness, grace and love whenever, wherever we stumble across life’s beautiful moments. All is calm, all is bright. Cheers my friends.