Columns

My Christmas Miracle

In today’s column for the Spokesman Review, I remember a very special Christmas miracle.
Merry Christmas!

Christmas is all about miracles – about the unexpected showing up in the middle of the ordinary.

Angelic proclamations, a virgin birth, heavenly hosts and a bright shining star beckoning wise men from afar.

For doubters and dissenters, for skeptics and cynics, the ability to embrace the miraculous eludes, but even the most ardent believers need a reminder now and again.

Snow falls as I write, and the white-shrouded world reminds me of another December, 16 years ago, when I received my own much-needed reminder.

Our fourth son had arrived three months earlier. Sam was born with congenital diaphragmatic hernia. A hole had formed in his diaphragm during gestation, allowing his stomach and intestines to move into his chest cavity, crowding his heart and lungs. In Sam’s case, this prevented his left lung from developing.

When he was 3 days old, he underwent surgery to repair the hole in his diaphragm. After a three-week stay in the neonatal intensive care unit at Sacred Heart, we brought him home. He needed no medication, no supplemental oxygen, nursed like a greedy piglet and had none of the dreaded complications or additional health problems common with CDH.

He also had only one lung.

He did have bits of tissue where his left lung would have grown and doctors told us that lungs continue to grow into a child’s early teens. Even if that didn’t happen for Sam, we were assured it’s possible to live with one lung.

But I worried.

Night after night I sat vigil on the floor next to his cradle, watching his chest rise and fall, counting his respiration rate, often dozing off with my hand on his chest.

Exhausted, I did my best to care for his three older brothers, 10, 8 and 5. When December dawned, I decorated and baked in a fog of fatigue.

We reached a milestone on Dec. 23 – Sam’s final post-op visit. Snow fell heavily as I packaged a plate of Christmas cookies for the surgeon’s office.

Each visit began with a series of chest X-rays, and I’d grown adept at deciphering the shadowy shapes in my son’s chest cavity.

Dr. Randall Holland examined Sam, moving his stethoscope over his chest, listening intently while my baby grabbed his hair and blew spit bubbles. Scratching his head, Holland stood, and then once again bent over Sam, listening, listening …

Then he tickled Sam’s three chins and turned to scrutinize the latest X-rays while I wrestled the wriggly baby back into his winter layers and waited for the surgeon to speak.

But he didn’t say a word. Instead, he let out a low whistle, peering at the images. Running his fingers through his hair, he whistled again, and then said, “Cindy, I’d like you to take a look at these.”

And my heart sank.

This was it. The moment I’d dreaded since the hours following Sam’s diagnosis. The moment when I’d learn the nightmare hadn’t ended. The other shoe had dropped and I didn’t know if I could bear it.

Seeing my stricken face, Holland beckoned me closer.

“What’s that?” he asked, pointing to the image.

“That’s Sam’s right lung,” I answered.

He nodded and pointed to the other side of the image.

“And what’s that?”

“That’s Sam’s left lung,” I dutifully replied.

Silence. Apparently, lack of sleep was making me hallucinate.

“Except he doesn’t have a left lung …” I mumbled.

“He didn’t,” Holland agreed. “But he does now.”

He traced the outline with his finger. “A fully-functioning left lung.”

And the surgeon beamed.

I clutched Sam and sank down into a chair, tears falling, dampening his downy blond head like melting snowflakes.

“I don’t understand. Is this a miracle?”

Still smiling, Holland shrugged. “We don’t like to use that word, but I’ve honestly never seen anything like this before.”

Dazed, I left his office, trying to process the news.

That night as usual, I sat at Sam’s cradle feeling his lungs (lungs!) expand, watching my hand on his chest rise and fall. The clock ticked its way to Christmas Eve and I finally climbed into bed, where for the first time since Sam’s birth, I slept – truly slept.

Today at some point, my 6-foot, 1-inch baby boy will bend down and wrap his arms around me. I’ll lay my head on his chest and feel it rise and fall, grateful for the reminder.

Christmas has always been about miracles.

Contact Cindy Hval at dchval@juno.com. She is the author of “War Bonds: Love Stories From the Greatest Generation.” Follow her on Twitter at @CindyHval.

War Bonds

Santa and War Bonds

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This weekend I had my first book signing event on a military base. The folks at Fairchild AFB were great to work with and as you can see I had a great location at the Base Exchange entrance.

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Santa was also there just a few feet away.

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This was the real deal. Turns out authors top his nice list! And Santa tops mine. Another author was doing a signing nearby. He told us that teenage his granddaughter had recently died in a horrible car accident. A scholarship fund had been established in her name. They wanted to have Santa attend the fundraiser, but were told he’d charge $100 per hour.

This Santa took the author’s card and said, “Let me know the day and time of next year’s event and I’ll be there. No charge.”

Now that’s the Christmas spirit.

Speaking of,  books make great presents! Wrap up a copy of War Bonds today:-) Available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble and Independent booksellers nationwide.

 

 

Columns, War Bonds

War not a word to be take lightly… especially today

Today is Veteran’s Day. Tomorrow’s Front Porch column is already available online at the Spokesman Review, so I thought I would share it here as well.

I am heartily sick of the so-called “war on Christmas.”  Read below to find out why.

Words matter to me.

I make my living crafting them. Whether writing a column, a news story or a book, I spend my days weighing and measuring them – searching for the best turn of phrase to communicate a thought, an idea or a fact.

Sometimes I play with them. Juggling them, nudging them to create content that elicits a reaction, a smile or a tear.

Even when handled lightly, I understand their power on a printed page. And while not all words are meant to be taken literally, I think some should be.

War is one of them.

Yesterday was Veterans Day – a day we as country set aside to honor the men and women who have served or continue to serve in our armed forces.

I’ve lost count of the veterans I’ve interviewed over the years, but their faces and their stories are seared into my soul – especially the stories of combat veterans, those who faced loss of life and limb during their time of service.

I’ve lost count of the veterans I’ve interviewed over the years, but their faces and their stories are seared into my soul – especially the stories of combat veterans, those who faced loss of life and limb during their time of service.

So just to be clear, here’s Webster’s definition of war: A state of usually open and declared armed hostile conflict between states or nations or a period of such armed conflict.

Other definitions may have made their way into our reference books and cultural consciousness, but the original meaning of war is armed conflict.

The kind of conflict Wes Hixon faced in 2008 in Iraq when the Stryker vehicle he was riding in hit an IED. “Four people were killed outright,” he said. “The rest were injured. Me and another soldier were paralyzed. Most of them were pretty good friends of mine.”

I interviewed Hixon, then 24, in 2009 as he sat in a wheelchair. He knows what war is.

Read full column here.

Columns

A baby changes everything

In the midst of unearthing Christmas decorations, I surveyed the downstairs family room. Actually, “wreck” room is a more apt description. Green and red bins burgeoning with tinsel and ornaments perched precariously on tabletops. Blue bins overflowing with winter garb towered with ominous instability in opposite corners. And stacks of paper on the floor revealed last year’s resolution to stay current with filing has been a dismal failure.

Overwhelmed, I looked for a place to sit. And then I saw it – my rocking chair. Banished to the basement when my youngest grew too big to cuddle comfortably with me in its confines.rocking-chair-cushions[1]

I removed the mountain of snow pants and ski gloves that had buried it and sat down and began to rock. As I swayed, I remembered the first time I saw this chair, on a Christmas morning 20 years ago.

Our first baby was due Dec. 31. We’d prepared a blue and yellow nursery to welcome our little one. A bassinet covered with lacy white netting waited in one corner. Under the window, a changing table stocked with diapers and soft blankets stood ready. But one thing was missing – a rocking chair.

Money had been tight as we prepared to live on one income, and we’d cut back on our Christmas spending. After exchanging gifts, my husband said, “Oh, I almost forgot! I left a present downstairs.”

Bewildered, I followed him to the basement, and there it sat – an oak rocking chair. Derek had purchased it unfinished. Each night after work, he’d lovingly labored on it, smoothing rough edges and coating it with a warm brown lacquer. Somehow, he’d sneaked it into the house without my knowledge.

I threw my arms around him and sobbed. “Better try it out,” he said. So I sat down and began to rock. It was perfect. I don’t think I stopped smiling the rest of the day.

Late that Christmas night, I awoke with that vague discomfort all expectant mothers feel as their time draws near. I heaved my hugely pregnant form out of bed and waddled to the nursery. The rocking chair beckoned, bathed in the glow of the moonlight.

As I sat down and began to rock, the baby responded, squirming, stretching, his small feet doing a tap dance on my ribcage. I whispered words of welcome and wonder to him and prayed for his safe arrival.

I knew life would be different after this child’s birth, but all those Christmases ago I couldn’t have imagined the many ways I’d never be the same.

A baby changes everything.

Through the nursery window on that Christmas night, I watched snowflakes drift lazily down, illuminated by the yellow glow of the streetlight. And I thought of another mother 2,000 years ago, who swayed on a donkey’s back as she traveled to Bethlehem.

Her discomfort must have been magnified by the harshness of her journey. Surely, just like me, she must have contemplated her child’s birth. She must have whispered to him and wondered about him, while her back ached with every passing mile. And like all mothers, she couldn’t have imagined how different her life would be the moment she held him in her arms.

A baby changes everything – sometimes even the world.

Merry Christmas.

War Bonds

Together again for Christmas

Christmas without Walter, low res

So, sad to learn this War Bonds bride passed away earlier this month.
Laura and Walter Stewart’s story is featured in Chapter 13 of War Bonds, “A Seat Next to You.”
This picture was taken Christmas 1943. Walter was in the Navy and stationed in Hawaii.
Walter passed away last year and Laura hated to spend Christmas without him. I’m glad she won’t have to this year.
“I knew in my heart that the love we had for one another was something you don’t find in many marriages.” Laura Stewart

 

Columns

Christmas Traditions Grow Along With Kids

10363967_808050315900264_1669020257946437512_n[1]When Tevye and the cast belt out “Tradition” in “Fiddler on the Roof,’ they’re singing my song.

I, especially, love the ritual, familiarity and comfort of holiday traditions. For me, it begins on the day after Thanksgiving. While many folks shop til they drop on Black Friday, I decorate til I drop.

My sons unearth the red and green plastic tubs bulging with garlands, angels, Santas and candles, and lug them to the living room. Then I pop a Christmas CD in the stereo and spend the day awash in memories of Christmas past.

Each item from the Play-Doh nativity set, to the Homer Simpson Santa Claus, to the chipped and scratched snowman dishes has a story.

This year I’m making room for new stories by learning to hold less tightly to treasured traditions.

Actually, the process began a couple of years ago with the Christmas tree. Since our boys were tiny, Derek has taken them to Green Bluff to cut down a tree. But our sons are now 21, 19, 17 and 12. Finding a time when everyone has the day off from work to make the trek to the tree farm became impossible.

Derek eyed fake trees, but the younger boys and I rebelled. We reached a compromise: a freshly cut tree from a local tree lot. We also gave up trying to find a night that everyone would be around to trim the tree. I don’t feel too bad about that. Six people, two cats and one tree can create a lot of Christmas chaos.

Other changes have been more difficult to embrace. For 26 years I’ve celebrated a traditional Norwegian Christmas Eve with my in-laws. The feast is a smorgasbord of Norwegian foods and delicacies, but the real flavor comes from the gathering of extended family.

My father-in-law loved Christmas Eve. He was in his element at the head of the table with his wife by his side, surrounded by his four children, their spouses, and his 14 grandchildren. His booming laugh and warm bear hugs made everyone smile.

This was our first Christmas since his death. Instead of ignoring the empty space his absence has left, family members shared their favorite Papa memories. And in the light that shone from his grandchildren’s eyes – in the echoes of their laughter – Papa’s presence was felt once again.

When we got home, no one mentioned leaving cookies out for Santa. That’s OK, Santa’s trying to slim down. Besides, I’m pretty sure our kitty, Thor, would eat them before Santa got a chance.

Christmas morning is different now, too. Santa still leaves filled stockings outside each boys’ bedroom door, but our oldest has to drive over from his apartment to get his.

In years past, four little boys would clamber on our bed at the crack of dawn on Christmas morning and dump their stocking bounty out for us to see.

I don’t miss the crack of dawn part.

And Sam, 12, informed me last year, “You know we all open our stockings while you’re sleeping and then stuff everything back in and take them to your room. You do know that, don’t you?”

Yes, I know that, because my sister and I did the same thing when we were kids.

The six of us still gather around the tree and read the Christmas story from the Bible before the unwrapping begins, but now there’s less unwrapping. I’ve discovered the older the kids – the smaller the presents. Unfortunately, smaller tends to equal more expensive.

Even so, I don’t really miss hundreds of Legos strewn across the floor, or tiny GI Joe guns getting sucked up the vacuum cleaner.

Clinging to traditions no longer current, is like trying to squeeze a squirming toddler into last year’s snowsuit. It won’t fit and someone will end up in tears.

This new year, I’m going to hold on to traditions that fit our family and let go of the ones we’ve outgrown. I don’t want to cling so tightly to the past that my hands are too full to embrace the present.

This column first ran December 29, 2011

Columns

Remembering the children of Newtown

20141214_130929This column first ran in the Spokesman Review, December 20, 2012

By the time you read this it will be almost a week since the horrific shootings in Newtown, Conn. Columnists, pundits and politicians will have opined, analyzed and commented. Graves will have been dug. Memorial services held.

The initial shock and horror has faded, muted by holiday happenings. After all, life goes on and sorrow dims.

As the reports unfolded Friday I sat stunned at my desk – each detail more heartbreaking than the last. Finally, I got up, put on my coat and headed out. I had Christmas shopping to do.

I stopped to watch the children laughing and shrieking in the play area at NorthTown Mall. Usually, I bypass the raucous place as quickly as possible, feeling profound gratitude that I no longer have to pause in my errands to let wiggly toddlers blow off steam. But on Friday the sight of their exuberant energy gladdened me.

Then I caught sight of a glittering Christmas tree with gaily wrapped packages beneath it. Suddenly, all I could think of were the festive packages lying forever unopened under Christmas trees in Connecticut. I quickly left the mall and went home, anxious to be there to greet my kids when they returned from school.

It was a rare day because I saw all four of my sons. My oldest stopped by to do laundry, and my second-born dropped off a vehicle he’d borrowed. I drank in the sight of them, bearded stubble and all, remembering their smooth baby faces that I once covered with kisses.

My heart broke yet again, thinking of eight mothers whose sons didn’t live to hear them nag, “Are you ever going to shave?”

Somehow we all got through the day didn’t we? We made it through the unending media reports. We hugged our children tighter. We cried communal tears. We prayed. We lit candles. We raged. We wondered. For a brief moment our nation was united. Sorrow can have that effect.

But the days wore on. The details offered no rhyme, no reason. The pro- and anti-gun folks hurled invectives and recriminations at each other. Politicians seized platforms, and many of us just wished the nightmare would go away.

And it will. Unless you lost a loved one in Newtown, Conn., the memory of this event will blend into a collage of other senseless tragedies. However, one name will be etched in our collective memory: Adam Lanza.

This is what haunts me the most. Why do we remember the killers when the victims and their families deserve to be forever enshrined in our consciousness?

Do you remember the names of anyone who died at Columbine, aside from the shooters? Have the faces of those who perished in Oklahoma City vanished from your memory while the face of Timothy McVeigh burns brightly?

So, Friday I went back out. I bought a 2012-dated ornament, wrapped it and placed it under our tree. On Saturday, when the names of the victims were released, I covered the small package with glittery name tags. The tags read: For Benjamin, Emilie, Grace, Noah and so on – 20 names in all.

On Christmas morning, this gift will remain under our tree. It isn’t meant to be opened. It’s a memorial of sorts. I will pack it away with the Christmas decorations and place it under the tree next year, and the year after that.

I don’t want to forget what happened on Dec. 14, 2012.

The children who died deserve to be remembered. It’s the only gift I have to offer them.

Columns

Critiquing Christmas carols filled with peril

First, let me be perfectly clear. I do not hate John Lennon. Just because I opined that “Happy Xmas (War is Over)” is one of the worst Christmas songs ever, does not make me a Lennon-hater – or worse a Beatles-basher.

I also loathe “I Want a Hippopotamus for Christmas,” but no one has accused me of being a hippo-hater. Yet.

The brouhaha began when I posted my opinion about the worst Christmas songs via various social media sites. One Facebook friend wrote, “Nothing any member of The Beatles has ever done is the worst of anything. Ever. Period. The end.”

Many agreed, but one friend remarked that Paul McCartney’s “Wonderful Christmastime” is pretty dreadful.

The situation worsened when I attempted to explain my disdain for “Happy Xmas.” I wrote, “Every time I hear the refrain ‘So this is Christmas and what have you done,’ I want to scream, WHAT HAVE I DONE!? I have baked, cleaned, shopped, wrapped, mailed, cooked, cleaned, baked and shopped like a madwoman. THAT’S WHAT I’VE DONE.”

To which a commenter at Huckleberries Online replied, “Um, I think John meant “What have you done FOR OUR EARTH AND MANKIND AS A WHOLE.”

I am pretty sure this commenter wasn’t trying to make me feel better.

But it wasn’t all bitter bickering in social media land. In fact, many posted Christmas songs far worse than the two I’d mentioned.

Notably, “Please Daddy (Don’t Get Drunk This Christmas),” a truly terrible twangy John Denver nightmare featuring the refrain, “Please Daddy, don’t get drunk this Christmas, I don’t wanna see my Mama cry.”

Not exactly “Joy to the World,” is it?

Others mentioned least favorites included anything by Alvin and the Chipmunks, “Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer” and “Dominick the Italian Christmas Donkey.”

I could swear my ears began bleeding after listening to Dominick hee haw his way through the first verse.

Some folks’ choices surprised me. For instance, a couple of people referred to “Baby It’s Cold Outside” as the holiday “date rape” song. While I love this duet, I concur that it definitely has a creepy element. Listen, if your date says she has to leave, it really doesn’t matter how cold it is outside, let her go.

But for sheer tragedy, “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus” is pretty hard to beat. So many horrible issues raised for an innocent tot. Is Santa cheating on Mrs. Claus? Or worse yet is Mommy cheating on Daddy? If Mommy and Santa get married will I have to move to the North Pole?

Don’t even get me started on “Then I saw mommy tickle Santa Claus, underneath his beard so snowy white.”

Talk about inappropriate. Who knew Christmas tunes could be filled with such morally questionable messages?

Sometimes songs with even the most positive of messages are disliked. One blog commenter expressed disdain for the Band Aid classic “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” The commenter wrote, “Answer: No, because they are starving African non-Christians, you moron.”

Even sentimental contemporary ballads aren’t universally liked. “The Christmas Shoes,” for instance. This sad song tells the tale of a little boy who wants to buy a pair of shoes for his dying mother. “I want her to look beautiful if Mama meets Jesus tonight,” he explains.

Apparently, disliking this song is almost as unpopular as not enjoying “Happy Xmas.” A blog commenter wrote, “… saying that you aren’t moved to tears by ‘The Christmas Shoes’ is like saying you and the devil operate a dog fighting ring together.”

Lesson learned: Opining on Christmas music can be as combustible as decorating a dried out tree with lighted candles. The next time I ponder posting musical opinions; perhaps I should just leave it a “Silent Night.”

Columns

The Legend of the Christmas Tree Meltdown

??????????In the annals of Hval holiday lore, one story is guaranteed to get trotted out each Christmas. My children call it, “Mom’s Christmas Tree Meltdown.” I call it, “Too Many Children, Not Enough Tree,” but whatever its title, the tale marks an embarrassingly Grinch-like episode in my holiday history. My family finds the story hilarious. I do not.

The exact year of this event is unclear, but I think our sons were 4, 6 and 8 because they all remember it. Thankfully, Sam was not yet born, so he didn’t witness the debacle.

When our boys were little, our tree-trimming tradition was that they decorated the bottom and backside of the tree. In my opinion this strategy was sheer genius. It allowed the boys to participate and hang their nonbreakable ornaments, while I got to create my imagined Martha Stewart-like perfection on top.

I’m not sure what happened that fateful year. Boys on a sugar-fueled high induced by candy canes, frosted Christmas cookies and marshmallow-topped cocoa may have had something to do with it. I’m sure belated bedtimes because of winter break contributed. And it’s possible that I might have taken on a little too much in order to create the Best Christmas Ever for my children.

In fact, it may well be that this Mama was running on too little sleep, not enough caffeine and disastrously high self-expectations. Whatever the cause, the meltdown occurred (though I quibble with the term “meltdown,” it was more of a momentary lapse of sanity).

The boys and I had lugged boxes of ornaments upstairs and each son was poring over his collection of paper snowflakes, toilet paper tube angels and crookedly cut candles. Derek, having untangled the lights and garland, was supposed to photograph this festive holiday tradition. Thankfully, in the chaos that ensued, he forgot, so there is no photographic record of me shrieking red-faced at my startled offspring.

As the boys rushed to find prime spots for their handmade creations, some shoving ensued. Allegations flew.

“Hey! He moved my angel!”

“I did not! It fell down by itself!”

“Don’t touch my snowflake! MOM! HE TOUCHED MY SNOWFLAKE AND NOW IT’S TORN!”

I tried to stay on top of the escalating situation by assigning ornament stations. “Ethan, you decorate the top backside of the tree. Alex you do the middle. Zack you can hang your ornaments of the front bottom branches.”

This didn’t go over well.

“Hey! How come Zack gets to put his in the front?” Alex yelled.

“Yeah,” Ethan said. “Why do ours get stuck in the back?”

“Mine are the beautifulist,” Zack opined.

A barrage of “are not’s” and “are too’s” evolved into more shoving, which morphed into wrestling. The tree tottered and began to sway. Someone yelled, “DOG PILE!”

And that’s when I lost it.

“Stop it! Just stop it!” I screeched. “BACK AWAY FROM THE TREE, NOW!”

At this point the narrative gets muddied. Some say I canceled Christmas and told the children Santa wasn’t coming. Others say I threatened to take every toy in the house and donate them all to the Goodwill. Another version has me informing my offspring that I brought them into to this world, and by golly, I can take them out.

All I know is at the end of my rather impassioned speech a silence fell.

“Um, boys why don’t you go play in your rooms for a bit,” Derek suggested. Three pajama-clad boys shuffled quietly from the room.

“Honey,” began Derek. I glared at him. He too, shuffled silently from the room.

I finished hanging my Victorian ornaments, but the Christmas spirit had left the room along with my family.

Mortified, I hoped we all could forget this episode ever happened. That hope vanished that Sunday as I checked kids into the church nursery. One of my husband’s friends dropped off his daughter. “Hey Cindy,” he said. “Heard you had quite the Christmas meltdown the other night.”

That’s right; my husband had shared the story with a few “close” friends. It couldn’t have spread any faster if I’d written a column about it.

Now, the tale of “Mom’s Christmas Tree Meltdown” has achieved legendary status. I guess I should be thankful “meltdown” is used in the singular tense.

Much has changed in the intervening years. Sam’s arrival meant four boys trimming the tree. The addition of two cats added to the excitement. But now, there are only two boys left at home to decorate the tree.

This year, I surprised them. “Why don’t you guys do the whole tree,” I said.

“Really?” Sam asked. “Even your ornaments?”

“Yep,” I said.

“Are you sure?” Zack asked.

I nodded and they set to work. They didn’t group the angels at the top like I do. And the dated ornaments aren’t in sequence, but you know what? I wasn’t even tempted to rearrange a thing. In fact, I think it just might be the beautifulist tree we’ve ever had.

It’s taken me awhile, but I’ve finally learned a perfect Christmas isn’t about the synchronicity and symmetry of the ornaments on the tree and it certainly isn’t about the gifts beneath it.

For me, the Best Christmas Ever is about treasuring each moment with the hands that made the ornaments, the arms that wrap me in warm embraces and the hearts that still love me – Christmas Tree Meltdown and all.

This column first appeared in the Spokesman Review, December 26, 2013