The Gift of Words
Updated: Dec 17, 2019
My inbox seems to be shouting at me these days; “Today only, 40% off EVERYTHING!” and “Check off your gift list – all sweaters ON SALE!” Yes, it’s that time of year when gift-giving panic sets in, and retailers take full advantage. I was among the record 190 million US consumers who shopped Thanksgiving weekend, contributing to the 16% growth in consumer spending according to Forbes.com. I suspect that on Black Friday, I was not alone in taking advantage of deals to fulfill my own personal wish list. Procrastinating on selecting gifts for others when it’s so easy to buy for oneself.
With December half over, Christmas and Hanukkah are fast approaching. Like many, I am faced with the challenge to find the “perfect gift” for loved ones. That elusive gift that will be useful, long-lasting and meaningful. I think back to my own holiday traditions growing up, and certain things we’d come to expect; stockings stuffed with magazines, fruit and candy or a new board game we’d sit around playing for days.
My parents were enthusiastic gift givers. Once grandchildren came along, my childhood bedroom became the storage closest for gift purchases. They took great pride in gifts they selected, favoring those with an educational bent. One of their favorite places to shop was the Parent-Teacher Store tucked in a Lexington, Kentucky strip mall. I’ve no doubt that my 7th grader’s early knowledge of state capitals and US Presidents can be traced back to gifts from that store.
All of this changed in the Fall of 2014, when my mom suffered a debilitating stroke. My dad, her steadfast companion since her dementia prevented her first from driving, then from being alone, had no idea what was happening. My mom fell on her way to the bathroom, concerning but not wholly unexpected given earlier falls due to her weak bones. Once my dad took her to the hospital, the damage was done, and eventually she was released to a rehab hospital.
Less than two months later, my dad survived his own mini stroke or TIA, and the ensuing surgery that removed the 90% blockage in his right artery. But it weakened him, and with my mom’s inability to return home, gift-giving in 2015 looked vastly different.
Anyone who knew my dad, knew he was a man of few words. While not keen on small talk, he was incredibly observant, preferring to watch the movie, rather then to be in it. His observations made it into the annual Brady family Christmas letter, something he took over years before my mom’s stroke, when her general cognitive decline made writing and sending Christmas letters too challenging.
The cards my dad wrote had a distinct voice. Direct, unpolished, finding humor in the ordinary. A great example of this was in his 2006 Christmas letter, sharing the news of his namesake grandson’s arrival by featuring a photo of newborn baby John just below a picture of the entire Brady family in San Diego with expectant mother (me) in a maternity dress. He noted that he included a photo of baby John as it was “hard to see him” in the other photo.
In 2015 my dad spent most days by my mom’s side in her senior living home. Perhaps not having the energy, nor interest in shopping for gifts anymore, he took to writing heartfelt notes to his grandchildren on their birthdays. These cards were both touching and inspiring. His education in engineering and law shape his direct style of communicating. But his ability to communicate wisdom, understanding and deep love was his true gift.
In October, my father wrote his last birthday note to his youngest grandson Sean. That same month, my dad was diagnosed with Stage IV lung cancer and despite treatment, passed away four months later. The words he wrote his last year of life became the ultimate gift to his family. I love re-reading them, and while it makes me miss him all over again, I am also filled with gratitude for the love and guidance he provided to so many.
The simple beauty of heartfelt, written words is a gift I now love to give, and to receive. A quick text or email can brighten someone’s day, but a handwritten note conveys “I care about you,” regardless of what is written. My 6-year old nephew Aiden is learning to share the gift of words early, thanks to the kindness and guidance of his mother. His mom could have popped Aiden’s school photo in an otherwise empty envelope, but it accompanied a handwritten note from him that I treasure.
With the rush of the season, I am lucky to find the time to scribble “Love, Julia” on the back of my holiday cards. But throughout the year I’ll share meaningful notes with my boys, either that I’ve written or received. At times this is met with an eye-roll, and other times with genuine interest. As a parent I find that often the best we can do is model the behaviors we’d like to see in our children. Actions can be our stealth teachers. Our kids are learning without realizing they are being taught. And in this season of giving, I find that to be one of the greatest gifts of all.