I really loved my first forty-five Christmases. They certainly weren’t perfect, but they also weren’t painful. In fact, I would say that based on the purely imaginary Standard Holiday Happiness scale, although I had known highs and lows, my cumulative Christmas experience stood at a good, solid 8. I really liked holidays, and I loved making them happy for my husband and kids. It was a job I felt born to do.

Then came February 2011.

Just after celebrating our twenty-sixth wedding anniversary and on the day of our daughter’s sixteenth birthday, my wonderful husband, Steve, was diagnosed with ALS (more commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease). ALS is a disease so fierce and foul that I feared all my holidays—before and after—would be redefined by it. I imagined looking at the family picture taken when we celebrated Christmas at SeaWorld and mentally recaptioning it: one year before our world fell apart.

In the months after the gut punch of the initial diagnosis, I caught my breath a little. We began to get our heads around what we were facing and how we would fight it. Slowly, as spring moved into summer, we developed a new sort of normal—tentative and tender but still more secure than we had felt in the brittle winter of Steve’s diagnosis.

Autumn snuck up on me with a beauty that took me by surprise. I remember the day I gave myself permission to love it. Long drives with Steve followed as we searched for the most beautiful trees in Central Oregon and just enjoyed spending the season together with few words and much wonder. I loved fall. And I felt ready for Christmas. I really did. But as soon as the Thanksgiving leftovers were put away and the annual after-dinner Christmas movie ...

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