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Bittersweet holiday memories

By Stephanie Booth, RealSimple.com
updated 8:11 AM EST, Tue December 13, 2011
The holidays can be a time for bittersweet memories as well as the nostalgic.
The holidays can be a time for bittersweet memories as well as the nostalgic.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • These five women triumphed over tragedy and learned valuable lessons about resilience and faith
  • After her house was destroyed by a fire Jamie Regier was humbled by the amount of help her family received
  • Hanging Christmas ornaments gave Heather Hummert a sense of hope after her husband was wounded in Iraq

(RealSimple.com) -- "I Faced Down a Terrible Illness"

Alyssa Phillips, 34

Atlanta

Less than 5 percent. Those were Alyssa's odds of survival. It had been one piece of bad news after another: She was in stage 4 of large-cell neuroendocrine cervical cancer -- one of the rarest, most aggressive forms of the disease -- and most likely had no more than two years to live. "The finality of it all stunned me," she says. It was May 2008, and Alyssa was only 31.

Two weeks earlier, Alyssa had thought she had a vaginal infection. During the exam, her gynecologist found a cervical mass, which was biopsied. Lab tests came back with the frightening diagnosis.

No one could believe it. An avid athlete, Alyssa ran every morning before heading to the hospital where she worked as a surgical physician assistant. She hadn't called in sick in six years. "It can't be this bad," her husband, Neil, kept insisting. Her parents simply broke down. In 1997 one of Alyssa's two sisters, Lauren, 18, had died after contracting bacterial meningitis. "I couldn't bear the thought of their going through that grief again," says Alyssa. Doctors told her that they were uncertain how effective treatment would be. "But what choice did I have?" says Alyssa. "I could do nothing or go all in."

Just six days after the diagnosis, Alyssa underwent a hysterectomy. She and Neil had been trying to have a baby, but there wasn't time to harvest and freeze her eggs. "It was devastating. But I didn't have the luxury of dwelling on it," says Alyssa. In just one week, the tumor had quadrupled in size. More tumors were found in her liver.

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A week later, Alyssa began a regimen of aggressive chemotherapy, followed by two grueling bone-marrow transplants. Still, she willed herself to stay positive. Using the same determination she had tapped into to run half-marathons, Alyssa meditated, prayed, and watched comedies like Ace Ventura: Pet Detective (it had been Lauren's favorite) to make herself laugh. She loaded her iPhone with uplifting podcasts and listened to them while power walking on the treadmill of the bone-marrow unit, implanted with a catheter.

Christmas Day 2008 threatened to be Alyssa's lowest point. Since the chemo had decimated her immune system, she needed to stay in the hospital's isolation unit to avoid contracting an infection: "I was nauseous and exhausted, and the inside of my mouth felt scalded," she says. Her eyebrows, eyelashes, and hair were gone. When a friend came to visit that morning, she didn't recognize Alyssa and backed out of the room. Alyssa tried not to succumb to despair. "So many patients on the unit were like the walking dead, with no hope in their eyes," she says. "I didn't want that to happen to me."

When Neil and her parents arrived that afternoon, Alyssa teased them about how ridiculous they looked in the gowns, booties, and gloves the hospital required them to wear. She challenged the group in Yahtzee and toasted everyone with a nutrition shake. "I talked nonstop about the Christmases we'd share in the future," she says. "That was, after all, why I was fighting the disease."

Alyssa finished her last treatment at the end of December and spent the next few months recovering at home. Incredibly, today she is cancer-free. "I was given a second chance," Alyssa says. "My sister never had that. So I'm grateful every day."

Alyssa chose not to go back to work. Instead, she has focused on writing and staying healthy -- and, yes, she's back to running. She and Neil still want to be parents, something they'll pursue down the road. Meanwhile, they spend time volunteering. Last Christmas they served dinner and passed out gifts at a women's shelter. They plan to do it again this year. "When you've known suffering and turned it around, it just feels right to reach out to others," says Alyssa.

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"My Financial Life Was a Wreck"

Donina Ifurung, 42

Pasadena, California

A bag of flour. Salt. Plastic wine goblets. These are some of the gifts Donina has given her close friends the past few Christmases so they can pool ingredients and supplies and cook a fabulous meal. "We don't buy each other journals and bath sets like we used to. For us, the holiday is about being together and supporting each other," says Donina.

It's a tradition the dozen friends, all men and women in their 40s who met through church, formally adopted in 2008. For Donina, it came on the heels of a personal crisis: In 2007 she had been abruptly laid off from her longtime job as a contract administrator in the entertainment industry, and she was unable to find anything new. Low on cash, Donina was forced to raid her 401(k), but those funds quickly dried up. She began falling behind on payments for her Los Angeles condo.

When she was working, Donina had no problem covering the mortgage. But the loss of her job, combined with the climbing interest rates of her adjustable-rate loan, made for a runaway situation. By the summer of 2008, "I stopped opening my mortgage bills," she says. "It was too overwhelming."

Donina, who had always had excellent credit, repeatedly begged her lender for assistance. "Nobody wanted to help me," she says. Her application for a loan modification was rejected, and she wasn't able to find a buyer for the apartment. At last, in November 2008, an official notice of foreclosure came in the mail. "It was as though I had been punched in the gut. I felt like a failure," she says.

Donina donated some of her furniture and appliances to charity, then boxed up what was left and moved into her mother's home. To shore up her savings, Donina gave up everything she could think of: nights out, a gym membership, movies, new clothes, and shoes. "I lived at the library, because reading was the only hobby I could afford," she says.

During holidays past, she had lavished expensive perfume and clothing on loved ones and splurged on a fresh tree with all the trimmings. That year she couldn't bring herself to string up lights. "I thought, What's the point if I can't do it right?" While spending an evening with a few friends, Donina was in the midst of "yet another freak-out session" when she got a reality check. "I understand your pain, Donina," one friend gently interrupted. "But we're hurting just as badly." She explained that her work hours had been slashed in half. Another disclosed that her mother-in-law had been forced to move in with her family, stretching their finances to the max.

"I had been so focused on my own situation that I hadn't realized what everyone else was going through," says Donina. The group agreed to prepare a communal Christmas Eve meal on the cheap; everyone would bring only what he or she could afford. Donina brought a bottle of wine and plastic flatware. Others chipped in for the bird, the potatoes, and the rolls.

"We had a wonderful dinner. Then we sang carols and prayed together," says Donina. The festivities lasted until midnight. And, Donina adds, "I left thinking that although my life hadn't turned out the way I expected, I didn't have to be defined by my streak of bad luck."

Donina's finances still haven't fully recovered. Although she found work as an administrative assistant in 2009 (and lives alone again), her salary is substantially lower than before, and she had to file for bankruptcy. "But at this point," Donina says, "even if I won the lottery, I wouldn't spend my Christmas any differently."

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"I Lived Through a Fire"

Jamie Regier, 39

Omaha

In years past, Jamie's biggest holiday worries were about whether her kitchen was spotless enough and which napkins (cloth or paper) to set out. On December 13, 2010, all that changed, almost in an instant. The single mother of three was home sick from her job as a teacher's assistant at an elementary school. Her daughter Erika, 14, had prepared a Mexican-themed dinner the night before, and Jamie planned to fry the leftover sopaipilla dough for lunch. While oil warmed in a pan, she stepped into the bathroom. The next thing she knew, her dog was barking and scratching at the door. Then the kitchen smoke detector went off. Leftover oil on the drip burner had ignited; Jamie's stove was on fire.

Jamie tried to smother the flames with a cookie sheet, then a wet towel. But the fire rapidly climbed the wall behind the stove and spread across the ceiling. Grabbing her dog, Jamie ran into the snow, barefoot and clad in only a T-shirt and underwear.

"I thought it was just a little fire and I would be able to go right back in," she says. The severity of the accident didn't sink in until two hours later, when firefighters allowed her to reenter her town house to view the damage. "Melted plastic was everywhere," Jamie remembers. The few belongings that hadn't been burned or smoke-damaged were waterlogged. The family's regal six-foot Christmas tree, decorated with ornaments made by her kids -- Erika; Alexandria, 12; and Isaac, 11 -- "was coated with soot. You could barely make out the strings of lights or the glass balls. It was horrifying."

A Red Cross representative on the scene gave Jamie a gift card for clothes and food and arranged for a free hotel room. Jamie's kids, whom her ex-husband had picked up from school, met her later that evening. "We were all pretty shaken up," says Jamie. "I kept telling the kids, 'Don't worry! We'll have Christmas. We'll find a place to stay.' " It was all bravado. Inwardly Jamie worried, How on earth will I pull this off?

Jamie didn't believe her insurance would cover much of the damage. (And she was right. Months later, the policy reimbursed her for the cash equivalent of just 10 percent of her losses.) To fill the gap, a friend started a "fire fund" page on Facebook the day after the fire. Within hours, she had offers of clothing, toiletries, books, dog toys, kitchen appliances, gift cards, and cash from close pals and even distant acquaintances and strangers. A counselor and a security guard at Jamie's school mobilized their respective religious communities. "It was humbling to see nearly a dozen cars pull up in front of my friend's house and see folks -- some of whom may have had less than me to begin with -- come through the door with enough food to feed us for a month," says Jamie.

Within two weeks, Jamie's family even had a new place to live: An acquaintance took her four-bedroom house off the market so Jamie could rent it for a year."Before the fire, I thought that only my close friends really cared what happened to me," she says quietly. "But so many people showed me compassion."

Jamie and her kids celebrated Christmas in their new home by watching How the Grinch Stole Christmas! and roasting marshmallows over candlelight. ("No fireplace for us," she says.) Presents were either practical or small and inexpensive, "but the kids were deeply grateful for every book and CD," says Jamie.

After getting settled, Jamie started a list of things that her family wanted to replace. But before long, she stopped adding to it. "I realized that I like the mismatched plates we were given. And the end tables that don't really go together and the wall hangings I never would have picked out myself," she says. "When I look at these things, I am reminded that people will help you when you need it the most."

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"I Called Off My Wedding"

Margaret Miller, 56

El Paso

When Margaret's boyfriend of over three years proposed in 1998, she didn't hesitate to say yes. "We cared deeply for each other," she says. "He was affectionate and fun and brought out a carefree side of me I hadn't known was there." They built a five-bedroom home together, with Margaret, a writer and English professor, using her savings for the down payment and her fiancé agreeing to pay the mortgage out of his personal account. In July 1999, Margaret and her two sons from a previous marriage, Blake, then 14, and Evan, then 10, moved in.

But a few months later Margaret realized that a large sum of money was missing from their joint bank account. When she pointed it out to her fiancé, he sheepishly admitted that he had taken the money to make the first mortgage payment.

That was the first blow. Then he was reluctant to explain why he had done it. Margaret was beside herself. "He wasn't being honest with me. And getting married was not going to fix the issue." The couple went to counseling, and Margaret wrestled with what to do until their December wedding was a mere six weeks away. Invitations had been sent; the rings and the dress had been purchased. And yet Margaret made the heartbreaking decision to call off the ceremony, phoning friends and relatives one by one. "I loved him," she says. "But there was no trust."

Since Margaret had planned to be on her honeymoon during Christmas, her sons were scheduled to be with their father. She dreaded being alone in the house that she now had to sell. Her sister, Laura, suggested she fly to Maryland, where Laura lives, to spend time at a nearby spiritual retreat. Run by a Catholic convent, the retreat rents rooms to people wanting time to think, reflect, or pray. Despite not being Catholic, Margaret agreed: "It seemed better than staying home and stewing in grief."

Her room at All Saints Sisters of the Poor Convent contained only a twin bed, a rocking chair, and a bureau; the walls were bare except for a wooden cross. Humble meals, like homemade vegetable soup and bread, were served. Margaret ate with the other guests, who had their own private reasons for being there.

During her three-day stay, Margaret attended Communion in the morning and vespers in the evening. In between, she went on long walks through the snowy grounds, taking photographs and writing in her journal. And from 8 p.m. until 8 a.m. each day, she and the other guests observed "the Great Silence," during which no one was allowed to speak. It was meant to inspire reflection, and for Margaret it did. "I've never experienced such peace," she says. "The stillness inspired me to work through my anger and disappointment."

Margaret felt increasingly confident that her decision to call off the wedding had been the right one. "Once I really thought about it, I realized that there had been red flags in the relationship all along," she says. "For example, he seemed to have had a falling-out with his siblings. But I never knew what happened. Now I wonder if they knew something that I didn't."

Initially, Margaret vowed never to remarry. But she changed her mind in 2008. She proposed to Jerry, then her boyfriend of three years, and they eloped shortly thereafter. Margaret continues to cherish quiet time by herself, even insisting on having a separate bedroom from Jerry.

"Like Virginia Woolf, I want a room of my own," she says. "Jerry and I get laughed at, but who cares? My time at the convent taught me to trust my instincts so I can say, 'This is who I am, and this is what I need.' "

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"My Husband Was Wounded in Iraq"

Heather Hummert, 31

Gildford, Montana

Heather was asleep in bed when the phone rang. It was a bright, sunny morning in January 2005. "Mrs. Hummert?" a voice on the other end said. "We regret to inform you that your husband has been wounded in service." Heather, a former paramedic, kept calm. "I didn't get hysterical," she says. "I thought, Focus on Jeff. Worry about yourself later."

Jeff, a U.S. Army sergeant, was stationed near Baghdad when his convoy was hit by rocket-propelled grenades. One of his best friends was killed, and Jeff sustained a traumatic brain injury and extensive shrapnel wounds in his arms, shoulders, and legs. He was also left with hearing loss and post-traumatic stress disorder.

After multiple surgeries, Jeff was sent back to his home base in Germany -- where Heather and their son, Jeffrey, then three, were living -- for rehab. After a year, the family was transferred to Fort Knox, Kentucky. What kept Jeff going, says Heather, was his family and the hope of resuming his military career. He reenlisted in January 2006 and prepared to redeploy to the Middle East later that year. Then, in October, came another phone call. Army officials had determined that Jeff's injuries made him medically unfit for duty. Just like that, "our world ended," says Heather.

They were given six weeks to leave military housing. With nowhere else to go, they were forced to take refuge with Heather's parents in Chicago.

The upheaval exacerbated Jeff's troubles. He was often sleepless or had nightmares, waking up in a cold sweat. He got angry for no reason. Heather tried to help without revealing her own depression. "I kept up a Pollyanna act," she says.

While continuing therapy, Jeff started looking for a job. Railroad conductor was one possibility. ( Jeff loved trains.) Heather worried that if Jeff didn't find a position, his health would deteriorate further. "Soldiers live a life of purpose. They take immense pride in defending their country. To be stripped of that and become a disabled veteran is the worst thing in the world for them," she says.

Heather remained stoically supportive until one night in December, when she finally crashed. A few days earlier, her parents had brought home a Christmas tree. "It suddenly hit me," she says. "Jeff and I didn't have a tree with our own ornaments. We didn't have our own house. We had no idea what the future held. I looked at that tree and all I could think of was how far we had fallen." Jeff found her sobbing in their bedroom. She tried to explain how scared she was. "He wasn't able to respond. He just looked at me, confused," she remembers. Heather cried herself to sleep.

Around midnight, she awoke to find Jeff next to the bed, holding her favorite box of ornaments. He had rummaged through their moving boxes for hours to find them. "That gesture meant the world to me," she says. "Despite everything else going on in Jeff's head, he knew exactly what I needed. I caught a glimpse of my husband again."

They woke up their son and placed their ornaments on her parents' tree. For the first time since Jeff's discharge, Heather says, "I felt we would be OK." The next day, Jeff received a job offer from a railway company in Montana. They moved into their new home in Gildford four months later.

"We still have bad days," says Heather, who is expecting their second child in May and helps run a nonprofit organization, Family of a Vet, that aids the families of U.S. veterans. The holidays, with their extra stress and noise, are particularly tough.

"We have to celebrate quietly at home," says Heather. "But we really do it up. Since putting up a Christmas tree has come to mean so much to me, Jeff now puts up four trees in our house, rather than just one."

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