From March of 2011 to February 2012, my Army Reservist husband, Peter, was deployed to Afghanistan to command a field hospital a few miles from the Pakistan border. It was a challenge for me and our four children to have him gone, but nothing we went through compared to his experience.
He was on a base routinely targeted by rockets, and one of his nurses was killed in an attack a few weeks after their arrival. Other enemy attacks killed several more soldiers on the base during Peter’s deployment.
He oversaw the care of American and international soldiers, Afghani citizens and children, and enemy soldiers, too. He lived every day in a war zone doing his best to save the lives of each person who came through the hospital. And for the most part he and his staff were successful—but every death was a horrible loss.
I, on the other hand, escaped into my world of the Amish, writing Courting Cate in the fall and winter of 2011. It wasn’t that I didn’t worry about Peter. I did. Every single day I had to struggle to trust God with Peter’s life, and then I’d gladly enter my writing world filled with nonresistant, Anabaptist characters who lived where there was no war.
As Peter neared the end of his deployment, we had one more hurdle to face: Christmas.
Christ is the soul of our family’s Christmas, but Peter is the beating heart. He loves the holiday. Everywhere we travel he buys a Christmas ornament. He’s the one that picks out the tree as early as possible and then wraps thousands of lights onto individual branches, preparing it for the rest of us to decorate. He’s the one who puts Christmas music on the stereo, starting the day after Thanksgiving, playing his favorite—“Little Drummer Boy”—over and over.
Through a stretch of hard Christmases—including my mother’s death and a series of losses in our extended family—Peter kept us centered. I couldn’t help but dread doing Christmas 2011 without him. True, our kids were older—two young adults and two teenagers—and that made it easier than it could have been, but still I balked at what was ahead.
In the meantime, I packed a Christmas box for him in November. An artificial tree. IKEA ornaments. Gingerbread. Tea and boxed milk. A couple of weeks later, I started in on our own Christmas. Our girls and I picked out the tree. I realized when we got it home it wasn’t as tall or as wide as Peter usually chose, but it would do. Our oldest daughter took on the task of stringing the lights, while our youngest son put up the outside lights and our youngest daughter put on the Christmas music. “Little Drummer Boy” is her favorite too.
As the big day neared, I thought of the Reserve Unit that would soon be replacing Peter and his staff. The families of those soldiers would be celebrating their last holiday together for the next year. Their loved ones were soon to be leaving—but my husband would soon be coming home. I was genuinely joyful that the incoming group had Christmas with their families instead of us. We were short timers now—they had the long haul ahead of them.
We weren’t sure if we’d be able to Skype with Peter on Christmas Day, but we set a time to try—8 a.m. our time, 8:30 p.m. Afghanistan time (yes, they’re on the half hour). That morning, my oldest son had the fire going in the fireplace before his siblings were up. I placed Flat Daddy (an enlarged cutout photo of Peter) on the couch, and by the time the others rolled into the living room, I was trying to get through on Skype.
Finally we connected. As we all gathered around Peter’s face on my laptop, we were so thankful for the good connection and for all of us being “together” that we hardly noticed we really weren’t.
That gratefulness for our family continued through the day as we celebrated with my extended family, including my nearly ninety-year-old father, and then the next day with Peter’s family.
As more years go by, I know Christmas 2011 will never be remembered as one of our worst. In fact, I think we’ll recall it as one of our very best. God’s peace truly filled our hearts that Christmas.
Are you remembering anyone who isn’t able to be with you this Christmas?
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