whenlifehandsyoulemonsThis holiday season, we were singing the “Twelve Days of Sickness” instead of the “Twelve Days of Christmas.”  What started in mid-December with puke buckets and snot rags continued all season long and made us wonder if Christmas would happen for us at all. I hardly had a moment to ponder the sacredness of the season, or the sickness, as I had in times past. The attack happened in waves, two or three different viruses descending on our home and knocking the kids down like dominoes. Every night one or another or all of them would wake with a hacking cough or vomit-covered sheets. Our bathtubs and washing machine seemed to exist for the sole purpose of clearing away bio-hazard.

A writing deadline hung over my head, but when I sat down to the computer, the sinus pressure was worse than the pressure to churn out the words. So, I’d take a three-hour nap instead…and still feel like mush. Probably the thing that pained me most was that I wanted to be there for other people who were in pain and I just couldn’t make it happen. I made it to only two of five funerals for long-time church friends and neighbors who passed away all within a two week period. And another loved one, my childhood next-door neighbor, a hospice nurse by trade, even now sits by the bedside of her mom who is on the verge of eternity.

One of my dear friends who had lost her grandmother in September didn’t know what to do with herself on the night when they’d normally gather at her grandmother’s house for their family Christmas celebration. So, she and her husband gathered a bunch of evergreen, wrapped sections up in burlap bows and quietly dropped them on friends’ welcome mats. With our sweep of branches, they sent a message that they were praying God would sweep away our sickness.


It was a Christmas miracle that our symptoms subsided in time for me to finish my writing assignment and for all of us to join the family festivities by Christmas Day. There, we found out everyone else had been through the ringer too, as cousins had just healed up from influenza or the croup. To top it all off, at the end of the day we had a medical scare with a loved one, which thankfully turned out okay after a visit to the ER. The next few days, we took our house back from the gift-giving chaos and got our bearings just in time to invite some friends over for New Year’s Eve to celebrate the passing of our crazy year.

At bedtime on the night before New Year’s Eve, I sent a message to check on my old neighbor friend, Holly, the one taking care of her mom. A few hours later, overnight, sickness hit our kids again. “Woe is us,” I said as I told our guests that our plans to toast the New Year were, well…toast. It looked like I’d be having a pity party instead. I frowned at the sight of all the food in the fridge, what was meant to be a taco bar for 12. Just then, I got a message back from Holly.

“It’s getting worse,” she told me. We had met for lunch a few weeks earlier, but by now her mom was bed-ridden, unable to stand on her own. She was still talking, lucid at times, confused at others. Once, while Holly had gone to answer the door, her mom had fallen from where she was sitting on the edge of the bed, hit the corner of the nightstand and busted her head open. Holly applied pressure to her mom’s wound with one hand and called the paramedics with the other, all the while trying to corral her three little ones as she waited for her husband to come home from work. Then, there were flat tires and stalled cars. To top it all off, the flu came. The sickness wiped out their energy; the prescriptions wiped out their savings. When Holly had to call the hospital to take her mother for a few days of respite care, she crumpled in defeat. For all her work as a hospice nurse who gently leads so many patients through the sacred space between earth and eternity, she was devastated to see her mother roll away into someone else’s care.

My old neighbors’ troubles cast a different color on our season of sickness here. I felt downtrodden by all that had hit us in December, but I myself was healthy now, and I wanted to do something…I’d go crazy if I didn’t. In his book, You Are What You Think, David Stoop writes that the best way out of depression is to plan to do something, then do it. A sense of completion or accomplishment is a wonder drug for me, I know, whether it comes through finishing a writing project or helping someone else with a task hanging over their head.


I remember a couple of summers ago when my days were a blur on account of baby insomnia. The young mother across the street patted her own infant and listed off all the things she couldn’t get done in these months when the basics of life took everything she had. We rubbed our tired eyes and sighed on the porch while the big kids played in the yard. Just inside her window sat a stack of baby announcements and empty envelopes, one of the tasks on her list. “Let’s get it done,” I told her. It was a little thing to slide cards into envelopes and seal them up, but it was something I could offer and do well even without being fully rested. Here was the weak helping the weak and both becoming stronger in the process.

On New Year’s Eve, after my look in the fridge and the update from my old neighbor, I canceled my pity party. Life was handing us lemons, but I was determined to make something of them. I messaged Holly to say I’d be there in a few hours. And then I called my mom. “How do you feel about being my sous chef tonight?” I asked her, “And can you pick up some lemons on the way?”

We cooked up that shredded chicken, chopped up the fixings, poured the lemon and sugar and eggs over a hot crust and drove down our old street to bring some sweet to the bitter for people we love, people whose fence my siblings and I had jumped all those years, people who long ago teamed up with us to nurse abandoned kittens back to health, people whose door had always been open, turning friends into extended family.

makelemonbarslemonbarsouschefI wasn’t the only one who felt the nudge to do something. That same day, another of Holly’s childhood friends put out a call for anyone and everyone to bless the family with meals. Holly was surprised by the help that came from people who had been dealing with their own troubles in recent days: those who were out of jobs, those whose furnaces had stopped working, those with sick kids or ailing grandparents, those grieving the deaths of loved ones. So many people had pushed beyond their own difficulty to make this family a priority in their moment of intense need. “The evening hours are awful for us,” she said, “and the help others have given takes away the burden of going to the store and planning meals when I can’t spend much time away from mom. Plus, having people stop by and hearing their stories allows me to remember how my mom has impacted people’s lives. I can put stories from the past into perspective with the stories of the present to form an all around picture of who my mom was and is.”

For me, sending my encouragement electronically was one way to help, but I craved something more. With a tangible act of kindness, there was an excuse to be there face to face, to embrace and take away some of my friend’s stress, and to tell those stories that only come up in old-timey conversation.

Plus, in planning to do something and then actually doing it, in sharing the cooking with my sweet mom, in the literal trip down memory lane, and in the in-person hugs and honest conversation as we handed the food and dessert to our old neighbor, my own bitterness about the season sweetened up too. And just like that, the day that had started with a pity party ended up as the best day of my holiday season.

Lemon Bars (adapted from the Betty Crocker Cookbook)

For crust:
1 cups flour
1 stick butter, softened
1/4 cup powdered sugar

For filling:
1 cup sugar
1 lemon peel, grated
1 lemon, squeezed
2 drops lemon essential oil
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
2 large eggs

Heat oven to 350 degrees. Mix flour, softened butter and powdered sugar with a spoon until it looks like dough. Press into an ungreased 9-inch square glass pan, building up 1/2” edges. Bake 20 minutes.

In separate bowl, beat remaining ingredients briskly for three minutes until light and frothy. Remove crust from oven. Pour mixture over hot crust. Bake 25 to 30 minutes until no indentation remains when touched lightly in center.

Cool completely and dust with powdered sugar before serving.


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