Remember those away from family this year

Well, Thanksgiving unofficially kicked off the month of overeating, overbuying, overworrying and oversaturation of the holiday season. The next four weeks is a hectic sprint, as parties, shopping, planning and swallowing handfuls of Tums at a time consume every moment of our lives that aren’t otherwise spent on work, family or, well, trying to get a handle on personal hygiene.

We do this in the hopes of having “The Perfect Christmas.” It’s our quest for the white whale, in a way, as we throw blinders on to the rest of the world in order to get each person we care about the perfect gift, or display just the right amount of holiday cheer without coming off as obnoxious or create the illusion that we do all this because we truly care, not because it’s what become expected of us by society.

And then, ultimately, Christmas is gone. Somewhere in the midst of a pile of crumbled-up wrapping paper it settles on each of us that it’s over. What we planned and worked for over the past month-plus is over in a matter of minutes, and all that’s left is to spend some quiet time with family and hopefully catch a breath of relaxation. But, you see, it’s the family part I’d like to focus on today, if that’s alright with the rest of you.

For the record — my column, my rules. So, yeah, that’s what I will be focusing on today.

Once all the craziness is over for Christmas planning, there’s always that sense of relief and comfort for me when I can just sit down on the couch, surrounded by family and loved ones, and enjoy talking with one another. I love that feeling of everybody looking completely exhausted Christmas Eve, simulataneously agreeing that it’s time to pack it up for the night, and sharing hugs and kisses with one another before separating to go to sleep for the night. It feels like there is a chemical reaction in my brain that strips away the tension and replaces it with a sense of peace and satisfaction, and all seems right in the world.

I’m a lucky man. I’ve experienced family at Christmas nearly every one of my 44 years on this planet. Oh, there have been ones that go under the “good” and “bad” categories, respectively, but the worst Christmas with family is better than the best one without them for me. Which brings me to my worst one.

It was Christmas of 1990 and I was a 21-year-old Marine in the Persian Gulf during Operation Desert Storm. Technically, at that time it was still Operation Desert Shield, as we were protecting Saudi Arabia from a rumored attack by Iraq and have not yet launched an offensive on Iraqi troops in Kuwait, but you get the point.

I caught radio duty that night, and I was sitting in a tent with our officer of the day, a recent college graduate who couldn’t have been more than 23 years old himself. Gone that evening were ranks and our positions within the food chain. We were just two young men sitting in the middle of a desert and missing our families desperately, and I think we talked and laughed more that night together than we ever did in the year or so we worked together combined.

There were no combat acitivites that night, and never did I feel unsafe, but it was emotionally gut-wrenching. I imagined my little sister sitting next to me watching “It’s a Wonderful Life,” or eating my grandmother’s chocolate chip cookies or my mother sitting in her robe with an oversized cup of coffee and a huge grin watching everybody open their gifts. I longed for a family fight or war of insults, and I thought of how they were no doubt sitting at home worrying about me. Did I mention it was gut-wrenching?

I guess I tell this story just to remind everybody that there are many brave men and women today who are proudly giving up their holidays and time with their loved ones to make sure we can enjoy those things. They are in dangerous parts of the world, or seemingly-safe places like Germany or Japan or Iceland, and they do this because they choose to do this.

But it doesn’t mean they don’t miss home right now.

If you have a loved one overseas, send them a letter or card. Let them know that you appreciate what they are doing, and give them something to read over and over again when loneliness grabs hold of their hearts. Technology has changed since my time, and now troops often get to talk with their families via Skype or Messenger or some other technological wonder, and that is fantastic.

But that letter slips into a pocket very easily. And, more importantly, it slips back out when that person needs to feel home.