We sat down to a sober Christmas dinner. I was 13 years old and my four brothers and I were trying to make the best of our situation. We had a turkey, mashed potatoes, gravy, cranberry sauce, stuffing, pumpkin pie but our Mother wasn’t with us this year. She was in the hospital again. This was a more and more common occurrence. Over the last 8 years since she was diagnosed with breast cancer she had been in and out of the hospital for various reasons. Initially it was for a double mastectomy and then later to have her adrenal glands removed. Chemotherapy and radiation therapy followed. Both of these treatments experimental at best and done with a heavy hand. My mother’s illness was aggressive and nothing had been able to stop its persistent take over of her poor failing body. As the years went by the treatments and the cancer took an ever higher toll leaving her more and more frail. It was not uncommon for us to find her unconscious and have to call an ambulance in the middle of the night that would take her away leaving us alone in the large house for an indefinite period of time.
It was during these hospital stays that we had different visitors come to watch over the youngest four of us. Sometimes it was our elderly Aunt who lived nearby or a family friend but usually it was either my older sister or my older brother. They were part of the first group of three children separated from the younger four by a gap of eight years. In that group there was the oldest, Jack who had left around the time of my mother’s initial illness, Kerry, the only girl and Mike who lived six hours North of us and worked in construction.
This Christmas Mike had changed whatever plans he had for Christmas as a young 23 year old guy to watch over his four younger brothers. He had purchased and cooked the turkey and was doing his best to create a holiday for us. We honestly thought he was doing a great job because as young teen and pre-teen boys we thought everything our older brother did was the coolest thing ever. He was 6’2″, handsome, charming, blonde with long hair and a beard. People said he looked like Grizzly Adams, a rock star or Jesus pretty regularly. Women loved him and so did we.
He took us surfing after working as a linemen all day. We’d wait for him to get home from work like a pack of eager labrador puppies. Even though I’m sure he was bone tired, he would pack us all in his little Toyota mini pick-up. Two up front and two in the bed with all the surfboards, wetsuits and towels and off we’d go. We’d pile into the water eager to get the best waves and show Mike how good we were. He happily watched us and encouraged our efforts like a good coach. He let us have all the waves and took few for himself. We surfed until dark and then got back in the truck or in the bed for the cold ride home. We took turns being in the bed but Mike would throw an old blanket over us and leave the cab window open so we could feel the heat on our faces and listen to the Doobie brothers playing on his eight-track player from the cab on the way. I still know every word to every song on that tape.
When we finished our Christmas meal and cleaned up it was time for opening gifts. None of us had much money so gifts were not a big thing. The younger four exchanged a surf poster a sticker or a couple of bars of surf-wax. Mike’s presents were the bigger ones. He had owned a leather craft store so gave each of us a home-made hand-tooled leather belt, the height of fashion at the time. We immediately put the wide leather belts on, each one with a subtly unique pattern but the same rough brass buckle. In addition we each received a separate gift. Our minds were blown. The oldest of the younger four was just getting into music so received an Eagles album. He went on to become a exceptionally talented Bluegrass musician. The second oldest received a tool-set. He wanted to be a tradesmen like Mike and indeed went on to become a highly regarded finish carpentry contractor. My younger brother loved surfing more than anything and imagined traveling to exotic places and surfing there. He received a year’s subscription to Surfer magazine. He eventually moved to Hawaii where he had a family and found his way into the upper management of the Marriott Corporation traveling all over Asia and the Pacific Rim.
My gift was wrapped simply like the rest had been. Mike used holiday wrapping paper but no bows or ribbon. It was actually a two in one gift. One smaller package long and narrow had been taped to another slightly larger. Both wrapped in the same red and gold paper. I held my breath as I opened the first. I peeled back the paper and could see it was something shiny and metal in a plastic case. As the paper slid off I recognized it as a very nice fountain pen. This was the kind you might find it a stationary store displayed behind the glass counter. The kind an executive, banker or attorney might have. It was beautiful, two-tone, silver and gold. Two black ink-cartridges were also included. I looked up to see Mike smiling. He knew I loved to draw and I had never owned a pen before. Certainly nothing like this one. “Open the other” he said. All my brothers watched as I opened the second part of the gift. I could tell it was a book of some kind. Generally we would have considered a book kind of a dud gift so I prepared myself to look happy even if it turned out to be a novel or something equally unwanted. I already felt sort of nerdy and awkward compared to my brothers and didn’t look forward to getting the novel and a pen when the others had received such cool male gifts.
I pulled back the red paper and it was indeed a book but one unlike any I had ever seen. The cover was also red but absolutely plain. There were no words on it at all. I looked up at Mike again. His eyes were twinkling. My other brothers looked at me with sympathy. I got the dud of the night is what their faces said. “Open it!” Mike encouraged. I looked back at the book and opened the cover to the first page. Nothing. It was blank. I turned to the second page. Once again nothing. I began turning more pages. They were ALL blank. It was a blank book. “This is for your drawings.” Mike said now smiling broadly. “You can fill it with your cartoons and stories. The pen is so your drawings will last. You will be able to create your own book!”
I felt a warm glow start in my belly and spread through my body and explode in my head. ‘Wow” I finally said. “This is great!” I began to imagine all the things I would put in it. My imagination was always full of stories and characters but my drawings to this point had been in pencil and on loose pieces of paper that just ended up in a pile or in the trash. I couldn’t wait to get the pen together and get started. Mike and my brothers could see how happy this gift made me and how it was exactly the right gift for me just as the others had been for them.
I went on to go to Art School and then work as an Animator and Illustrator in Hollywood. My brother’s gift had been as profound and portentous as those of my other siblings. I’ve pondered this gift many times over the years and wondered how my brother at the age of only 23 had so much depth, warmth and wisdom. He looked after us many more times over those years with equal selflessness and I learned most of my parenting skills and ideas about being a warm and compassionate person from those days. I eventually filled that blank book with colorful cartoons and stories that chronicled my young life. I used the same pen but refilled it’s cartridges hundreds of times before it finally wore out. That blank book has many more chapters now. Some bright and colorful and some dark and gray. Like life, we all come into this world as a blank book. I’m still writing mine and forever thankful for the small but remarkable gift I received that Christmas.