Every year at Christmas time a local shopping center in NJ called Princeton Market Faire (shout out to all the Lawrenceville kids) placed a large tree in the center court with a donation bin by its side. On the tree hung paper ornaments with the holiday wishes of local underprivileged children. The idea here was that shoppers could take an ornament, purchase the desired gift, then return it wrapped and labeled with said ornament to the tree as an anonymous donation. The tags held no names; only sex, age and requested gift.
My mom, sister and I participated in this tradition together for years. We’d typically go with the intention of selecting 2 ornaments, but to be honest I don’t remember ever coming home with less than 4…my mom just has a really big heart that way. Most of the ornaments held similar wishes; Barbies, toy trucks, video games, books, whatever that years “it” gift was, etc etc. but every once and awhile you’d select an ornament that would hit you a little deeper. Most of the wishes for children under the age of 1 consisted of necessities; diapers, formula, onesies, bottles, etc. While this actually makes sense (I feel like most 1 year olds end up more engaged in the boxes their gifts came in than the actual gifts themselves) it still was difficult to see basic needs listed as gifts…to see simple baby care products deemed ‘special’ enough to be considered Christmas wish worthy.
During our annual Christmas trip to the mall when I was 16 I selected an ornament from the donation tree that in some ways has haunted me every holiday season since then. And I don’t say haunted in a creepy, scary or dark way; I say it simply because 10 years later it still manages to put a lump in my throat when I think about it.
My ornament read; Male, 16, Toothbrush.
I stepped back from the tree. I must have just read this one wrong, let me take another glance…
Male, 16, Toothbrush.
The following reality checks looped through my mind…
For one, I had recently been told that my request for a cell phone was not going to be granted. Thus, I’d been moping around the house for days, wondering why my parents hated me so much as to deprive me of this need. And yes, at 16, I truly felt it was a need and that my parents hated me.
I’d had 12 teeth pulled as a kid. I’d also had braces. I owned multiple toothbrushes and tubes of toothpaste and if I ever needed more, a simple addition to my mom’s grocery list would garner me one within a few days. If I were having a dental issue, we’d go to the dentist to be healed, no questions asked. There I would receive free toothbrushes. And sometimes a toy.
The children these donations were going to be aiding were from local families. This meant that, as I attended a public high school, this 16-year-old male could be someone from my class. This one really shook me. I might have awkwardly walked the hallways on a daily basis hoping to fit in with what I was wearing, who I hung out with, what I looked like…but I never, ever, walked the halls wondering how I could brush my teeth at night. Could it be that someone I knew had these concerns?
Because this young man had the courage to ask for something so basic during an opportunity to be more frivolous, my family became consumed with the idea that he deserved much more. That night when we got home my mom worked her magic; calling the organization in charge to try and find out a little more information on the boy. Because the donations were all anonymous (naturally for the safety of the child), it proved to be a difficult challenge. Finally, the woman on the other line relented just enough information to satisfy my mom…and back to the malls we went!
We purchased pretty much every brand of toothbrush on the shelves…and every brand of toothpaste…and every brand of floss. Then we went to the Gap, and based on the general sizing information mom weaseled from the agency, selected sweatshirts and hats and gloves and scarves fitting for a 16 year old boy. We were limited to our purchasing only because the agency had strict guidelines on providing for the children (understood, there have to be boundaries and we were lucky they were letting us go this far) but I think if my mom had it her way she would’ve bought that boy the whole store, plus a pony.
Sometimes I wonder what Male, 16, Toothbrush thought of our gifts. I worry that maybe he felt we were being show-offy or frivolous or over eager to please. I hope not. I hope he knew, even just a little, how much he touched us and how to this day we send him good thoughts at Christmas. I wonder what his life is like, 10 years later. I wonder if he created an ornament today, what his wish would be.
Currently I own multiple toothbrushes. I have a dentist, an oral surgeon and a periodontist caring for my teeth and gums; all of which are almost 100% covered by my insurance. I’m actually getting a little choked up typing this (as I said, I’m a bit haunted still). I lead a beyond blessed life.
So this Christmas I am thankful. This Christmas I take a moment to put things into perspective a bit…not judge my pain, or myself as I do believe that if you feel it then it is real and it has value. Pain comes in all shapes and sizes, after all. But just put things into perspective a bit, like how I often find myself saying “some people have real problems” whenever I hit a hiccup in life.
This Christmas I can’t make it home to be with my family and my plans are still a bit up in the air. I am faced with the very real possibility that I will be alone. But I’m actually OK with this.
When I wake up in my warm and cozy apartment, located in my most favorite US city; when I place the traditional sticky buns into the oven and open gifts with my sister and parents via the miracle that is video chat I will be reminded of how fortunate my life is by letting myself feel their love from 3,000 miles away. By cherishing what I do have in life. By giving thanks to everything from the hot water in my shower to The Grinch playing on my TV to the 500th pair of socks I’m sure to unwrap.
And maybe also by repeating, whenever I hit a hiccup;
Male, 16, Toothbrush.