Tragedy and the True Meaning of Christmas


It was going to be our best Christmas ever. Little did we know that a tragedy would make it one we would never forget.

Dad was a high school geography teacher, and money was scarce. We three children heard the words “We can’t afford it” much too often. So we could hardly believe it—and certainly had little appreciation for the sacrifices involved—when Dad and Mom announced that we were going to take a vacation at Christmastime.

Even more unexpected was the news that we would be buying our first-ever new car for the trip—a yellow 1963 station wagon with mock wooden trim and a luggage rack on top. The only items missing were the optional seat belts that Dad had wanted installed before the trip. But since they hadn’t arrived at the car dealership in time for our departure, we left without them.

Time and scenery passed quickly as we listened to Christmas carols on the car radio and tried to stifle our giggles and whispers as we speculated about the gaily wrapped packages peeking out at us from their hiding places in the back of the car. I was hoping for what every ten-year-old girl was hoping that year—a Barbie doll, complete with wardrobe and blue vinyl carrying case. Eventually the rhythm of the road and the stillness of the dark lulled us children into happy dreams.

I awoke instantly, with confusion all about me. I felt as if I were one of a hundred puzzle pieces, tossing and whirling, unable to come together as a whole. I remember screams and cries, the sound of the radio, darkness, and things flying past me and hitting me. When I reached out to try to avoid the jarring bumps, I briefly felt the smooth inside of the roof of the car.

Then, as suddenly as it had begun, everything stopped moving, and for just an instant, there was silence. The road had been covered with patches of black ice, invisible and treacherous. We had hit some ice, lost control of the car, and now we were at the bottom of a steep incline a few miles outside of Lovelock, Nevada. In the darkness of the early morning, I could see that my father was conscious but was bleeding from several cuts in his scalp. Mother had been thrown free of the car and was unable to move. Paul, the baby, was screaming with fright. I was unhurt. Sam, my seven-year-old brother, was missing.

Dad wiped the blood from his eyes and prayed quickly for help. He and I began searching for Sam, while Mom called out continually, “Have you found him?” We did, finally, lying in a pile of shattered glass and rock. He had been thrown an incredible distance, taking with him the curved back window of the station wagon. He looked so small and cold, lying very still in his blood-soaked pajamas. The sight made Dad cry out in despair, “He’s dead! We’ve lost him!”

As I looked about, I saw our belongings. One whole side of our beautiful new car was now smashed as flat as an aluminum can. Our luggage had been thrown open, and the contents were scattered all over the hillside. Christmas presents were everywhere, with wrapping paper torn or missing—and I could see the corner of a blue vinyl carrying case where the paper had been ripped away.

In those few moments I grew up quickly. I realized, with a growing sense of urgency, that none of those things mattered now. More than anything, I wanted my family around me, healthy and happy. I was already feeling the sense of loss and incompleteness Sam’s passing would leave in my life.

It was not likely that we would be spotted from the highway by a passing car, so someone needed to climb the steep embankment to flag down help. Dad stayed at Sam’s side while I climbed up. Ice and snow hurt my bare feet—I was wearing only pajamas—but I was warm inside as I considered the trust that Dad had placed in me. I prayed out loud as I waited several minutes with no sign of other traffic.

When help arrived, it was indeed an answer to prayer. The first car stopped. Inside were a doctor and his wife, a nurse, and they had blankets and medical supplies in the trunk of their car! Seconds later, a truck driver stopped and called ahead for an ambulance.

The doctor examined Sam and found faint, hopeful signs of life. His wife wrapped Paul and me in blankets and treated the worst of Mom’s abrasions. Then, while we were waiting for the ambulance, they helped us sort out our belongings and packed them into their car for the trip into town. The ambulance arrived, and we were loaded inside, but the drive was no faster than a crawl because of the icy road.

The sun was just coming up as we came into Lovelock. Since a bus had overturned earlier, resulting in several deaths and critical injuries, the hospital was already filled to capacity. Paul was taken to an empty crib in the nursery, and Dad’s cuts were quickly cleaned and stitched. Mom and Sam were examined on gurneys in the hallway: Mom had suffered severe ligament damage, and Sam had a badly fractured skull. His open head wound was filled with dirt and broken glass, and the doctors were concerned about possible infection, blood loss, and brain damage. Later, when Sam was conscious, Dad and I were allowed to see him briefly. The doctor asked him if he recognized us. Sam said nothing, but his eyes revealed his fear and confusion.

Dad and I collected our luggage, left the hospital, and checked into a nearby motel, where we washed our dirty, bloodstained clothing in the bathtub. I was still barefoot and in my pajamas, so we sorted through the remnants of our belongings for warmer attire. I found a sweater and a pair of jeans to wear but could find only one shoe. For the next three days, I walked to the hospital and back in my stocking feet—until my other shoe was discovered in the wreckage of the car.

That night at the hospital we were relieved to see that a room had been made available for Mom and Sam. But we were surprised to discover that they had company. Somehow, members of the Lovelock Branch had discovered our plight and had sent us the Christmas spirit. Two brethren had brought a small decorated Christmas tree and gifts for each of us. I received a pink powder mitt made of flannel with a blue satin bow. When I opened it, I cried for the first time since the accident and allowed myself, for a little while, to be a tired, frightened little girl.

Then the men assisted Dad in administering to Mom and Sam. Through their kindness, the priesthood blessing, and the whisper of love from the Lord, we finally found peace and reassurance. In less than twenty-four hours, our emotions had come full circle, and we were once again filled with Christmas hope.

Looking back, I realize that my father was younger then than I am now. Throughout the experience, he set an example for me of calm strength and faith in the will of the Lord. And although it must have been difficult to face each day with only the companionship of a ten-year-old child, he made me feel useful and important.

Mom and Sam were recovering slowly, but it would be some time before they would be able to travel. Since Dad had to get back home for work after a few days, he made the difficult decision to leave them in the hospital, borrow money to fly home with Paul and me, and then return for Mom and Sam when they were able to travel again.

At home, neighbors and ward members readily stepped in to help. Paul and I were taken into the homes of ward members, and someone loaned Dad a car so he could get to and from work.

Finally, Mom and Sam were strong enough to come home, but they couldn’t travel by air. Some friends offered their station wagon and fitted a mattress into it. Another friend took time off work to be the driver.

What a joyous reunion we had! Mom was soon on her feet again, and Sam recovered quickly, showing no signs of the trauma he had so recently survived. During a routine checkup several months after the accident, the doctor couldn’t believe that Sam had ever suffered a severe skull injury; there was only a small external scar, and the X rays revealed no internal scarring or damage. When he saw the original X rays, he said, “Well, I’ve seen a miracle!”

My blue vinyl Barbie case was one of the few gifts that survived that Christmas. But today, as I watch my four little girls playing with it, I wish I could pass on to them the other, more important gifts I received that year: a greater appreciation for life and family relationships, faith in my parents, faith in the compassion of friends and strangers, and, most important, faith in God and in the power of his priesthood.

If I could, I would shield my little ones from the hurts of life that will inevitably come to them. Certainly all of their trials may not have the happy outcome my tenth Christmas ultimately did. But I will watch over them and encourage them as they experience both the joys and the sorrows of this life. And I will pray that from their experiences, they too will recognize and accept the best gifts.

[illustration] Illustrated by Paul Mann

Linda Gappmayer Reed, a member of the Oxnard Fourth Ward, is Relief Society president in the Camarillo California Stake.