For many of us of all the memories we have of our family Christmas memories are the usually the most vivid. The ghosts of our personal Christmas past return to us in various ways: joyous songs, special ornaments, a fully lit Christmas tree, TV specials and movies, holiday specific aromas, specialty foods, decorations and more. There are dozens of holiday trappings that bring back the memories of Christmas with family.
This year, for me, the most emotional memory was sparked by this picture of my niece, Teressa, and me in a clown mask. Other than the gift wrapping covering the bookcase behind us you really can't tell that this picture was taken on Christmas but it was; December 25, 1991 to be exact.
Seeing it again, this week, brought to mind the realization that this year will be the 20th anniversary of one of the most memorable Christmas days in our family's history. At the time we didn't know it but Christmas 1991 would be the last one we would be blessed enough to have Teressa with us. For those of you who don't know my niece's story let me share it with you.
Teressa was my sister Peggy, and brother-in-law, Gene's youngest daughter. They became foster parents to Teressa when she was just an infant. Eventually they adopted her.
Teressa's birth mother was an IV drug user and was HIV positive. Teressa was born with HIV. The virus was in her blood from the day she drew her first breath. This was back in the mid 80's when the terrible HIV epidemic was spreading rapidly. Very little was known about HIV and little, if any treatment was available.
My sister and brother-in-law knew Teressa's eventual fate from the beginning. They knew there would more than likely be a time when the virus would become active and take my young niece's life. But because of the love they had for this child they chose to make her part of our family. They wanted to make sure "That There Baby" (a nickname Gene gave her when she was a toddler) would have the best life they could give her. I can assure you that they did just that.
Here are the specific circumstances that surround this memorable picture. As you may be able to see from her position in the chair Teressa was a sick little girl that Christmas day.
Three weeks earlier on Thanksgiving night she was spending the night at my sister Shari's house. She was going to help her decorate the Christmas tree the next day. That night Shari noticed that Teressa's had developed a twitch in her body. I don't remember specifically where it was but it was a matter of concern.
Peggy and Gene took "T" to the hospital the next day. She was hospitalized in Robert Wood Johnson Hospital in Rahway, New Jersey about 90 minutes from where they lived. To my recollection she stayed there until the week before Christmas. Peggy stayed with her and Gene was there when he wasn't working.
Now because it's been such a long time I don't remember exactly how it was decided but Teressa got to come home for Christmas so she could be with her family.
As always Christmas Day was spent at my mom & dad's house. The whole family was there. Teressa couldn't walk so she had to be carried in from the car and set into the living room chair.
I wanted to make sure she fun that day so I tried to make her laugh as much as I could. Nothing was working very well. While walking past the upstairs room that used to be my bedroom when I lived with my parents, I spotted the clown mask I'm wearing in the picture. I had worn it as part of a Halloween costume a few years earlier.
I saw it and thought wearing it would give me chance to be silly and make Teressa smile. Luckily it worked. I don't remember exactly what I did but I do remember that it made her laugh.
As I said that was a special Christmas day because less than a month later Teressa went to be with Jesus. To say that the loss of Teressa was devastating to every members of my family is a gross understatement.
That special Christmas was 20 years ago this December. It's hard to believe that it's been that long. And although a lot of the details of that day are lost to me now when I see this picture I do remember how much I loved my niece. I still miss her this time of the each year and so does everyone in my family.