Anticipating Advent — The Gift I Needed

The world wanted something very different than what we were given on that first Christmas day. We can no longer imagine life without that Gift, and it is only through receiving It we understand anything about the world around us.

I can’t even remember most of my Christmas gifts as a child, but I distinctly remember the year I didn’t get what I wanted. A remote controlled car. And I wanted it badly. There was never much extra money growing up in the house of a Christian school teacher so there was no reason to think that it would happen, but somehow I was convinced it was going to anyway. And when the presents made their way to the tree, there was the package. The exact size, shape, and heft of the longed for car. There was no name on the box but, of course, this was for me. I visited that box often in those days before Christmas eve.

And then it was finally time. I can’t remember if the box was handed to someone else, or if it was just an empty decoy, but I do remember feeling overwhelming betrayal. A larger box emerged from the bedroom for me. It was too big, too heavy, too everything to be that car, but I’d seen enough cleverly disguised gifts to give up hope. I instantly allowed myself to soar again to the heights of anticipation. But what emerged was an aquarium.

Years of conditioning had instilled in me a sincere desire to be thankful for whatever I got. To be that kind of kid. Years of knowing that others consistently got bigger, better, more valuable presents should have allowed me to put on a better act. This was not only the biggest gift I had ever been given, but more expensive than the car I had coveted. Yet the disappointment was so overwhelming, the anticipation had gone on so long, that I mumbled thank you, then went to my room to process a grief that should have been reserved for the loss of something more. My mom came to tell me how disappointed my father was, and I reached deep into my sixth grade self and rejoined the family. I set up the aquarium in the study and afterwards lied that I truly was delighted.

Over time I would come to love the wonder and discovery of that aquatic world as I spent countless hours developing relationships with the inhabitants. While my brother was in Vietnam we kept a map in that same study, and I would wander between the mysterious contours of an unknown place and the familiar tank. That was the year we found out my father had cancer and for the next three years until it finally claimed his life, the tank was a diversion. I fixated on every nuance of lives in the tank I was responsible for while my own life often seemed untended and unnoticed. That gift was exactly what I needed.
~Brian Vander Haak, Taipai, Taiwan

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