December 2008 Column Winner

The Christmas Gift

By Christine Reid, Kingfisher Times & Free Press

By all accounts, Charlotte Ann has gone through some rough patches in her 49 years.

She was born the sixth of seven children to a working class family - a sweet-spirited, adorable youngster who blossomed into a pretty, vivacious teenager with a definite preference for partying over studying.

But one subject in which she always excelled was art, frequently signing each painting or charcoal pencil drawing "Carly," an affectionate nickname bestowed on her by her much older brother.

A series of bad decisions left Charlotte pregnant at 17 and in no position either financially or emotionally to consider raising a child.

Her strict Catholic upbringing and personal convictions meant abortion was never even a consideration. So nine months later, she delivered a healthy baby boy who was passed immediately into the arms of adoptive parents Charlotte never even met.

Back in school, she got her high school diploma and started junior college, but left without a degree to get married, giving birth to two more boys in the coming years.

Charlotte suffered through some hard scrabble times financially and weathered two bad marriages, drifting away from her religious upbringing in the process.

But even though circumstances conspired to bring her down, Charlotte remained tenaciously cheerful and endlessly creative: Two qualities that ensured her boys never lacked for love or fun, even though they frequently lacked nearly everything else.

And through all the hard times, Charlotte worked for a better life for her and her boys. She eventually patched things up with God and began attending church. She worked her way into better paying jobs and became a homeowner. She joined a painting class and her love of art flourished once again.

And she met and married her soul mate and best friend, Ron, a fellow born-again believer who shared both her generous spirit and her wacky sense of humor. They became not only regulars at their church, but also its most industrious volunteers, starting a clown ministry and donating to missions.

He even took to calling her Carly, reviving her old high school nickname.

Charlotte's new life continued its upward spiral: She studied to become an appraiser and set up her own business; her marriage brought a stepdaughter, as much like her as any biological daughter she could imagine; her sons married and the family expanded even further with the births of three grandchildren.

Then the bottom fell out again. Ron was diagnosed with a failing liver. Prayers brought a donor organ in the nick of time but did not eliminate the trauma of transplant surgery and seemingly endless rounds of complications, hospitalizations and additional surgeries that followed.

Even now, nearly two years after the transplant, Ron isn't entirely out of the woods. His weakened immune system means any infection is potentially life-threatening and the possibility of a second liver failure always looms.

Although their faith leaves no room for doubt about Ron's eternal life, the fragility of his earthly life presents daily challenges for both of them.

But you'll never hear that from Charlotte. Her unflappable optimism and good cheer seem to expand in inverse proportion to the troubles that too often fill her plate.

That's why Ron was shocked when the simple act of opening the mail last Monday brought on spontaneous and uncontrollable tears.

Among the bills and junk mail and Christmas cards was a letter in an unfamiliar hand from a North Carolina address: A not-so-stranger named Casey had written to thank her for the selfless and heart-rending decision she'd made 32 years ago - the one that gave him life.

In the rapid-fire e-mail exchange that followed, Charlotte learned Casey is a professional artist with an oddball sense of humor and an infectiously joyous outlook on life, just like his birth mom.

In his e-mailed photos, Casey bears remarkable resemblance to Charlotte's nephews and her late brother. But also peering out from the photos is another surprise: a beautiful flaxen-haired 3-year-old who somehow shares the name of the grandmother she's never met - Carly Ann.

For Charlotte, who's spent at least a few minutes of every day of the last 32 years wondering what became of her first baby boy, it was the best Christmas present imaginable.

And for me and the rest of Charlotte's five sisters, the ache of our mother's absence from our holiday table has been unexpectedly eased by the joyful addition of the nephew none of us ever forgot.

Merry Christmas, indeed.