“I have always loved the magic of Christmas. When I reflect on my childhood, my best holiday memories are the traditions of decorating the house with my family and watching classic movies. Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer was always my favorite because he was like me.
Like Rudolph, I used to think I would never fit in. My mother abandoned me when I was 3 years old, and her absence in my life left an empty space in my heart and my identity. I truly believed I was defective because I was given away. I knew I was loved by my adoptive family, yet I looked very different and that made me feel very different. In fact, never seeing my reflection in another person made me feel like a misfit, just like Rudolph. I truly believed that I too belonged on the Island of Misfit Toys.
In the year 2000, my life changed forever in the best way. I gave birth to my son, my greatest gift and the only genetic relative I have ever known. The emptiness I had felt my entire life was replaced by a new love that made me feel whole, connected, and no longer alone.
Holding my son for the first time filled me with a sense of purpose and wholeness I never thought possible for someone like me to experience. When I held my baby boy for the first time, it occurred to me that I was seeing my own reflection in another person for the first time in my life! My mind was blown and my heart was full. I will never forget the doctor’s words immediately after delivering my son. ‘He looks like mom!’ A huge piece of my heart that had been missing was now filled by the tiny little life I brought into this world.
Having a child during the Christmas season renewed the magic I had felt as a child. Becoming a mother gave me an opportunity to pass down my traditions and witness the awe of encounters with Santa. I loved searching the stores for the gift that my child wanted the most each year. From Thomas the Tank Engine trains to Godzilla figures to video games, I loved surprising my son with his heart’s desire. Waking him up on Christmas morning was always magical for both of us.
Even when he reached his teenage years and I became a single mother after a divorce from his father, he was the reason Christmas felt special. Brayden’s presence magnified the magic of Christmas, and being a mom meant I would never lose the magic again…or so I thought.
One day, when Brayden was a junior in high school, he called me at work and told me he needed to talk to me that evening. Naturally, my mom antenna went up, and I was concerned that my only child was struggling academically, with a relationship, or worse. When we sat down to talk, he told me he needed my support with a decision for his future. I said, ‘Of course, I will always support your growth and development. What do you need me to do?’ He said, ‘Mom, I want to enlist in the Navy when I graduate, and I need you to sign for me because I am seventeen.’
Still processing what my only child was asking, I said, ‘Are you sure this is what you want to do after high school?’ He said, ‘Yes, I am sure. I have done the research, talked to others who have entered the Navy, and I even took the admissions test for the job I want and scored very well—this is my dream.’ I was both heartbroken with anxiety and bursting with pride in reaction to learning about my son’s brave choice to serve our country.
When he was born, I committed to being the mother I never had to my son by making sure he never doubted my love for him. This meant I had to support him 100%, so I responded, ‘I love you and want you to be happy. This is scary for me as your mother because the thought of you getting injured or worse kills me. I believe in you, and you have my support to pursue your dream.’
As tough as that conversation was, the months that followed, leading up to Brayden’s departure for boot camp, were much worse. I cannot recall a more depressing and emotionally challenging time in my entire life. The thought of him leaving home and living in another state made me extremely anxious. Two weeks before the date of his departure, I began to feel extremely depressed. Just minutes after his graduation and send-off party, I had a panic attack while putting the leftover food and decorations in my car. I will never forget how quickly the energy left my body. I began to collapse, and my son and my significant other rushed to catch me, and together, they held me up and assisted me safely into the car.
Watching him walk away to board the bus for boot camp was devastating. He started his journey of military service in July of 2018 and the eight weeks of boot camp felt like a year that wouldn’t end. Having our communication limited to handwritten letters and just three phone calls completely broke my heart. I was suffering from separation anxiety. I knew this transition would be challenging for both of us, but I did not know it would destroy me. While my conscious mind knew he was taking an important step in building a life as an independent adult, I mourned him as if he had died, and there were times when I thought I might.
In September 2018, Brayden was scheduled to graduate from boot camp. My Aunt Fran, my boyfriend, Brad, and I took a road trip from Cleveland to Chicago to celebrate this milestone with our new sailor. The time we spent with Brayden went way too fast, and I cherished every second. We went sightseeing, took photos with the famous Chicago bean, saw a movie, and enjoyed our time together. Knowing we would be apart for the upcoming holidays, we found a diner serving turkey dinner for an early Thanksgiving meal. After dinner and one last round of hugs, we hit the road back to Ohio. My stomach and my heart were full.
The full feeling faded quickly after our return home, and before I knew it, the Christmas season was upon us. It would be my first Christmas without my boy since his birth. I was far from prepared for the rollercoaster of emotions I felt as a new military mother. When I agreed to support my son’s choice, I didn’t even think of the heartbreak I would feel being thousands of miles away from my only son on Christmas.
Thanks to my boyfriend, Brad, I still had a reason to celebrate Christmas of 2018. After multiple failed relationships, including a divorce from my son’s father, I had finally found a partner who added tremendous value to my life and made me incredibly happy. Brad was my light through the darkest time of my life. His patience, support, and love helped me recover from my separation anxiety. I was thrilled that Brad formed a close relationship with my son before he enlisted in the Navy, and the three of us made many happy, silly, fun memories together.
The holiday season was not the same without Brayden. Brad and I attended Christmas tree lightings and took lots of photos, but each tradition made me think of him and the past 18 Christmas seasons since he was born. From putting up the tree to shopping to family gatherings, my son’s missing presence kept me from feeling the magic.
When Christmas morning came, I didn’t feel like celebrating. In fact, I didn’t feel anything. Unmotivated to leave my bed, I thought to myself, ‘This is going to be the worst Christmas of my lifetime.’ Being separated from my only son felt like a punishment of some kind. I didn’t want to be a downer to Brad and our families, so I got out of bed, took a shower, put on a sparkly cranberry dress with heels, did my makeup, and chose to make the most of my first Christmas as a military mom.
Brad came over to exchange presents. His presence immediately lifted my spirits. We sat down across from each other and took turns opening one gift at a time. Brad is a very thoughtful gift-giver. He even specified the order for me to open his gifts, saving an extra special present for last. It was a large box, within a box, within a box. Yes, Brad has a fun sense of humor. He knew how to make me laugh while building anticipation.
I finally made it to the last box. I removed the lid to reveal a beautiful ring. It was a heart-shaped aquamarine stone, my son’s birthstone, surrounded with diamond chips around the heart and the double band. I looked at the ring and looked up at Brad. We had been together just over two years and I silently wondered if this ring had a special meaning. Clearly, he was reading my mind because he answered my unspoken question. ‘It’s a pre-engagement ring. A promise while I save up for the real thing.’ I was so touched. ‘He wants to marry me,’ I thought. ‘What a sweet gesture and a beautiful reminder of our growing love.’
After hanging out at my place for a while, we headed over to his cousin Mike’s house for a family gathering. We had a lovely time chatting, catching up with his family, and sharing a wonderful meal. We took pictures by the tree, and I showed off my new ring and explained its meaning. His cousin Mike’s wife Maria told us how much she loved the ring and told Brad what a great job he had done. It was getting late, and Brad asked me if I would like to go see the Christmas lights in Chagrin Falls, a charming town where we enjoyed attending the tree lighting ceremony. I enthusiastically agreed to his fun, spontaneous idea.
When we arrived, we didn’t see another soul. We exited the vehicle and walked over to the falls. The lights shining on the falling water was a beautiful sight. Next, we walked to my favorite spot in the city, the gazebo. I love gazebos and find them incredibly romantic. The Chagrin Falls gazebo was decorated with greenery, white lights, and giant red bows. It truly felt like we had walked onto the set of a Hallmark Christmas movie.
I looked away from Brad to admire the views of the charming town from inside the gazebo. When I turned around to face him, he was down on one knee holding yet another ring – a sparkly marquis diamond. My eyes opened wide, and I looked down into his with disbelief and joy. Then he looked up and said, ‘Will you marry me?’ Happy tears streamed down my cheeks. ‘Yes,’ I said through the tears. I moved the decoy ring to my right ring finger, and he placed the diamond ring on my left ring finger. We shared a lengthy embrace and I whispered in his ear, ‘You fooled me with that promise ring!’ He confessed that he thought I was on to his plan to propose. I told him I had no idea, and I loved his romantic two-ring proposal. He also informed me that he had previously asked my son for his permission to propose. Knowing we had my son’s blessing meant everything and made him part of this special memory.
My first Christmas as a military mom turned out to be the most magical Christmas ever. I received another magical gift on December 30th. My son returned home to ring in the new year with us.”
This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Nicole Koharik from Cleveland, OH. You can follow her journey on Instagram and Facebook. Submit your own story here, and be sure to subscribe to our free email newsletter for our best stories, and YouTube for our best videos.
Read more from Nicole here:
‘Your mom left you with me to babysit and never returned.’ He was a young Marine, just back from the Vietnan war. He made the ultimate sacrifice.’: Adoptee shares journey to self-acceptance, motherhood
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