This piece appears in Chicago’s ‘Irish American News’ for December 2013.
A Different Kind of Christmas Message
So it’s almost upon us once again, that time of the year that we look forward to so much, he said with customary sarcasm: Christmas, with all of its ghastliness, family squabbles and the adulation of everything that is the complete opposite of what this time should really be about. That special time of the year when we worship the great God Mammon above all other Gods and dig deep into pockets that can’t afford them for phoney presents that most people don’t want anyway.
It’s that time of the year when the munchkins are running around driving their parents mad with their demands for the next overpriced video game that will keep so many greedy toy manufacturers happily eating caviar and drinking Moet & Chandon for another while; and a few rug rats happy for all of five minutes until they find that playing with the cardboard box it came in is much more fun.
Well, that’s the way it has always been for me anyway. I’ve never seen the point to it, myself. It’s just a time of year when I want to hide away from the world for a day or two until all the nonsense and the bedlam has subsided and then we can look at the calendar and breathe an enormous sigh of relief before getting back to dreading it in another twelve months’ time. It has always made me very bloody happy that I never had any sprogs, never had to worry about anything that resembles whatever is laughingly called a ‘normal’ life.
Life or Fate –or God if you’re that weird way inclined—does however have a funny way of springing things on you when you least expect it.
And so this year of years, as I approach my 55th year of leading a very selfish life of doing whatever I’ve pretty much wanted to most of the time, finds me in a strange and wonderful position.
You see, for the last two months I’ve had the great privilege of finding myself utterly happy to be waking up each and every morning knowing that what I’m doing is important. Anti-authority as I’ve always been, I now find myself with a boss that I can bear to be in the same room as. And you know what? That’s not a bad feeling; it’s not a bad feeling at all. You find that it spills over into every other aspect of how you think, how you feel, how you damned well are. And all because that boss is doing something crucial that has been under my nose all these years.
I’m talking about a lady called Jennifer Carpenter who has been running the ‘Hand in Hand’ foundation for five years here in Galway. It is the only charity group in the West of Ireland that looks after and gives help to families who are affected by the awful reality of a child being diagnosed with cancer. That means that she has been helping families that are spread from here in Galway and on through the counties of Donegal, Sligo, Mayo, Leitrim, Roscommon, Clare and Limerick.
And she has been doing this on a wing and a prayer most of that time because the harsh reality of children with cancer is just one of those things that has flown under the radar. Or so it would seem. It would seem that because ‘only’ 220-250 children a year are diagnosed that it isn’t—in the blinded eyes of fools—something that is all that worth getting hot under the collar about. I’m here to tell you that only after a very short period of time, learning through Jennifer, that it is very much something that is worth caring about to the very depths of ourselves.
Jennifer has been blessed in that the Irish people –the ordinary Irish people, not the bean counters and their ilk, not the ones who care more about sucking up to Germany and our European masters—are the most generous people that you could ever hope to meet.
In the short time that I’ve been with ‘Hand in Hand’ I have been honoured to meet some of the fundraisers and volunteers without whom this charity could not exist; pure and simply could not exist.
Jennifer will be embarrassed when she reads this. I couldn’t care less. She knows how I feel. She knows that the introduction of ‘Hand in Hand’ into my life has changed me in the most fundamental of ways. Somewhere along the route her sheer enthusiasm, beauty of spirit and sheer bloody-mindedness in trying to keep this organisation afloat changed this from just another job where I wrote a few pieces that hopefully sounded as passionate as she is. Somewhere along the way it turned into something else for me. It turned into my reason for throwing off the duvet in the morning. And anyway, for the duration of this article at least, she’s not the boss and so I’ll call it as I always have done: just as I see it.
For almost the first time in my life I wake up and don’t wonder what I can do for me first; I wonder what I can do for ‘Hand in Hand’. That alone has turned my world spinning on its head. And yeah, I may have felt dizzy for the last couple of months; but it’s a good kind of dizzy, do you know what I mean? It’s a nice kind of legal high, if you want to put it that way.
In many ways this is a heartbreaking endeavour to find oneself unexpectedly drawn into. Even as I was writing, Jennifer got the news that one little girl who she has known throughout her trials has come out of remission. It leaves me dumbstruck that this is something that she must have had to deal with time and again over the years.
Maybe once it would have had me heading out the door and back to a relatively cosy life. Now, however, I feel simply humbled to be a part of something so huge.
As I look forward joyfully—yeah, corny word, but what else am I going to call it?—to Christmas, I think of those who are helping ‘Hand in Hand’: those extraordinary people who are cycling from Ireland to Rome; or who are swimming a km a day every day; who are giving their time to playing in concerts and all the many ingenious ways that decent people can think of that will help to keep this important charity afloat.
For myself, I’m looking forward to Christmas for a change. The last couple of months have convinced me that there really are good people in this world, something I was always dubious about. Too much time spent with politicians, perhaps.
For once I can say this with an open heart: I wish all of the readers of Irish American News a wonderful Christmas season.