Hard to admit that I started Christmas morning at McDonald’s. But I did. It’s only a block from my house. The coffee pot was in the dishwasher I had forgotten to run the night before. And, yes, I like McD’s oatmeal. There I’ve said it.

Still, have to acknowledge I felt guilty (yeah, I know, a worthless emotion. Maybe. I’m not entirely sure of that) sitting in the drive-thru thinking about these poor minimum wage (hopefully minimum-wage-and-a-half on Christmas) souls serving up pre-made biscuits with pre-made eggs when they certainly wanted to be home with their families.

But instead of “Would you like to try our new Cinnamon Melts with your coffee this morning?” I got a bright, sincere “Merry Christmas” as the first words through the speaker system. 

Changed my day.

Reminded me, as I immediately noted to my seatmate and daughter, Mariah, that my mom, her Grammy, always answered the phone with a “Merry Christmas” the few days leading up to the big day. Gave me a sense of well-being as a kid, and now it made me feel good as I came through the McDonald’s drive-thru on Christmas.

The cashier at Window One was similarly warm and upbeat. And the woman pushing food through Window Two also wished us a Merry Christmas. When I thanked her for working so early on Christmas, she was a little taken aback and then said, “Happy to do it.”

Along with having gotten a good scald on the oatmeal, my McDonald’s encounter set me up for the day ahead. It was a long, intense and wonderful Christmas season for my family. A couple of weeks back I wrote about the death of Bill, our oldest brother. And over the past two weeks, our youngest sister, who is severely developmentally disabled, has been hospitalized in the south suburbs. 

These are the things that bring a family close — or drive them far apart. Happy to say we’re stuck like glue. 

The morning after Christmas we gathered out at Queen of Heaven to bury my brother’s remains. Lovely, somber, tears, prayers and then that final song on the Jambox, the Beach Boys’ “Good Vibrations,” played loud and strong across the graves. Bill would have loved it. The two ladies across the way looking for a grave marker seemed fairly perplexed, but I have to say that “Good Vibrations” was the perfect recessional for my brother.

Heading back into a hospital with another sibling was tough duty for my siblings and my daughter. Being there for a sister unable to speak, unable to communicate her levels of pain, unable to advocate for herself, is daunting and humbling. But it leaves you grateful to be part of a family that picks up and packs off to help whenever needed. And today Jeanne is being released from the hospital.

Finally, there is the power and the tenderness of new life in our semi-shell-shocked family. His name is Levon, 2 months old, the son of Bill’s oldest daughter Katie and her husband Jeff. That makes me his something-or-other-once-removed. But I would need my wife Mary to explain that lineage. 

How you draw strength and calm from a baby is a bit mysterious since it appears the adults are the ones doing the caretaking. But holding this boy, watching him being held by his aunts and uncles, his Grammy, staring endlessly at him as he sleeps or wakes is an affirmation of life and connection.

And it is what we needed most this Christmas.

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Dan Haley

Dan was one of the three founders of Wednesday Journal in 1980. He’s still here as its four flags – Wednesday Journal, Austin Weekly News, Forest Park Review and Riverside-Brookfield Landmark – make...