Column: Facing the ghosts of Christmas past

Life can only be understood backward, but it must be lived forward." - Soren Kierkegaard

I suppose it's a sign of age because age gives us memories and experience and pain and joy and thrills, spills and chills. For the first time in my life, this year I've found myself looking at Christmas past more than Christmas present or Christmas future.

I've thought a lot about Aug. 3, 1975. The phone call came in at about 3 a.m. I was 15 and living in what was then West Germany. I got up to answer the phone, but sitting up in her bed, my big sister Liz begged me not to pick up. For some reason, I listened to her for the first time in my life.

The phone had to be answered and eventually it was. My big brother Sebie was dead at 19 in San Bernardino, Calif.

I remember the tragedy of it all, of course. I can still feel the waves of grief wash over me, relentless and inescapable. I remember my sorrow for my siblings and especially my parents. But I also remember the logistical nightmare my parents endured to get my siblings from a military base in West Germany to Burlingame, Kan.,and back 30 days later, after Dad's emergency leave ended. I remember that Christmas was sad. I got twice as many presents as anyone else.

I remember Dec. 8, 1981. The day my brother David would die in Las Vegas at 19. I was in school at Arizona State University and working at a custom woodworking shop for beer money. The news this time around threw me for a double whammy. David was a wild child. Got me in more fights than I can remember. Six months earlier was the last time I let that happen.

I told him I never wanted to see him again, and I warned him not to show up in Tempe. A thousand times I have wished with all my heart I could take that back. I remember that Christmas, the saddest ever. Once again, I got twice as many presents as anyone else.

I remember Sept. 5, 1989. My father Mac died on a Tuesday. I remember this because I was on the night shift at the time and Tuesday was my Monday. He was 55 years old, less than a year older than I am right this minute - and that got me to thinking about what Kierkegaard was talking about when he said life can only be understood backward. That was the Christmas my mom showed us what it meant to behave with the utmost dignity.

I have happy memories of Christmas eves and Christmas days back when we were all together. The Army made it possible to experience Christmas all over the place. We had about half of them in Texas, where a white Christmas was as rare as a bucktooth rattlesnake, but we also spent half a dozen of them in snowy Germany and a New Year's in snowier Switzerland and an Easter in France, where the weather was fine.

And sometimes the Army made it possible to postpone Christmas because we spent it in transit or in some depressed overseas airport. My mother, Nona, who died on May 9, 2003, in Prescott, made sure we always had a good Christmas, no matter what the situation was. She was the perfect Army wife.

Christmas was one of the few dates on the calendar that we could count on Dad having far more patience than usual, and even my siblings and I were kinder and gentler with one another.

Growing old enough to understand life backward has taught me we all experience good times and bad. By extension, life has taught me to be grateful for the people still around. To cherish them and to let them know I love them every chance I get - and to let them love me back. That's how we live life forward.

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year.