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The last Christmas gifts of Papa’s life are treasures that keep on giving

‘Christmas I Remember Best’

Steven Curtis or “Papa” to his grandchildren.
Matthew Curtis

By Matthew Curtis

This is the fifth of 10 essays chosen to be published in the Deseret News annual Christmas writing contest, “Christmas I Remember Best.”

Though some memories are painful, time has a way of healing hearts and casting even dark times into better light. The Christmas of 2012 is definitely memorable — but one I have chosen to avoid thinking about much.

My father, whom his grandchildren called “Papa,” was dying. He had fought cancer heroically for the previous eight years and we felt we had all been the recipients of miracles during the ordeal.

However, as Christmas approached, none of us knew how to plan for the days ahead. We clung to our holiday traditions the best we could, but things were different. Papa didn’t feel well enough to spend a lot of time with us, so he and Grandma couldn’t join us for carols, our Christmas Eve Nativity play, or even to drop by Christmas morning to see what Santa brought.

However, we still congregated at their home for a Christmas night feast of ham, potatoes, and Christmas Jell-O. That was critical because Papa had a surprise for us: Knowing the end was near, he had spent months preparing his personal history.

This autobiography contains accounts of his growing up, his marriage and children, and his professional pursuits; messages to each of his children’s spouses; and statements of the deepest feelings of his heart, including his eternal love for his family, his devotion to his religion, and awe at his Savior’s love for him. He literally put his soul into the book.

He made copies for his wife, each child and each grandchild, with a few extra for those yet unborn. These were professionally bound and embossed with gold lettering. On the inside of each cover he wrote in his distinctive cursive writing a personal note tailored to each recipient. I believe he prepared nearly 25 copies of this autobiography.

Each phase of the project became increasingly difficult as his body deteriorated. Just before Christmas he painstakingly wrapped these books with trembling hands, finishing mere days before losing the ability for fine motor movement altogether. He wouldn’t let my mom help him. It would mean more if he applied the wrappings himself.

He was weak but joyful when he presented this treasure to us at his home on Christmas night. It meant so much for him to be there personally to deliver this surprise. The adults all unwrapped them with astonished gasps and tearful expressions of thanks to both of my parents for making this project come to fruition.

His children were given a wrapped copy for each of the grandchildren. Papa’s instructions were that each grandchild was to be given the book on the Christmas when they were old enough to read the cursive note he wrote to them. The idea was that a child who could read his writing could also appreciate and take proper care of such a gift.

After Christmas we did get together a few more times, but only to discuss how to help my mom cope with Papa’s last days. As siblings and spouses, we divided the calendar into shifts where we would sleep by his bed so we could tend to his midnight needs and let my mom get some much-needed rest.

Christmas vacation that year was a time apart from our families; a time of resigned sorrow; and as anyone knows who has nursed a sick loved one out of this world, a time of complete, utter exhaustion. Papa passed away Jan. 5.

Many Christmases since then have seen one of my children reach that long-awaited age where cursive is finally understood. Each time that happens, a copy of Papa’s autobiography, still in its original 2012 wrappings, is taken off our bookshelf and placed under the tree.

There is something sublime about that child seeing their own name on the gift tag, written in Papa’s distinctive handwriting. On Christmas morning when the book is unwrapped, it is handled with reverence and elicits many promises to treat it like the treasure it is.

Most important of all, each of those children eventually makes their way through what he wrote, and in so doing, incorporates a little bit of him into themselves.

In the book he comes to the following conclusion, after describing his battles with cancer:

“It comes to this: The Savior has personal and intimate knowledge of me, my situation, my needs. He takes my burdens. He soothes. He cares. I feel relieved. I feel understood, even when no one could possibly understand. ... He is very much my advocate, and he is very real.”

Every time I or one of my family members reads the words he left us, that moment becomes another part of this ongoing Christmas I Remember Best — though wreathed in pain, also full of joy and hopeful looking forward to seeing Papa again.

Matthew Curtis lives in Cedar Hills and says anyone can assist in the fight against cancer by visiting www.5forthefight.org.