144: When Is a Gift More than a Gift?

144: When Is a Gift More than a Gift?

Today on our show, we bring you a story by Emily Henderson titled After Our Son Died, My Husband Gave Me The Most Meaningful Christmas Gift Of My Life. Emily workshopped this essay in our Final Draft class and then the Huffington Post published it on December 25, 2021.

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This story is an excellent example of using an object to convey emotion, details, and telling in addition to showing. Emily tells us how she’s feeling the entire story which intensifies her vulnerability. To hear another of Emily’s stories, listen to Episode 103: Writing the Same Story Over and Over. 

Emily Henderson is a runner and writer living in Santa Barbara, California. Her essays have appeared in Scary Mommy, the Santa Barbara Independent, Huffington Post, and Writing Class Radio. Emily is currently writing a memoir about processing the loss of her son while running every street in her city. You can follow her on Instagram at @emilykathleenwrites or visit emilykathleenwrites.com.

Writing Class Radio is hosted by Allison Langer and Andrea Askowitz. Audio production by Matt Cundill, Evan Surminski and Aiden Glassey at the Sound Off Media Company. Theme music is by Justina Shandler. 

There’s more writing class on our website, writing class radio dot com including stories we study, editing resources, video classes, writing retreats, and live online classes. Join our writing community by following us on Patreon

For $35/month you can join our First Draft weekly writers groups. You have the option to join Allison on Tuesdays 12-1 ET and/or Zorina Frey Wednesdays 7-8pm ET. You’ll write to a prompt and share what you wrote. If you’re looking to take your writing to the next level, for $145/mth you’ll get First Draft and Second Draft. In Second Draft, each week, three people bring a second draft for feedback. To try First Draft for free, email Andrea@writingclassradio.com.

Join the community that comes together for instruction, an excuse to write, and most importantly, the support from other writers. To learn more, go to www.patreon.com/writingclassradio.

A new episode will drop every other WEDNESDAY. 

There’s no better way to understand ourselves and each other, than by writing and sharing our stories. Everyone has a story. What’s yours?


Andrea Askowitz 00:00:03
I'm andrea Askowitz.

Allison Langer 00:00:11
I'm Allison Langer, and this is Writing Class Radio. You'll hear true personal stories and learn how to write your own stories. Together, we produce this podcast, which is equal parts heart and art. By heart, we mean the truth in a story story. By art, we mean the craft of writing. No matter what's going on in our lives, writing class is where we tell the truth. It's where we work out our sheet. There's no place in the world like writing class, and we want to bring you in.

Andrea Askowitz 00:00:40
Today on our show, we bring you a Christmas story by Emily Henderson. Emily is one of our students, and she workshops this story in class. And then she got it published in The Huffington Post on December 25, 2021. The story is an excellent example of using an object to convey emotion. It's also a great example of using details that tell so much. And also telling Emily tells us how she's feeling the entire story. More Emily Henderson can be heard on episode 103, writing the same story over and over. Emily Henderson is a runner and writer living in Santa Barbara, California. Her essays have appeared in Scary Mommy, the Santa Barbara Independent, Huffington Post, and writing class Radio. We'll be back with Emily's story after the break. We're back.

Allison Langer 00:01:35
I'm Allison Langer, and this is Writing Class Radio. Here's Emily Henderson reading her story titled after our son died, my husband gave me the most meaningful Christmas gift of my life.

Emily Henderson 00:01:55
Last Christmas, I sat on the floor surrounded by wrapping paper, new toys and happy kids. Then seven and nine. It was like being in a bubble bath with too much soap, ribbons and bows flying as each new box was ripped open. It quickly became hard to tell what was a gift and what was trash. The previous year, our 20 month old son Aidan died unexpectedly during surgery to remove a tumor from his brain. It was our second Christmas without him, and I was still getting used to shopping for two kids instead of three. I think it's Mom's turn to open her stocking, my husband said. My daughter brought it over to me, exaggerating her movements as she walked on her knees. I pulled the first thing out of my stocking a plastic round button, like the kind you'd hit if you were on a game show. These are called easy buttons. Usually they're bright red with white letters that spell out Easy. They became popular in 2005 when Staples began promoting and selling them. The idea was that you could solve your problem just by hitting this button. The one in my stocking looked like a knock off. It was just plain white with a black base. I looked up at my husband from the floor with one eyebrow raised in confusion and annoyance. Is this for me? I asked. Press it, he replied. I hadn't noticed before, but the kids were watching me closely, waiting for me to press the button, too. I pressed it, and the room filled with sound. There were muffled voices, and I wasn't sure what I was supposed to hear. Then I heard a high pitched squeal that turned into a laugh. The room blurred, and when I raised my head to look at Nick, gravity took the tears from my eyes and pulled them down my cheeks. It was Aden playing with his siblings in the recording. My daughter says hello, and my older son says, oh, no. And then there's one more loud belly laugh from Aidan. The sound stopped abruptly as it had began, and the room was quiet. Nick broke the silence. The recording is 15 seconds, so if you want to change it, you can. It's perfect, I said. Nick and the two kids looked up proud, and I realized they must have picked out the recording together. I put the easy button on my desk and didn't think of it much until my best friend Ashley asked me to watch her toddler Will. She was having another baby and needed someone she trusted to care for him while she recovered in the hospital. There was never a question as to whether we would take Will. Nick and I are baby people, and toddlers are our specialty. We knew it would be hard, but I thought having a toddler in the house again might be what we needed at this stage in our grief. I wasn't sure if this is something you'd be ready for, Ashley said. We can't wait, I told her. Aiden's crib was still in our bedroom, removed it from his room after he got sick, and now it's been in our room longer than Aidan was alive. The crib had become a shrine, overflowing with blankets and stuffed animals and trinkets from his life. To make room for Will, I piled everything in the crib into a corner, careful not to break the plaster mold of Aidan's hand or misplace the plastic bags with clippings of his hair. Then I cleared off my desk. I stacked my books, laptop and favorite pens in the living room. I put the easy button on top. Will is the same age as Aidan was when he was diagnosed with brain cancer. That first night, I listened to Will speak half words and watched him take half steps, and for a moment, I couldn't tell who was who. He was doing all the things Aidan was doing before cancer made his smile crooked and his blonde curls fall out. My daughter was fully prepared to play mom and almost started crying when I told her she wouldn't be the one to rock wheel to sleep at night. My older son was more reserved. More than once I heard him say, that's just like Aidan, his voice trailing off, maybe lost in the memory, maybe not wanting to remember fully. The next day, I asked my older son. How are you feeling about having Will here? Is it hard for you? He paused, considering the question.

Andrea Askowitz 00:06:31

Emily Henderson 00:06:31
I mean, it's hard, but in a good way. I'm embarrassed by the part of me that wanted him to be upset so we could cry together about how unfair it all is. Instead, my ten year old made me feel better about things being sad and feeling joy at the same time. The next night, Will was crawling around my pile of things in the living room and he picked up the easy button. I wanted him to press it. This felt like a big moment in our family, and I wanted Aidan to be part of it. He pressed it, but instead of letting it play all the way through, he kept pressing it and pressing it. So what came out were stops and starts of Aidan laughing. Nick and I smiled at each other from across the room. Throughout the week, I prepared bottles and cut chicken nuggets and strawberries into tiny bites. We sang songs and read books, and I remembered what it was like to look forward to nap time. By the end of the week, we were worn out but satisfied. My friend came to pick up Will, and I witnessed him meeting his baby brother for the first time, and my heart was so full. We did it. We spent a week with a living, breathing, exhausting, adorable reminder of our grief, and we survived. I'd say we even had fun, but grief is a sneaky fellow. I had gotten used to seeing Bibs bottles and hooded towels that looked like dragons. I fell into the habit of scanning the floor for choking hazards and a crawling baby boy and matching pajamas. And now they were all gone again and the house was quiet. It was a familiar feeling after Aidan died. The older kids returned to school and Nick returned to work, and it was just me in the house. I wandered from room to room, looking for what I knew I wouldn't find. Decades before I was born, my mother's brother died in a tragic accident when he was four years old. I remember one sepia toned picture of him on my grandmother's dresser. No one ever talked about him, and I got the impression I shouldn't ask. My grandparents came of age during the Depression. They are part of the greatest generation, but they are also from a time when many people pushed grief into a dark corner and rarely spoke of it. I, on the other hand, had the instinct to keep my grief front and center. I placed bits and pieces of aden everywhere, so I only had to turn my head a little to be reminded of him. There were pictures all over the house a pair of socks in the trunk of my car, and the poster my friend made for his funeral leaning against the wall in the living room. It was mid November when aiden died. The start of the holiday season also marks the start of the morning season. A time for gathering around the table that will always have one high chair empty, one fewer letter to Santa, one more turn of the new year. Without our son, our family will never stop grieving. But how that grief expresses itself will change. The things that bring me comfort will evolve. The crib I wasn't ready to take down before is now stacked in pieces in the rafters of our garage. I still catch my daughter playing with Aidan's toys, but I know eventually the time will come to donate them. Next year, we are remodeling our house, and I imagine I will have plenty of opportunities to decide what to display, what to pack away, and what to let go. A sort of Marie Kondo process for grief. Never rushed, never forced, never. Because it's something I think I should do. Before my family gave me that easy button, I would have called it a useless gift. But it turned out to be one of my most prized possessions. It brings me comfort. It keeps my grief close, keeps Aidan close. As I move through these phases, I use it when I need a smile or a cry, or when I want to wallow in anger. It's a beautiful reminder. It helps me not to forget not just Aidan, but the love we all shared. That love hasn't gone anywhere. I can still feel it. And celebrating Aidan's life and remembering the joy he brought us will keep that love alive. I press the button to remind myself that what we've been through isn't easy, but in a good way.

Allison Langer 00:11:03
Wow. I mean, this just obviously, this hits me in a really, really familiar place. So it's emotional for me to hear. Every single time I've heard it and read it just really gets me.

Andrea Askowitz 00:11:15
Well, it gets me, too. It's so sad. But sad without being, like, overly melodramatic. It's just real hard hitting. It's just really good.

Allison Langer 00:11:26
She has such a way of bringing us into her life and her story. And we feel the love and we feel the pain. And I think that's such a talent. Like, every detail she gave us example. It moved the story along in such a good way. And I really kept reading and reading and reading. Like, I never got bored. I was every last detail. They're packed with details.

Andrea Askowitz 00:11:48
Her details are excellent. I mean, right from the beginning, I wrote great details as a note. She talked about the plaster mold of Aden's hand and the little bag of hair. So the things that she was moving to make way for will to come. One thing that I thought was so great was the use of the easy button. Like, the easy button never stop being center of the story. Even though the story is about so much more than this easy button. I actually think the story is about how to grieve. And I got to that at the very end when she brought in the part about decades before her grandparents and how they dealt with grief, which was to not talk about it, but she had the instinct to keep grief front and center. That part sort of took me out for a second. I was like, Wait, why is she going back in time? Because I was so engaged at what was happening right now. But I think that's why. And now I remember that Noah Michaelson of Huffington Post, he wanted that he always edits a story or pushes the story to be about something, like, much bigger than just the actual situation that's happening to the narrator. And I think in that moment, he wanted Emily to sort of tell a story about how to grieve, how she grieves and what it feels like to grieve.

Allison Langer 00:13:12
Yeah, because I think a lot of people feel like, okay, well, why aren't you moving on? And she mentions here it's not that she's going to Maria Condo, but at her own pace because there really isn't a pace. And I mean, I know that from we were on the phone just the other day. It's been 14 years since my daughter died and emergency vehicle went by and I was like, Hold on a minute. I just need to focus for a second. And it brings it up.

Andrea Askowitz 00:13:43
I'm sorry I'm getting emotional, but the holidays are tough.

Allison Langer 00:13:48
But it does. I mean, these things trigger us and all of a sudden you're right back there. And part of it feels really good because you can feel that person's presence in such a big way where you don't necessarily feel it on a daily basis all these years later. So it's immediately like you feel the pain, but the pain is almost a good reminder that that person is still in your heart.

Andrea Askowitz 00:14:12
The connection.

Allison Langer 00:14:13
Yeah. And this easy button, it just does that every time.

Andrea Askowitz 00:14:18
Yeah. Excellent. Yeah. I think the story is just so well written. The other part that I was struck by this time is that there's kind of like two situations happening. One is she gets the easy button and two, another kid comes to stay at their house. And I think it's because she keeps the easy button. Like we're following the easy button throughout the whole thing. She keeps those two stories together, they work together. And I think we kind of get caught up in like, well, the story needs to be about only one thing. But sometimes if you're good, you can bring in more than one element. And Emily Henderson. Was that good?

Allison Langer 00:15:09
Well, we've talked about bringing in objects. And so this object, the way it was not only a physical object, it was audio as well. And then it became emotional. I guess most objects are still going to be emotional. That's the whole point of Maria condo. It's like, is it making you feel some way, should you get rid of it? Like that whole concept, which is also.

Andrea Askowitz 00:15:34
A literary concept that we've talked about before, the object correlative, which really just means, like, object standing in front of emotion.

Allison Langer 00:15:43
Yeah. So it's not just on the outskirts. It's in the story in every single element she brings in. It's just so beautifully woven. I mean, it's hard to have a story work this perfectly.

Andrea Askowitz 00:15:55
I know. Excellent. Well, why is it hard?

Allison Langer 00:15:57
A lot of times it's contrived. It doesn't happen this way. Like, oh, I should have busted out the easy button, but I didn't. It was hidden. He didn't touch it. But could he have touched it? We try to bring in elements of a story that didn't exist, but in this case, it did exist. And she's just writing about the details, but she also includes so much emotion. You know how we're always talking about like, well, they gave us all the details, but how did you feel about that? She does that. Not overly, but just enough.

Andrea Askowitz 00:16:23
I don't know how she did it, but I felt it. I did. There was one thing that I wanted to also to mention, because you and I were talking about this the other day. What is the callback? And here she did it. And I want to show you when she's asking her son, the older son, how he felt, how was it having Will here? And I think the older son said something like, it was hard, but in a good way. Because then at the very end, she used that language. Yeah, the easy bit. It isn't easy, but in a good way. And we know that that's something she learned from her son. Loved the story so much. She also wasn't Pollyanna about having Will there. She said in this line where she said what it was like to look forward to nap time because having a toddler is not easy for anybody. That was cool.

Allison Langer 00:17:16
So pretty much at every end of whatever she's trying to say, she adds the emotion, and that is super, super important. And that's where people don't people who are omitting, that are yeah, they're missing that beautiful thought bubble that you don't get in movies. You're getting it in writing, you're getting it in podcasts and stories and all that stuff. So that's the beauty of emotion.

Andrea Askowitz 00:17:40
Excellent. So well done.

Allison Langer 00:17:42
And Emily is amazing. She's always writing. She's now wanting to write a book. At the time this was run in The Huffington Post, this was published, she was thinking about writing a book about running every street in her city. And now maybe that's part of the memoir she's doing. But she's writing a memoir about this whole process of dealing with grief with her son and his illness. So I can't wait to read it.

Andrea Askowitz 00:18:07
Yeah. You said that she was in your class, right?

Allison Langer 00:18:09
Yeah, she's in my second draft writers group. And then we're going to turn that into a memoir writing group. So that's going to all the people in there want to write memoirs, so we're just going to go ahead and turn that into it starting in January.

Andrea Askowitz 00:18:21
And this story was originally published at Huffington Post December 25, 2021. Here's. New beginning.

Allison Langer 00:18:35
Thank you for listening, and thank you, Emily, for sharing your story. Writing class. Radio is hosted by me, Allison Langer.

Andrea Askowitz 00:18:41
And me Andrea Askowitz.

Allison Langer 00:18:43
Audio production by Matt Kundal, Evan Surminski and Aidan Glassy at the the the the the the the soundoff media company Chandler. There's more writing class on our website, writingclassradio.com, including stories we study, editing resources, video classes, writing retreats, and live online classes. Join our writing community by following us on Patreon. For $35 a month, you can join our first draft weekly writers group. You have the option to join me on Tuesdays, twelve to one Eastern time, and Zarina Fry Wednesdays, seven to 08:00 p.m.. Eastern Time. You'll write to a prompt and share what you wrote. If you're looking to take your writing to the next level for $145 a month, you'll get first draft and second draft. The second draft. Each week, three people bring a second draft for feedback. Join the community that comes together for instruction and excuse to write and most importantly, the support from other writers. To learn more, go to patreon.com. Writingclassradio a new episode will drop every other Wednesday.

Andrea Askowitz 00:19:42
There's no better way to understand ourselves and each other than by writing and sharing our stories. Everyone has a story. What's yours?