An Advent wreath with real candles has always been part of Jeff and Kristen Kidder’s Christmas tradition, and they didn’t want this year to be any different.
When they lit the candles for the first time and saw the beautiful glow of the light, it evoked the same spirit of the holidays as it always had. Blowing them out was another story.
The wisp smoke and the acrid smell quickly brought back the memories from last year, and they were not good ones.
Last Christmas Eve, the Kidders went to their neighbor’s house in St. Paul’s Frogtown neighborhood for dinner. During that evening, they began to smell smoke, so they rushed outside to see their house ablaze. They watched as firefighters tried in vain to save the Christmas presents. They lost their cat, Scar. And they lost almost everything they owned.
Turns out, they had left that Advent candle burning when they left for dinner.
To make matters worse, Jeff had recently been diagnosed with mantle cell lymphoma. He was undergoing treatments at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester and praying for a remission of the incurable disease.
It has been a trying, humbling and in some ways remarkable year for the Kidders, who have been overwhelmed with support and kindness from friends, family and strangers.
The first good news is that after a stem cell transplant, Jeff’s illness is in remission. He’s returned to work as music director for Messiah Episcopal Church.
“It is a cancer that almost always returns, but the remissions can last 7, 10 or 20 years or longer for the outliers,” Jeff said. “So I just assume I’ll be one of those, and live life with gratitude for each day.”
The house is slowly being rebuilt while the Kidders live in an apartment nearby after spending the first month living with their neighbors.
“We may go over to the house in the next day or so and pray for it,” said Kristen. “It’s experiencing an anniversary too.”
The Kidders never considered moving. They chose to live in Frogtown to build a Christian community, and they’ve been integral members, whether it was teaching guitar to local kids or growing organic vegetables for their neighbors.
The fire that wiped out their possessions also brought new opportunities, including looking at life a little more closely.
“We have a clean slate, in a way,” said Kristen. “I think we have a greater appreciation for everything. I say, ‘It’s a beautiful sky today,’ or I’ll notice that someone smiled at me in the grocery store.”
“I have been so mindful of the disruptions in our lives, especially regarding housing and health, that I have much more compassion for folks in similar situations,” said Jeff. “[That’s true] especially for refugees who spend years, in some cases a lifetime, without stable housing.”
As Christmas neared, however, there were triggers, like the candle, that brought back the bad memories. A few weeks ago the same neighbors the Kidders dined with last Christmas, Liz and Dave Colwell, invited them back for Christmas Eve dinner.
“I wanted to shout ‘No!’ ” Jeff said. “It wasn’t so much a ‘no’ to the dinner invitation — that was sweet — as it was that I wanted to just do an end run around this whole season. I know — I wanted to just avoid any associations or avoid the season altogether.
“That experience helped me realize that the trauma was significant and still affects us and that we need to carefully move forward, finding support to face the difficult and often surprising or jarring feelings that arise as we experience these triggers around Christmas,” he added. “Once again, the support of friends and family, through their prayers for us and conversations with us has been critical to helping us move forward.”
Recently, an acquaintance of Jeff’s, also a musician, had a house fire. He needed a guitar to play on Christmas Eve.
“As you can imagine, that triggered an immediate sense of compassion,” Jeff said. “Thankful that I didn’t lose all my guitars in our fire, I am able to lend him one.”
Kristen has been writing haiku to express the couple’s experiences with multiple traumas. This is one:
The darkened path can
bring wholeness, peace, and joy in
As for that dinner invite with the Colwells: The Kidders accepted.
Follow Jon on Twitter: @jontevlin