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This is the story of how an ice storm renewed my Christmas spirit. Like most good Christmas stories, it involves a family tragedy, bad weather, a long journey and loved ones.
It happened last winter, at the end of a difficult year for my family. My brother Benjy had died suddenly in the spring of 2013, from causes the coroner ultimately (and vaguely) ruled "natural."
By Christmas time, my family was still struggling with the impossibility of "moving on." Thinking about the holidays reminded us all of the previous holiday season, before Benjy died. At the time, he was living in a rent-controlled apartment on Vancouver's Downtown Eastside, surviving on disability and welfare.
He couldn't afford extravagant gifts for Christmas, but in the spirit of the season, he scraped together the money to give a lottery ticket to each family member, and he drew a Christmas card for each of us.
That's how Benjy was. He gave even when he had nothing, and he did it with a sense of dignity and attention to detail.
Without him, there was an aching gap in our family, a loss so inconceivable that even attempting a "normal" Christmas in Vancouver seemed impossible. So my mother, father, sister and I decided to escape to California for our first Christmas without Benjy. My parents and sister would drive down the coast from Vancouver. I would fly from Ottawa, where I go to school, and meet them in San Diego a few days before Christmas Eve.
The week leading up to my departure was emotional. Exams ended and, in the absence of academic distractions, I found it difficult to look past my feelings of loss and find any Christmas spirit. I cried. Lots. On the eve of my flight, I just wanted to stay in Ottawa and avoid pretending the holidays were possible when my family was incomplete. After procrastinating all day, I went to the bedroom to pack. I opened the front pocket of my dusty suitcase, where I keep my passport when I'm not in transit, and … my passport wasn't there.
Panicked, I searched a file of other valuable papers, and it wasn't there either. Less than 12 hours before my international flight, on the busiest travel weekend of the year, and I had no passport. My boyfriend and I searched our tiny apartment. We checked everywhere – inside books in the bookcase, under the printer, in his underwear drawer. We shook out the spare towels and linen. Nothing.
At 3 a.m., I gave up. Deflated, I curled up in bed, regretting everything I'd said about wanting to stay in Ottawa and skip Christmas. "My family really needed this vacation and I've ruined it," I told my boyfriend. "I feel like the worst daughter ever."
I woke up four hours later and called the airline. A mechanical voice warned me that waiting times for customers on hold were "Over. Three. Hours." As I waited, I searched the apartment again, although I was now sure I'd somehow lost the passport when we moved in a few months earlier.
Still on hold, I signed onto Twitter, and my news feed was flooded with 140-word accounts of an ice storm in Toronto and massive power outages. My heartbeat quickened. I was supposed to fly through Toronto that afternoon. I checked Air Canada's website. There was a weather advisory for my flight.
For the first time in my life, I hoped for a storm big enough to cancel my travel plans and buy me enough time to get an emergency passport. After four hours on hold, my wish was granted. A cheerful Air Canada agent promptly agreed that the weather wasn't promising and switched me to a Christmas Eve flight. I was elated.
I immediately trekked through the Ottawa cold to take passport photos. My best friend and a close friend's mother agreed to be my references for my application. My boyfriend signed a sheet confirming that my passport photo was "in my likeness," despite the fact he couldn't look at the photo without laughing at my blank expression.
I was at the doors of Passport Canada when it opened Monday morning, and back again at 9 a.m. the next day to pick up the precious document, feeling blessed to have friends and family who would pull together and vouch for me at a moment's notice.
By 3 p.m., I was flying away from Ottawa's frostbite warning; hours later I landed in 23-degree California weather and hugged my little sister tightly.
We went to the loft my family was renting for the week and poured glasses of wine and decorated a small tree. And in the middle of the flurry of family, the laughter and comfortable silences that are only possible with the people you love most, I remembered why this time of year is so beautiful.
I felt grateful for friends and a boyfriend who will support me through lost passports and lost brothers; for my loving – and strong – family; and for an ice storm that tempted even me, a non-believer, to use the adjective "miraculous."
Emily Louise Chan lives in Ottawa.