Christmas in America means family traditions, reminiscences of Christmases past and memories of those no longer with us. But most of all, it means children -- from the celebration of the birth of a child to children as the most enduring symbol of hope.
This Christmas will be like no other for Tyrone Holland, who was separated from his family when he was 9. But he kept alive their spirit in his heart and memory, and tomorrow, for the first time in 13 years, he will share the happiness of the day reunited with his relatives.
"This is my real brother and his wife," he said the other day, sweeping an arm toward a couple wrapping gifts in a Southeast Washington apartment as if they were royalty and the chairs they sat on were velvet thrones.
Tyrone was born on Christmas Eve 21 years ago with a congenital spinal condition called spina bifida. It has caused partial paralysis that makes his walk a shuffling gait. He wears a bag attached to his body because his bladder does not function. He has learning disabilities.
Tyrone was one of eight children and the family was close despite the expense and energy drain of Tyrone's frequent hospitalizations. But tragedy struck the family. The children's mother died and a social worker recommended that Tryone be placed in a foster home because it was assumed that his father could not provide adequate care.
"Things fell apart," Tyrone recalled in a recent interview. "I got real ill. We had to split the family up."
He spent the next 13 years in foster homes, losing contact with his sisters and brothers, some of whom went to live with other relatives. He says he was treated badly in the first home where he stayed for two years, once even being "beaten with a dog chain." He ran away for a brief time.
The love in his second foster home made up for the hate in the first. He had a good foster mother who fought for what was best for him and cared for him through three and four long hospital stays a year.
But something was missing. He still yearned for his own family; he questioned his very identity.
Ironically, it was the death of their father that brought the children together again. Attending his father's funeral five years ago, he saw all of his brothers and sisters, some of whom had grown into young adults. But gulfs of misunderstanding now separated them. Tyrone, secretly bitter, felt that his brothers and sisters had stayed close while rejecting him. They, in turn, felt rejected by him, and saw him getting attention and opportunities that made him "special."
A change in the child welfare system combined with creative work by the agency that had long worked with Tyrone produced the circumstances that would eventually bring about the family's reunion. When Tyrone was first placed in a foster home, the emphasis was to put children in homes, provide services, but little or no contact with their real families. This has changed in recent years and the emphasis now is to work with families of wards to develop a "permanent plan" for their futures.
In 1980, Tyrone's placement agency, For Love of Children (FLOC), became part of a Consortium for Child Welfare devoted to reunification of children with their families. FLOC caseworkers, city welfare officials, Tyrone and his family began meeting to gradually clear up mutual misunderstandings and work toward Tyrone's eventual independence.
At the final meeting, when it was decided that Tyrone could leave foster care, his seven brothers and sisters, led by his oldest sister, Sandra, marched into the meeting to have a part in reviewing his situation and offering their aid in helping him toward independent living.
His brother James, 27, asked Tyrone to live with him in his Southeast apartment.
Most people say that you can't go home again, but Tyrone's story is a reminder that home is never lost. While it is not possible to return precisely to the past, it is possible to find lost loved ones, identity and roots. That is this season's meaning as well -- and as Tyrone says, joy rimming his mouth and lighting his eyes, "After 13 years in foster homes, this feels great."