One ticket was for a flight bound for Saint Thomas, the other was destined for Long Island. To say that the flights were headed in different directions is an understatement, because for me, the only thing they had in common was they were both surrounded by water. Last November, I had to choose which direction I was going in by deciding between a flight to New York or the Virgin Islands. I am writing this letter — my Christmas letter — to tell you about that decision, what an impact it made on me and how it makes this holiday season as special as ever. Now I realize this isn’t your typical holiday missive. I won’t be telling you about what this brother did or which cousin got married. That’s not to say that there have not been some wonderful developments for my friends and family; there have been and when I see you in person or hear from you individually, it will be my pleasure to catch up with you. But, honestly, many of you have not heard from me in some time, or if you have, it has been sporadic. Most of you are very much aware of the difficult times I faced, beginning in 2005 with the collapse of my company and the legal trouble in which I found myself. This struggle, which unfolded over the last three years, took place at the same time I lost my beloved father. Adding insult to injury, my problems played out in the media.
Eventually, I was granted a reprieve from the punishment I was serving by a merciful judge and, I suspect, some behind-the-scenes benefactors. They realized that I had been given the worst punishment of all – a very humbling public shaming. And since I had paid my debt to society – over $11,000 in restitution, which my mother most generously helped me with – it was time for me to move on.
That’s where I found myself in the Fall of 2007: a broken, battered and bankrupt man. But I did have my faith, my family and some of my friends. In addition to my faith, family and friends, I was free. You may never understand how precious your freedom is until you lose it, no matter what the reason.
On the first day of my freedom, I stood in the middle of North Shore Park in Saint Petersburg and just took in everything. I had driven by this park a thousand times before, taking it for granted each time. But that time, and from every time on, I would be grateful for all that has been given to me.
I made a lot of resolutions in those first few days of freedom: that I would never do this again or that again. But after a few weeks, I realized that I would never really get a second chance at life if I did not do something dramatic. You see, my wonderful hometown St. Petersburg, as much as I cherished it, would not be the place for me to get well.
So it was either St. Thomas, where I had a restaurant job lined up or Long Island, where much of my mother’s family still lives. The St. Thomas gig was sure to be a money-maker, but there was also the possibility that ‘going to the islands would only lead me back to the same dark places I had been before, whereas if I went to Long Island, I would be surrounded by my family. My mother pleaded with me to head to New York. She was well aware of my propensity to get into trouble and so she kept warning me that she couldn’t bail me out (again) if I was in the islands or in some foreign country. Since it was my mother who had done so much to get me out of trouble, I figured I owed it to her to go to New York.
With most of my belongings stuffed into three suitcases, and dressed in all black because I just assumed everyone in New York always wore black or gray clothes, I boarded that flight to Long Island, New York. A year later, having now returned to my home in Saint Petersburg, I can tell you with every inch of my being, that that was the best decision of my life. With the help of my aunts and uncles, cousins and some newfound friends, I rediscovered who I was. And now, I am ready to become the man I was always supposed to be. My faith is stronger than ever and I am more comfortable and active in this faith than I have ever been before. The connection I have to my family – to my mom, my brother Patrick, my aunts, uncles and cousins has been reaffirmed. I was able to spend the last year learning about my family, listening to stories about this grandmother or that second-cousin. I saw what family meant, in a way I had lost track of.
Because of this, I also was able to finally get past the death of my father. For two-and-a-half-years, part of me had been depressed because of his passing. And while I still miss him every day, I have come to terms with his death.
As for the me part of me, that is alive and well. A year in New York to someone like me is akin to a priest spending a year at the Vatican or an artist living in Paris. It took a little time to get used to the transition, but I very much made my way. I saw a thousand things – artwork, people, restaurants, sporting events, weather – that re-energized my depleted soul. Just my daily existence, reading The New York Times, dressing in winter clothes, taking the train, meeting interesting people re-invigorated me.
As Albert Camus said, “in the middle of winter I at last discovered that there was in me an invincible summer.”
That said, a year in New York was more than enough. I knew I had a responsibility to my family, especially my mother, to return home, at least for a little while. There are still many things I need to do to make amends for what I did during my darkest days.
It’s during the holidays, which most of you know I absolutely adore – the cards, the lights, the music, the spirit – when I feel most excited about our humanity. I can’t tell you how to spend your holidays; all I can do is ask you to cherish them for what they represent: their true meaning of the coming of Christ and their extended purpose of giving us a chance to show how much we care for those around us.