Caring for those in Need

The Best Christmas Gift Ever

Christmas for me has always been a time for happiness, a time to spend together with the family at home. The smorgasbord of special meals and delightful treats in every corner of the house entices our bellies to feast more. Melodies from Christmas albums by Michael Bublé and Pentatonix enthrall the family about the winter wonderland.

BY Jem Mabalot | December 2020 | Category: Family, Community + The Holidays

The Best Christmas Gift Ever

The gigantic Christmas tree, abundant with presents, projects the spirit of giving, love, and laughter. Even the elves sitting beside the fireplace seem to be perennially dancing. As a child, I always looked forward to the clock striking twelve to signal Christmas Eve. This was the time I could open and enjoy all my presents.

In 2006 however, Christmas was not normal. Instead of presents, we had luggage, lots and lots of luggage. We didn’t stay up late to spend Christmas Eve around the tree. We slept early to wake up before sunrise to catch a ride waiting to take us to Ninoy Aquino International Airport. There, we would hop on a plane bound to the land of the free. Sure, a 36-hour adventure could be exciting for a bright-eyed and bushy-tailed nine-year-old trooper like me, but all I could think of during this unusual Christmas was, “Are we there yet?” Truly, it was an unforgettable time for my family and me.

We enjoyed a good life in the Philippines. But, according to my parents, due to the lack of medical advancement, I was in danger of losing my sight down the road. My uncle advised my mom to consult an eye doctor in the United States. He knew a glaucoma specialist in New York who was an expert in aniridia. So, we had to fly to America. As for me, I couldn’t wrap my head around the fact that I had to leave behind my toys which mom said I couldn’t pack, my best friend who we also obviously couldn’t pack, and my fun daily routine. I thought, what’s the point of going to an eye doctor in America if I’m already seeing one in the Philippines? Besides, among my relatives that have aniridia, my vision was the strongest. My glaucoma condition was also the most stable. The more my mom tried to explain that doctors in the US could help me better than the ones at home, the more I conjured up scenarios in my head of what an eye checkup in America would be like. Were the docs going to look like mad scientists? What if they acted like Yzma from The Emperor’s New Groove, who tricked the emperor into drinking a llama potion? Would they take me away from my parents for an unknown amount of time? Were they going to give me bitter-tasting concoctions that would allegedly be the cure for aniridia? If so, would I have to take it for the rest of my life? After the checkup, would I still be able to look at the world the same way? What if something bad happened and I lost my sight, just like one of my older cousins who was already in the US? 

Before I left, I remember meeting Zackary, a transfer student who came from America. He was Filipino too, but the fact that he grew up in the US instantly made him like Justin Bieber during his debut. Every other kid couldn’t get enough of him. All the stories he told enchanted my classmates, as if he just came back from Atlantis, or a land flowing with milk and honey. I was skeptical. What did he have in America that I didn’t? Just because someone came from the US doesn’t automatically make him better than the other kid bragging about his monkey bar skills. Still, I couldn’t help but wonder if this trip was going to make or break it for me. The growing uncertainty about its outcome was killing me.

In transit to the US, I managed to find ways to entertain myself when I wasn’t tormenting my parents and older brother with the dreaded “Are we there yet?” question. I was enchanted by my cabin crew’s coordinated suits and movements, and I wanted to know more about them. Their suits were green, so I assumed they were going for the modern-day elves on wings kind of style, and I interviewed them about everything whenever I found an attendant willing to talk to me. Of course, I would also get extra snacks and attention with my cheerful charms, which I was happy about since it helped pass the time. Then there were the other passengers. I would ask people why they were spending Christmas day traveling instead of opening their presents. Some would ignore me, but there were others who shared a bit of their story. Unfortunately, no one was going to the US for medical reasons like I was.

Stopovers were the worst. It was as if I was waiting to hop on a Disney World hit ride on a Saturday afternoon during peak season, without a fast pass – multiplied by ten. At least I was sitting on a bench with air conditioning. The only toy I had available was a light-up contraption that showed a moving image of the American flag by spinning the top half. Again, I tried my best to make the most out of the toy. But, by the time we were called to board, I felt like my soul got impatient and left my body to go ahead, leaving my physical form plopped on a bench like an abandoned wrinkled coat with a ghostly arm, listlessly holding the toy flag.

Finally, we arrived in the US. For the first time, I was greeted with cold winds I’d never experienced in my nine years of being alive. “So that’s why we needed extra bulky winter jackets,” I thought. With this weather, I thought my eyeballs were going to freeze and come off their sockets before I could even see the doctor.

So what awaited me after my flight to America? More waiting. Christmas had already passed but, at this point, I already registered the last two days as the worst Christmas of all time. I just wanted to go back home.

Fast forward to the doctor’s visit. To my surprise, my doctor didn’t look anything like the threatening mad scientist that I had imagined. He was a jolly man who looked more like Old Saint Nick, if you added a white beard. It was his wife, the secretary, who scared me a little. I think it was because back then, I wasn’t used to the way New Yorkers communicated. The gadgets and lights he used to check my eyes were uncomfortable, but not too outlandish compared to the contraptions I was used to. The checkup was anti-climactically normal except for one thing – the doctor’s verdict.

 “If you take her home to the Philippines, she will lose her vision like you did,” he told my mom.

What the doctor said broke my mother’s heart. Yet, she made the decision to leave everything behind to stay here. On this very first visit, the doctor altered the path to our future. Words really do hold weight.

Looking back now, what I thought was the worst Christmas of my life – filled with waiting, anxiety, and unwanted changes – ended up as the Christmas that gave me the best gifts ever. Because we stayed in the US, I had the gift of good healthcare. I maintained and even improved my vision. I can continue to enjoy life seeing the beauty of the world around me (of course, that includes my Korean dramas and anime). I left behind my toys, but now I can get the latest and greatest high-tech toys in the market, such as my iPad Pro and enjoy using it with high-speed internet. I left my old friends behind but gained life-long relationships while also developing my uniqueness. I left behind my lifestyle, but I gained a healthier physical, mental, and spiritual way of living. Furthermore, I was gifted with an abundance of wonderful memories with friends and family around me. I wouldn’t be who I am today if my parents decided to go back to the Philippines, and for that I am grateful. The doctor’s words on the day of the check-up transformed my future and my whole family’s life.

This year, 2020, has been filled with fear, uncertainty, and loads of pain and hardships. Our lifestyles have changed. Several people we hold dear have passed away. Many have also lost their jobs, their feeling of security, as well as their freedom to travel and get together that they had in years past. Plans are deferred indefinitely. 

If you’re like me, you might be thinking that Christmas 2020 will be the worst one ever. But, just like the holiday disaster I initially thought I went through in 2006, this holiday could still bring us the best gifts. As one man put it, “it’s where you sit that determines what you see. And it’s what you see that determines what you do.”

We can choose to label this year as a time of hopelessness and loss. We could sit on our couch thinking of the what-ifs and negatives while wasting the precious time we have on earth to make our lives more impactful and positive. But we could also use our experiences this year as stepping stones toward a better and higher future. Who knows, 2020 might actually be the best thing that ever happened to us. Really. We won’t know until it’s over. But while we still have the chance, we also have the power to change the future.


Jem Mabalot, born with aniridia and legally blind, is a fresh graduate of the College of Charleston with a B.A. in International Studies. Her passion is teaching the youth and learning languages such as Japanese, Korean, and Chinese. She loves exploring different cultures and wants to be a media influencer to inspire and lead the youth from different backgrounds and abilities to pursue their dream. Her calling is to establish a nonprofit organization for talent development and empowerment for children in Asia. Currently, she is teaching ESL online and working on her Certificate in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (CELTA). She is planning to launch her YouTube channel soon. 

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