Surprise, it's a girl: How I spent my final Christmas with my father

It's the most wonderful time of the year. And for my family, Christmas truly is. Growing up, it was the only holiday we really got to spend together. Since my mom worked in the healthcare industry, she was on the clock Thanksgiving and New Year's so she could have Christmas Day off to be with us. Some years, we would spend the holiday with our extended family who lived in other parts of the country. Most years, it would be just the four of us. But we always made sure we spent quality time together - going to church to remember why we celebrate Christmas then opening presents and enjoying great food among lots of laughs that made for lots of memorable moments. The most memorable to date is the final Christmas we spent with my father. Christmas of 2008.

Just a few months earlier, my dad was diagnosed with lung cancer. The prognosis - unlike my mom's with breast cancer which I write about here - wasn't good. Doctors gave him six months. So we decided we would celebrate Christmas in a city that my father enjoyed and who wouldn't? Sin City, here we come!

18 weeks pregnant hiking at Valley of Fire State Park in Las Vegas, Nevada

Every visit to Vegas for me included nights out with cocktails in hand - specifically Red Bull and vodka. But this time would be different. I was 18 weeks pregnant with our first child. I first told my parents about our little bundle of joy by giving them "grandparent" birthday cards in October. As a Christmas gift, we were going to reveal the baby's gender which we learned through an ultrasound on Christmas Eve.

Upon arriving in Sin City on Christmas Day, we spent the afternoon hanging out in our hotel with a planned gift exchange that night. As all 15 of us gathered around the living room, we made sure my parents' gift was the last one to be opened. As our baby's gender was revealed, emotions ran high - the sheer joy on our loved ones' faces, especially my parents, could be felt throughout the room. Just take a look below.

Yes, we were expecting a baby girl - their first granddaughter! While my father lived longer than the six month prognosis, he unfortunately never got to meet Monkey in person. He passed away four days after she was born. Since we lived in different states, it was not possible for me to be there in time. Yes, it was hard saying good-bye over the phone. Yes, it was hard giving his eulogy exactly one week after the birth of our first child. But it was truly the circle of life - much like the passing of my mother-in-law just four days before the baptism of our second daughter which my husband writes about here. Another example of the circle of life.

Christmas is the most wonderful time of the year, a time to spend with our loved ones. Even though my dad and mother-in-law are no longer physically with us, they're always with us in spirit. In teaching our daughters about this, we wanted to have a tangible reminder - an ornament they could hold, hang and admire. There's one for each of them reading: "Merry Christmas from Heaven. I love you all dearly. Now don't shed a tear. I'm spending my Christmas with Jesus this year." Maybe it's the words, maybe it's their picture, but I do shed a tear. Well, a few. For sadness that they're no longer here, but also for joy knowing they're the Guardian Angels to our girls and in heaven with our Lord, Jesus Christ, the reason we celebrate Christmas. 

Have you lost a loved one? Are the holidays especially emotional for you? Do you have any traditions that celebrate their lives? We would love to hear about them in the comments below. Merry Christmas!