How the ‘Christmas spirit’ brought joy and redemption


Elliott Orion plays his violin 10 years after an accident upended his life. Photo by Danielle Chiriguayo/KCRW.

KCRW recently asked listeners to share their most unforgettable holiday memories. Here are two of those stories, both about a parent, a child, and something special that happened on Christmas. 

The following transcripts have been edited for clarity.

Decking the halls with what you have

Peter Wittenberg recalls a time when he made the best of things and was rewarded.

Peter Wittenberg: I was a student and a single father to an 8-year-old little girl, Chloe, and it was Christmas. I decided that we needed a …  real Christmas tree with the scent … that’ll fill the room.

I went to the store and it was only $25 back then, and I couldn't afford it. I didn't have enough money. 

… Back at home, I found a bare spot on the wall in the living room, and I nailed some Christmas lights on the wall. I did it in the shape of a Christmas tree. The base of the tree touched the floor, so it looked like it was standing on the floor. 

I stood back and looked at it, and I thought I was the worst father ever. I mean, I couldn't even afford a real tree for my daughter. 

I brought my daughter home from school, and we walked into the living room. She looked up on the wall and saw her new, electric tree. Then she just ran out the front door. I was left standing there going, “What the heck was that? What? Does she like it? Did I fail?” 

She comes running back in with two of her friends and she goes, “Hey, look at my Christmas tree!” And her friends go, “Wow!” 

I was so scared. I was so embarrassed of what I had done. But my daughter loved it. She didn't care if it was real or not.

Grace notes

Jeannette Elliott and her son Elliott Orion together remember a Christmas Eve that changed their lives.

Jeannette Elliott: To this day, neither of us knows why or remembers why, but he got it in his head that he wanted to play violin. I held off. I kept saying, “Well, let's wait, because he seems so young to start on an instrument, especially when it’s so difficult.” But he wouldn't let it go. And he pestered me regularly. And I finally said, “Okay.”  

Not too long after, maybe six months, he had his first recital. And I remember he got on stage, and his teacher and I looked at each other with this, “Well, we tried,” kind of look, because she wasn't convinced he was going to do well. She was very good with him, very patient. Her patience was amazing. 

Then he started to play. And we were just [laugh]. When he was done, we were like, “Who was that?” No matter how mediocre he seemed at home, he’d get on the stage and just blow us away. 

So she entered him every year into a competition. And every single year, he got the highest score that you could get. 

He continued to play all through high school. And then right before I moved out here [to Los Angeles], his life changed. You were 19, right honey? 

You want to talk about that day? 

Elliott Orion: I was with my girlfriend. We were moving into our own place, out of my best friend's place. And a big glass table had a small crack in it. I was carrying it down the stairs and it snapped. It severed three of my tendons in my arm. 

My ex-girlfriend called my mom panicking, telling them to meet me at the hospital. 

They did surgery. 

They reattached my tendons, and I had a cast all the way up past my elbow for almost a year. They also said, “You may or may not be able to play violin or guitar or any of the other instruments that you play ever again, just letting you know. It might not be possible for you to use those fingers.” 

It was a moment of just panic — this sinking feeling of your throat dropping into your stomach, dropping into your gut. That was probably the scariest thing that I could imagine: not being able to do what I loved more than anything in the world.

And they handed me a big prescription for oxycodone [with] seven months of refills on it. 

And I got addicted to them. Plain and simple.

Jeannette: Elliott did call me at one point — he was very open. He said, “Mom, I'm addicted to these pills, and I can't get off of them.” And I said, “Okay.” I'm a mom. Action [was] needed. I called his father and I said, “Look, Elliott's addicted to these pain pills he was put on. And he's really, really freaking out. Can you get him to a rehab?” He got him in right away.

Elliott: It was a very small 10-bedroom facility literally in the middle of nowhere in Kentucky. It was just detox-based. I was only in that facility for six days. It should have been so much longer. It just wasn't enough. 

I was right back to using as soon I got out of there.

Jeannette: It was almost a year. One night, one of our neighbors called me and said, “I'm really worried about Elliott. There's something really wrong.” He denied it when I would ask him, so I flew him out here. 

I have to say, I don't know if I've ever told you this, but when you got off that plane, it was all I could do to hold back the tears. I had never seen someone so sick.

Elliott: I actually did cry when the plane landed. It was really powerful to have a chance. But it didn't last. It didn't last. 

I came out here, got my violin back doing violin stuff. I had a bunch of minor relapses where I'd go back into it for a couple days or a week, and then get back out of it. 

It was around that time when things got really bad. I was attacked. I was mugged late at night in North Hollywood. A guy beat me almost to death with a hammer. He had chiseled one end into a blunt axe. My lungs were punctured and bleeding. Most of my ribs were shattered. 

I woke up three days later in a trauma unit with a morphine drip. 

That's like a death sentence to people with an addiction. I think I said to my mom, I was crying — she didn’t even know where I was for three days — I was like, “I don't want this disease.” I was just sobbing, “I don't want this,” because I knew. 

It sent me into the darkest place, the kind of derelict homelessness and addiction that I would not wish on my worst enemy. 

I started renting a violin, and that was the only thing, I think, that kept me from dying. And I would busk. That random homeless person that you see playing an instrument on the street? I was one of them. 

It kept some clothes on me and the ability to wash them and it kept up my drug habit. 

What also gave me that tiniest bit of hope in the darkest place was the fact that I was starting to be able to move my hand and play the violin again.

Jeannette: The next couple of years were the most terrifying I've ever had in my life. Elliott has two siblings and a father and cousins and people who love him. But we were watching him die.

It changed who he was. It changed how he looked, how he spoke, how he acted, how he thought, how he felt. It was like these drugs were bleeding him of his soul. It's terrifying for a parent, because there were times I thought I would bury this child of mine. 

I would run into him up on Victory Boulevard once in a while and we’d talk.

Elliott: The night before Christmas, my mom's friend got me a nice Airbnb for Christmas so that I wouldn't be out on the streets, so I’d have a nice place to sleep and have some privacy, and not wash myself in a Panda Express bathroom. 

Me and my mom were in the car and I was about to go there. My mom got a call from this rehab, Tarzana Treatments, and they're like, “Oh, they have the bed.” 

My mom was like, “Alright, we have to go.” I was like, “No, please, I am not ready. Just give me this one night in this Airbnb to take a shower and have privacy. I'm gonna go through hell, just give me this vestige of peace before I go.” 

My mom was scared, rightfully so. We had a big fight about it. 

My mom said, “You're not gonna go.” 

Jeannette: I really regretted it as soon as I said it, saying you're never gonna go. [Those were] desperate words of a parent that shouldn't have come out of my mouth, but they did. And he was so upset by that. 

So we parted ways. 

He spent the night there and I went to pick him up in the morning. 

Elliott: ​​My mom was actually supposed to pick me up. I didn't have a phone. I had already left. 

Jeannette: He was gone and I was devastated. [The rehab had] said the bed was only going to be there Christmas Eve. And now it was Christmas Day. And I thought, “That's it. We missed it.”

On my way back home, I had one of those strange mom feelings. I drove over to the Target near me, and there's my son in the parking lot. 

I pulled up and I couldn't remember the last time you had such a big smile on your face. He looked so happy. 

I rolled down the window and he said, “I'm ready Mom. Let's go, I'm ready to go.” 

He jumped in the car. And I was just praying, “Oh my god, do they even have a bed?” We called and they’re like, “Yeah, the bed is open. The person who was supposed to come didn't come. So yeah — come on over.”

Elliott Orion (L) and his mom, Jeannette Elliott (R), appear in North Hollywood. “For the first time I saw the universe, the spirit of Christmas, whatever you want to call it, conspire in my favor to give me another shot,” says Elliott Orion. Photo by Danielle Chiriguayo/KCRW.  

Elliott: They asked me when I finished detox, “Do you want to stay for the residential program?” And I don't know what it was. The words that were supposed to come out of my mouth were, “No, I'm okay.” And the words that came out of my mouth were, “Sure, why not?” 

And I think it's because for the first time I saw the universe, the spirit of Christmas, whatever you want to call it, conspire in my favor to give me another shot.

I got my violin back and started practicing again. I did a bunch of workouts with my hand so that I could use those tendons. And I started playing guitar and violin again. 

Now, violin covers most of my expenses in my life and I'm not homeless anymore. 

You know, it's hard. I still struggle like everyone else does. But I committed to the second chance that I got. It'll be three years, the day after Christmas, that I will have been sober.