'Great Christmas' after all

Of course, no one else was awake except Ben Wilson.

And there he’d sit, alone in front of a sparkling Christmas tree. Unwrapped gifts waited.

It’s Christmas morning and a child’s patience is short.

“He’d come into our bedroom and tell us it was time to open the presents,” said Dale Wilson, Ben’s father. “He was a typical kid.”

Ben’s favorite gift was the basketball hoop his parents bought him when he was 6. His favorite Christmas meal is still his mom’s strawberry Jell-O salad.

“My mom made that every year,” Ben said. “It’s unbelievable. It’s so good.”

For Ben, now a junior forward on Evergreen State College’s men’s basketball team, Christmas has always meant being together with family, from the gift opening around the tree to the afternoon dinner at his grandmother’s house in Bremerton.

On Ben’s left shoulder is a tattoo of the first names of his mom and dad with a heart around each name.

“Family has always meant a lot to me,” Ben said.

And that’s what makes today so special.

His mother, Gwen, will be an unexpected guest. In January, she nearly died following surgery to remove a brain tumor. Several days after surgery her colon ruptured. She then developed pneumonia twice and had a blood clot in her lungs.

She spent two months in a Bremerton hospital, clinging to life.

“Two different doctors told me there was nothing more they could do,” Dale Wilson said. “All we could do was pray.”

Miraculously, she lived.

And today, Gwen Wilson, 58, will open gifts and eat a Christmas dinner with her family.

“It’s going to be a blessing,” Ben said. “This is going to be the best Christmas ever.”

Gwen and Dale have always been supportive of their son’s interest in basketball. They haven’t missed one of Ben’s home games at Evergreen this season. Gwen, while still frail, is a vocal fan.

“She cheers and gives the refs a bad time,” Ben said. “She’s always done that. I can’t hear her when I’m playing, but I know she’s there.”

Ben will celebrate Christmas today in the same Bremerton home he grew up in.

In November 2008, Gwen underwent an annual checkup and her doctor asked for a brain scan to check to see if she had multiple sclerosis. The scan revealed the tumor.

Fortunately, the tumor was benign. But the complications following the surgery nearly killed Gwen.

“Christmas will be wonderful,” Gwen said. “Christmas for me is thanking God for his blessings. I have a lot to be thankful for.”

Gwen, who wore a colostomy bag for seven months, said her brush with death has been more trying for her family than for her because she can’t remember much of it. She lost 25 pounds and is still regaining strength. Doctors tell her to eat more, but she doesn’t want to put on the extra pounds.

“She’s still weak, but she’s come a long ways,” Dale said. “She’s sassy and funny so I know she’s getting better.”

Initially, Gwen didn’t tell Ben she had a brain tumor. At the time, he was attending school and playing basketball at Yakima Valley Community College.

“They didn’t want me to worry,” Ben said.

Just before the surgery, Gwen finally told Ben. Dale, a burly man who works as a mechanic at Puget Sound Naval Shipyard in Bremerton, has leaned on his Christian faith to get through the year.

“This has been a tough year,” Dale said. “I found myself praying more than I had. It’s sad that it takes something like this to get me to come back to the Lord.”

Last summer, Ben was torn between workouts with his basketball team and being at home with his mom. He ended up missing practices at Evergreen, sending a wrong signal to his coach.

“We started to doubt his commitment,” Evergreen coach Jeff Drinkwine said. “He didn’t tell us what was going on. When his dad finally told me, I told Ben to do whatever he had to do to be with his mom.”

In 15 games, Ben has started only once, yet the 6-foot-6 forward is the No. 2 scorer with 9.9 points per game. He’s been instant offense off the bench.

Ben’s parents cheer whenever he goes into the game.

“Gwen is very nice, very supportive,” Drinkwine said. “She’s very excited that her son is playing here. She didn’t get to see him play a lot when he was in Yakima.”

And Ben is excited his mom will sit beside him while he’s eating his strawberry Jell-O salad.

“It’s something my mom has always made,” Ben said. “It’s a tradition.”

He wasn’t sure what to get his mom for Christmas.

“She never tells me what she wants,” he said.

So, on his limited student budget, he bought her a large bag of Skittles. Gwen will get her candy and an unexpected seat at the dinner table.

“It’s going to be a great Christmas,” Ben said. “I can’t wait.”