He woke slowly, fully aware what day it was. Christmas Eve. He lay in his bed, eyes closed, and let the significance of the day play through his mind. He tried to remember Christmas Eve over the years. So many wonderful memories instantly surfaced:
* Walking in snow, a light dusting, in Maryland.
* Wrapping holiday lights around a palm tree in Boca Raton.
* Baking cookies for Santa in Orlando with the wife and kids.
* Opening a single gift with the family as bedtime for the kids approached.
* Watching the Santa Tracker on the computer with the kids – feeling their wonder and excitement, making it his own.
* Taking oatmeal mixed with sugar (Reindeer Food) and sprinkling it on the yard with the kids.
* Hosing down said Reindeer food after the kids were well asleep to make it look like the deer had eaten their fill.
* Looking into her eyes and seeing the Christmas tree, and his love, reflected back.
* Making slow, sweet love under the Christmas Tree.
* Quietly arranging the gifts under the tree for the kids, giggling and laughing with his wife.
* Going to sleep, exhausted, and wrapping his arms around her, knowing full well that the kids would wake them in just a few hours.
Such a lifetime of wonderful memories on Christmas Eve. Even as he lay in bed, eyes closed, he smiled at the memories. He smiled until the tears rolled out of his eyes. He didn’t want to cry. He just couldn’t NOT cry.
His tears made him angry. With a growl, he threw off his bedclothes and stomped into the bathroom, ignoring the piteous whining of his dog from within her crate. She needed to go out, but he couldn’t be bothered at the moment. He turned on the shower water as hot as he could stand it, and then turned it up two notches hotter. Gritting his teeth, he stepped into the stream of water and felt instant agony. For a moment he could think of nothing but his physical discomfort; an avoidance technique he had become an expert at this past year.
He quickly washed and shaved in the scalding water and when he was done he took a deep breath. He slowly reached to the hot water spigot and hesitated; he was not sure which direction to turn the spigot but he felt some need to continue his self-punishment. He needed to feel. . . something. Making his decision, he quickly turned the hot water all the way off and stood under the water in anticipation.
In seconds, the water went from scalding to freezing. His entire body rebelled and he almost involuntarily jumped out of the shower. He forced himself to stay in the cold water, trying to catch his breath, and counted to one hundred before he turned off the water. He stood shivering and dripping in the shower for a moment, wishing that this near-ritualistic masochism would somehow cleanse him and that he would emerge reborn. He smiled wryly at the though; now matter how hard he tried he couldn’t completely escape his fundamental Christian upbringing.
He toweled off and dressed quickly, feeling guilty for ignoring the dog. His dog, of course, forgave him. He walked back in then house and looked at the clock.
His house was empty. In the living room was a Christmas Tree, but it was an ugly one. He joking referred to it as a Charlie Brown Christmas Tree, but inside he knew that the tree was ugly because he could not get into the Christmas spirit this year. His tree was as broken, twisted, and unattractive as he himself felt. The tree didn’t belong in his living room and he didn’t belong in this life. They were both looking for meaning in an alien and foreign environment – cut off from everything that meant a damn. He at once loved and hated the tree; this external reflection of himself.
He spent the day in solitude – his only companions were the ghosts of his past. Those good times from bygone years kept him company as he cleaned his house, watched TV, surfed the Internet, and went shopping for last-minute stocking stuffers. He was spiraling around a dark pit of despair, but he had not yet fallen into it. At 6:00pm his children would be with him for 3 short, but wonderful hours. He would have some semblance of Christmas Eve as it should be with his kids. That thought kept the hounds of winter from dragging him down.
At 6:00pm exactly his children came knocking on his door. They were all smiles and laughter and instantly he found himself in a better state. That pit of despair he was so close to falling into now looked more like a crack in pavement. He made dinner for the kids. It wasn’t a very traditional Christmas Eve dinner – but tacos are always welcome and are, of course, fun to say. Tacos, tacos, tacos!
They ate, laughed, made nutcracker soldiers fight, and opened a single gift. It was wonderful and for three short hours he forgot to worry. There were a couple of bad moments, though. His youngest son had brought a gift over for to be wrapped. A gift fot his mothrt. A gift that his mother’s boyfriend had paid half for.
A cold hand clenched his heart as he helped his son wrap the gift. Strange how life works, he thought sourly. Here he was, wrapping a gift for his ex-wife from his son and the boyfriend she had left him for. His breath was stolen completely away as his son signed the card, signing both his and her boyfriend’s name. His son, of course, never knew the internal battle that was waging within his breast. In love with Christmas itself, his son then regaled him with a story of how HE put the star up on the tree at mommy’s house this year and her boyfriend had to lift him up so he could reach it.
He looked at his son and smiled and made supportive and interesting sounds. He even managed a merry twinkle in his eyes as he listened to the story. His son had no idea that his father had just been hurt in a new and unexpected way. He had no idea that the emotions of rage, grief, hurt, and love for his son were waging a terrible battle inside him. As his son finished the story, he quickly claimed that the tacos were disagreeing with him and he went to the bathroom to catch his breath.
He sat on the toilet and pressed his cheek against the cold tile of the wall, willing his blood pressure down through force of will alone. He knew this year would be rough. His first year without his children at Christmas. He just hadn’t realized how rough it would be. He had a naïve belief that loneliness would be his worst enemy – but he was wrong. He now knew that an even greater enemy was assaulting him this evening; knowledge that someone else was doing all the things that were his things to do in the past. All the memories that had gotten him through the day were memories of yesterday – they were dead and in the past. His children and ex-wife were in the present and still doing all those things. Without him. With another man.
That pit of despair was suddenly looming before him again. He sucked up his pain, though. He had only a few short hours with his kids this evening and was NOT going to waste them. He wiped the tears out of his eyes that he hadn’t realized he had cried and exited the bathroom, proclaiming loudly that it would be folly for anyone to enter after him. Potty jokes always made the kids laugh.
He spent the remainder of his time with the kids playing Halo 3 on XBox 360. Their regular game was to have a 3-way death match. It was a nightly thing when his kids were with him. He used to be the king of video games but his kids regularly put him to shame. It was a lot of fun and the normal father/son banter they all shared lightened his spirits, although the cold hand gripping his heart never truly went away. He knew his kids had to leave soon and he would, again, be alone.
All too soon, he had to pack the kids in the car and drive to 7/11 to give the kids back to his ex-wife. As he pulled up, he saw her sitting in her car. As was his usual custom, he got out of his car and walked up to her to exchange a few pleasantries. As the kids ran into 7/11 to get a soda, they looked into each other’s eyes and didn’t say a word.
He saw in her eyes a reflection of the same pain he was feeling. He at once loved her and hated her for it. But he never said so. He wouldn’t even acknowledge his pain to her – he had made a promise to himself long ago that he would never let her see him cry again. The she spoke:
“It’s not the same without you.”
He nodded, not trusting himself to speak. He looked away, at his kids in the store, at the wall, at his shoes. At anything but her. His kids came out with slurpees in hand and he smiled and in an overly-loud voice wished them a Merry Christmas. He tickled his youngest son and told him to sleep well because Santa was coming. He high-fived his oldest. They climbed into the car and he turned to walk away.
He stopped and looked back at her. There were tears in her eyes. He smiled gently and mouthed to her, over the hood of his car, “I love you.” She nodded, not trusting herself to speak, and drove off.
He watched them drive away. As their car turned the corner and they were no longer in sight all self control vanished. He put a hand over his eyes and fell against his steering wheel, sobbing. Not crying, but sobbing – those scary, nearly tearless, uncontrollable sounds that are the sounds of ultimate suffering.
He sat in his car, in front of 7/11, for fifteen minutes and allowed himself to grieve. He allowed himself to feel sorry for himself, to hate the world for being unjust, and to hate himself and his life.
Fifteen minutes to wallow in his sorrow. Then he sucked it up, clamped back down on his emotions, and started the car. As he was backing out of the parking lot of 7/11 he looked at himself in the rearview mirror. An unfamiliar face stared back at him, red-eyed, disheveled, and with wrinkles around the eyes.
He thought of his kids and the unconditional love and affection they had for him. Love and affection that was very real and not dependent upon the gifts they received or if he was there to put up the tree with them. Their love was not conscious of which house they woke up in Christmas morning or with whom they shared Christmas dinner with.
His kids loved him. The pit of despair moved back an inch. The unfamiliar face, now becoming recognizable, smiled at him.