Wednesday, December 10, 2008

christmas and spirits; or, a child's christmas in waltham

Dad was always giddy about Christmas. He was, without fail, the first one up on Christmas morning, rising when it was still dark. I remember waking up often to the sound of his footsteps in the hall; he was trying to be inconspicuous as he made just enough noise to rouse us. It was still dark outside; sometimes it was as early as 5:00 am when we opened our eyes, confusion slowly giving way to excitement. The four of us followed Dad down the hall while Mom took up the rear. “Hold on,” he would say as we got to the stairs. "I need to make sure the Big Guy came."

(Aside: This practice of my Dad's was especially important, because you never knew whether Santa might goof and actually skip your house. Seemed implausible, but we didn't want to take any chances. As a matter of fact, one Easter Sunday, my brother Joey and I were stunned to find that the other Big Guy, the Easter Bunny, really hadn't come. We sat down and mulled over this for a few minutes as we stared at the empty coffee table where our Easter Baskets should have been. Maybe, we thought, we should have listened to our parents when they told us to "Knock that off! The Easter Bunny's watching." As it turned out, the Bunny had forgotten his "special key," and was crafty enough to have left the loot in the trunk of Mom's car. Crisis averted.)

Back to Christmas morning. Dad crept down the stairs as our hands shook and our hearts fluttered nervously. "Hmmm, " he would mutter. "He didn't leave the presents here." We'd look at each other, trying to figure out whether or not he was serious. Was it possible Santa could have . . . .?

And then the light would go on and we would scurry down the stairs and the frenzied gift-grabbing would ensue. A Barbie Towne House for me, some Star Wars guys for Joey and Mike, a doll for Kaytie.

Santa was always far more generous to us than we were to each other. In the early years, we bought our gifts at the elementary school's Christmas bazaar. Each year, someone got a mini screwdriver set (and I don't mean vodka and orange juice), some crocheted mittens, and some pens. One year, Michael gave me a pad of paper. Another year, Joey gave me his old Led Zeppelin boxed set; he didn't bother to rewind the tapes. The most memorable sibling gift, however, was a 2-inch plastic rendering of Barney Rubble of the Flintstones, known hereafter as the Glass Barney, given to Joey from Michael.

(A year after Michael died, I searched for Glass Barney on Ebay, found it, paid about 100 times what Michael must have paid for it at the Fitch School, and gave it to Joey for Christmas again. It's now a permanent fixture in my parents' living room.)

This ritual of waking up at the crack of dawn continued into adulthood. One Christmas I was home from Colorado. Kaytie and I stayed up late, drinking wine we had received as a gift and catching up on the latest family gossip. It was probably 2:00 when we finally retired. I nestled up in a sleeping bag on the floor of Kaytie's room, as my former chamber had been taken over by Michael after I'd moved out.

Sometime during the night I felt a foot nudge me, and then I heard a gruff, smart-alecky voice. "Hey, booze-bags," Michael greeted. "Rise and shine."

Was I dreaming, or did the clock actually say 4:45am?

"Get out of here," I said to Michael. "It's too early."

"Get up," he said, nudging again. "Dad's waiting."

I crawled out of my sleeping bag, anticipating the hangover that was sure to follow. There was Dad, in the living room, waiting like an anxious kid. The smile on his face was half-jolly, half-mocking as Kaytie and I rubbed our red, red eyes.

In more recent years, we have done our gift-swapping on Christmas Eve, since Bryan and I want our children to wake up in their own home on Christmas morning. But this never quelled the Christmas Spirit in the Dowcett home. On the contrary; the arrival of grandchildren seemed only to foster my parents' excitement about the holidays. We often joked that my parents were going to need to put an addition on their home to accommodate all of the wooden carolers, nutcrackers, and other knick-knacks. I declared a moratorium on buying Christmas decorations as gifts.

Today, I was preparing lunch for Dylan and Alexa while Dylan perused the Christmas cards that had come in the mail. One was from my aunt Ann, my mom's sister. "Who's this from?" Dylan asked.

"From Auntie Ann and Uncle Bob. They're the ones whose house we go to on Christmas Eve."

And as I said "Christmas Eve," I was struck once again by Dad's absence; I immediately felt my eyes get hot. It's not the first time this season that I've been hit in this way, but for some reason, in that moment, my loss felt more poignant then ever. Christmas without Dad? I've scarcely gotten used to Christmas without Michael, even though he was far less active in my daily life than Dad was. Christmas, for me, is synonymous with Dad, with Dad and Mom. As it is, I can barely accept the vacant easy chair in the living room of my parents' house; I can hardly look at the tools and gardening supplies hanging neatly in the shed, or enjoy the back porch Dad finished only a few weeks before he passed away.

For my kids, I want Christmas to be about sharing, about social responsibility, about joy, and so for them I'm trying to keep my sadness covered up. But while I'm quite good at distracting myself, when left alone, even for a few moments, it feels raw once again, raw and recent and too real.

I'm playing this Buddhist mantra on an endless loop: Nothing is permanent; enjoy each moment of each day. Nothing is permanent; enjoy each moment of each day. Thicht Nacht Hahn says grief is easier if we accept from the beginning that everything is temporary. Accept life as it is, not as we wish it to be. I agree, but I wouldn't say it has made it easier.

I do have the memories, though, and through these, Dylan and Alexa can come to know the grandfather who adored them. Lexi still fondly recalls watching Frosty with Grampy last year while I went to watch Kaytie onstage in Boston. How much of this memory of hers is real and how much the result of our reminders is unclear, but it doesn't matter. I may be unclear as to my religious beliefs, but I do believe in Spirits, and I know that Dad's with them, with all of us, in some metaphysical way.

As human beings, we all want to be happy and free from misery.

We have learned that the key to happiness is inner peace. (Buddha)

human beings we all want to be happy and free from misery.
We have learned that the key to happiness is inner peace.