When it comes to Christmas, I am usually a basket case. I get so anxious and over-worried that I will forget something during my Christmas planning that I have sleepless nights beginning somewhere between the 15th and 20th of December. I always want to make the holiday as perfect as I can. I run constant checklists in my head… making my lists and checking them two hundred times!
I can remember all the way back to my 4th Christmas, three weeks after my 3rd birthday. Obviously, I do not retain distinct memories of each of them. There are some events which remain clearer in my recollections than others, but what I’m saying is that there was always a level of enthusiastic anticipation. I can’t really remember my first three Holidays, but I’ve had 56 Christmases that I can recall and all were filled with either the exhilaration of childhood anticipation or the joyfulness of preparing for the Holiday with my young children, and now the elation of preparing for the big day with my granddaughter. Christmas has always brought me—accompanied by the agita I cannot seem to quell—great exultation.
Sad Holiday Season
However, it was different for me this year. This Christmas—my 60th!—is the first time I can recall not feeling any excitement at the approaching day. And, of all things, this December I spent with my mother and my brother and his world famous Christmas display. To say he goes overboard is an understatement. He spends two months setting up and, on one long weekend, five of his nephews come to help. He’s had visitors from as far away as Europe who were in Southern California visiting with family who insisted they come and see. Most of the block and the adjoining street get into the spirit and over-decorate for the season. He usually has the majority of his display operating by Thanksgiving weekend and people drive slowly past or walk the street each night. As Christmas draws closer, the nightly crowds number into the thousands.
There is a portable fire pit in front of the garage and on the weekends, my mom and brother sit outside by the fire and talk with the passing throngs; accepting their gratitude, exchanging pleasantries and answering inevitable questions. (Answers are: About 10 weeks, 70,000 lights, yes I build most of it myself and I have two storage sheds…)
On the Saturday before Christmas, my brother invites friends and clients to bring their families for a party. He prepares meatballs for sandwiches, has beer, wine and soft drinks for them. For the strangers who walk past, he even pops popcorn (with the help of some of my sisters) and hands out small, free bags of the buttery, salty tidbits. He also gives glow bracelets to the kids! His clients and friends bring tamales and enchiladas and cakes and pies and cookies and candy and more and more and more. People mingle with strangers and exchange greetings and wishes of the season. It nearly always resembles a sort of controlled chaos of excited, bouncing children along with thrilled and amazed adults. People return year after year and tell him how much they enjoy it, telling him they always look for “something new. ” This year my brother set up two machines that, every few minutes, spewed forth a solution of bubbles that resemble snow. Each ten-second burst elicited squeals of delight from young and old alike.
With all of this going on, and me right in the midst of it, you’d think the Spirit of Christmas would have easily sparked within me. But, while countless faces jostled past, an hours-long swirl of humanity, I sat by the fire, quite alone in my thoughts (such that they were). I assigned myself the job of keeping the fire fueled to offer warmth to those sitting there around (and my mom who was ignoring her cold!), but it was mostly a semi-conscious ploy to appear to have a purpose in sitting in one spot all night. As evenings melted into the next, I sat, checking my watch for the time to arrive for me to go to my room.
This year was a tough one for me. I feel like, in order to achieve a specific outcome, I tried very hard to force my life in a particular direction. I should know by now that a life cannot be (happily) forced. It does not work for me. I am a go-with-the-flow kind of guy. Every time in my life, when I forced myself to behave contrary to my nature, no matter how desperately I wanted a particular outcome, I have ended up unhappy and/or made others unhappy. So, try as I might to force an inauthentic path to happiness, I made myself and another unhappy and the end of this year found me feeling lost and alone amidst nearly 7 billion other souls. (Most of whom, I think, passed my brother’s Christmas display…)
Love Finds a Way
Now, contrary to my feelings, my studies tell me I am not alone in the world. Most religions tell us we are not alone. None of us are. We are all connected. And quantum physics can actually prove, when we examine to a certain subatomic level, that we are all actually physically connected. Still I could not shake the feeling of emptiness. Intellectually I know there is no emptiness for a child of God but, try as I might to surrender my egoistic position to the Light of Love, I sat amidst a swirling sea of people, feeling like a hollow shell.
Then, on the morning of Christmas Eve, I saw the following Facebook post from my daughter.
In Stater Brothers, and I catch myself smiling. For those of you who know me best, I always have a song playing in my head. Thinking this was just another one of those instances, an overwhelming feeling of happiness came over me. I then realized that it wasn’t part of my normal soundtrack. Basia is playing softly over the p.a. This particular artist brings back many memories from my childhood. Gleaming with happiness, I just wanted to say, I love you Dad! And thank you for all the love you have given me, that I will share with others today through my smile. Merry Christmas Eve!
I immediately had a basketball-sized lump in my throat. How can I be a loathsome vermin fit only for extermination if my daughter sees me like this?! She’s a pretty sharp cookie! Could the Love she daily shares with others through her beautiful smile really have had origins in my Love for her? I sat alone on the couch and did a poor job of choking back tears.
Later that day I joined in the preparation of our annual Christmas Eve dinner, this year served to approximately 50 people. All of my siblings were present as was my little mother, my three children and my granddaughter. I went through the motions of food preparation while struggling with the dichotomy of my own perceptions of myself as compared to my daughter’s perceptions of me. I see myself as the worst father who ever lived, yet she Loves me. She Loves me deeply and unconditionally. I fried shrimp. I fried calamari. I boiled water and cooked linguini. I did that and more yet, contrary to my desire to live in the moment, I was not really aware of what I was physically doing. As I went through the motions, within my tiny little brain I tried to compare the emotions I felt from the unconditional Love of my daughter and wondered if that’s what the Love of God feels like.
The Gift of Love
I spent the night at my daughter’s house and for Christmas morning I was with my daughter, her boyfriend, my youngest son and my granddaughter. In olden days, the scene on Christmas morning resembled the exit port of a wood chipper that had been fed a diet of wrapping paper, bows and tinsel. A few years back, we began having people unwrap one gift at a time, going from one person to the next, in turn, so we might all get to see what was given/received and also to draw out the enjoyment of the morning for longer than a few nanoseconds of flying gift-wrap.
For my first turn, I opened a gift bag from my granddaughter that contained a tin of butter cookies. I looked up to her and she was beaming her eight-year-old smile at me. “I know you like cookies, Poppie!” Her pride at selecting the perfect gift for Poppie was emblazoned across her face. What I saw through the tears welling in my eyes was Love. Luckily for me, everyone’s attention was turned to the next gift-unwrapper in the circle and I tried to surreptitiously wipe away the tears.
On my next turn I opened a small box from my daughter. Within it was a pewter coin with one word: Love. I looked up and directly into her beatific smile. I quickly squeezed my eyes closed but tears squirted out.
I’d barely recovered by my next turn which was an envelope containing a gift card from my youngest son. On the card inside he wrote me a note. With respect to him, I will not put his personal words here, but, with shame, I will admit to you that I feel like the only thing I ever hear from him is something about the latest video game or YouTube video or some other website to which I cannot seem to make myself relate. I’ve at times wondered if we’ll ever talk about anything other than a video game, and here in my hands I held his note to me that thanked me for spending time with him and was written with a depth of feeling that caused my chest to swell. His words touched my heart and deeply. My throat was so constricted that I couldn’t even get the words “thank you” from my mouth.
My final gift was a T-shirt that said, “Best Dad Ever,” across the front.
My children and grandchild, the most precious things to me in my life, sat around me and overfilled my emptiness with only thing that matters in this Universe. They reminded me, they demonstrated to me simply and clearly in those few moments, that Love is all around me. Love surrounds me and is in me. It is the only thing that matters. And it is always there if I will but open my eyes.
Thank you, Kids. Thank you, God.