Christmas fell apart this year. It came off the rails and, if there was ever a metaphor for it, then Santa’s sleigh was on fire from the get-go.
We were already dealing with a limited roster of loved ones. Because of this, our Christmas Eve was nice, but our Christmas Day was just the four of us. My wife, kids, and I all had plans for an early dinner and, although we managed to get away for an overnight lodge stay earlier in the week, our reservations for the day itself featured little more than that, making it more important in our eyes than it should have been.
While my daughter was in the shower, getting ready for our holiday feast, my wife got a phone call that there was a family emergency. Then, like the dash normally reserved for the night before Christmas, she was gone. It had to be done. She didn’t want to go, but she had to. The adult in me understood. Unfortunately, there was an eleven-year-old in the shower who had to hear the bad news shouted through a closed door.
Full disclosure, Christmas has always been rough for me. Between the typical reasons, many of my most painful memories and deepest stresses rock around the Christmas Tree. That, however, combined with fatherhood adds the extra anxiety of making sure my kids have a grand ol’ time during my internal spiral. It turns it into a red and green whirlwind. While I might hate the word, you can say that the holidays are one of my “triggers”. It’s an event that I tell myself I am excused from keeping sane for. We all have them.
Maybe it’s a birthday or an anniversary or even a person with whom you must share a dinner table, everyone has something that they tell themselves, “I can drink myself silly when that happens” or “no one better try to talk to me on that day.” It’s common. The sleigh bells ringing always signify mine. A voice in my head says, “Go on. You’ll be allowed to lose it over a glass of egg nog.”
But there I was, sitting in the living room as my sweet daughter sat down on the couch beside me, all dressed up and nowhere to go. She whipped out her phone and started browsing Tik-Tok…as tears started to roll down her face. Suddenly, losing it wasn’t an option. My brain started to freak out.
I jumped in right away, questioning what she wanted to do. Where can we go? What last minute plans can we make? She refused to leave the house and, with it down to just me and the kids, any celebration felt incomplete. Our reservations were cancelled and, at 3pm on Christmas, there was little open except for Domino’s Pizza.
My son is cooler than a frozen pillow. If he has unlimited TV and a face-full of pizza, he’s having the best day ever. The story is a bit different for his neuro-typical sister. My hope each year is that Olivia will grow to follow my lead. That, despite my inner turmoil, my outer peace would provide a positive example for how she would handle her own holidays in the adult years to come. My subtle actions would help to make her a better person and mother one day. Almost through osmosis, she would “get it” and learn to love the holidays.
But then she said it.
I can’t wait until Christmas is over.
My heart broke and that’s when I knew that I had to take a hard-right turn.
I ripped the filters off and started to tell her some dark stories of my own past Christmases. Sure, I didn’t go into as much detail as I might have when she got older, but I gave her some of the low points. I talked openly and honestly about, well, everything. When you have a kid, whatever you suspect they’ve picked up on, they have…and a little bit more. My daughter knows her stuff.
Then, once I did the ghosts of Christmas past and present, it was time to give her the ghost of Christmas yet to come. I wanted her to know the truth for me, for her, and for her brother,whose Autism makes his own future somewhat uncertain.
“Listen, I told you all of that for a reason. You see how hard I work to make sure you have good memories. One day, you’re going to be the grown-up and there’s going to be holidays – Christmases or others – that you aren’t so happy about. But you’ll be the one who has to make things happy for people. Maybe Lucas will have his own family and maybe he won’t. But he’ll always have you. You need to make it good for them, the same way you know I’ve tried to make it good for you.”
The look on her face and the change in her demeanor let me know I had gotten through and we proceeded to order the biggest and most disgusting Dominoes feast known to man. We played holiday games and messed around with her new Google Mini. Had you told me two days earlier that this would have been Christmas, I would have screamed in worried agony. I would have called it a failure and seen my biggest fear – Olivia crying over our lost plans – become a reality.
Yet, here we were, stuffed with pizza, eating ice cream, and settling down to watch “Something Wicked This Way Comes”. With Lucas nestled, all snug in his bed, Olivia turned to me and, almost like a scripted line from a Hallmark movie, asked:
Daddy, am I your favorite person?
I could have been diplomatic about it. I could have talked about everyone being equal and given all sorts of caveats and exceptions. But we had a great day, no one else was around, and I understood how she meant it. So, I told her.
Yeah. You’re my favorite person. Am I yours?
She hugged me and said yes.
We leaned back and watched Jason Robards fight a Dark Carnival as we digested cheesy sticks and twisty bread. And that’s how, what should have been the worst Christmas ever became one of my favorites.