‘This Side of Life’ and The Spirit of Christmas
Christmas means something different to each of us. This is for all of you missing loved ones this holiday season. 💔 This is my family's Christmas story.
I'm not 'showcasing sadness here. It's a new beginning.
In an editorial column I wrote years ago, Christmas was approaching. My chief editor looked at me, brows furrowed, a grimace on his face, and said, "Write something happy, Joyce." I had written hard-hitting articles. He wanted something bright and cheery.
I don't know if dismay showed on my face. Even if it didn't, I felt it inside. I didn't want to disappoint my editor, but I already knew what I was going to write. When I brought my finished piece to him, he said to another in the room, "Print it." I knew then even as I had failed; I had succeeded.
It's probably an astute observation on my part that those of you who read this column, and have never met me in other than literary form, have guessed that I'm no spring chicken. I have adult children, wrinkles, and a tendency to claim that my physical form has been filched by that youthful woman (anyone will do) walking through campus.
I'm the mother of two grown sons. I spent my youth trying to fulfill my commitment to them, and in doing do so, fulfill a more abstract commitment to society. They are on their way to becoming productive members of that society.
I have quite a few Christmases under my belt. I've spent many of them as a single mother struggling to build a mountain of goodies under the tree to experience the glow on my children's faces on Christmas dawn. I've been there—done that, and in these years of my life trudging towards an end rather than a beginning, I have a more solemn view of Christmas. I have a story to tell you about how I came to that point of view.
A spit shy of nineteen years ago, Nicholas was still in my life. No—not Saint Nick—my Nick. He was the love of my life: He was part of my soul. Our children were, then, 3- and 6-years-old. We had separated because he was struggling with demons that came in a bottle. Nick was an alcoholic.
It was the eve of Christmas day when I last saw him. He came to give each of his boys a gift. He came to ask to stay.
I watched him play with the kids for a while. He loved his kids. He'd get on the floor and let them crawl all over him. He'd tickle them and roll them into a ball on his lap. They'd squeeze his nose, and he'd honk like a Canadian goose. He was silly over them.
I don't think I received more pleasure out of life than when I watched Nick play with the kids
When he exhausted his boys with play, he came into the kitchen. I was balling dough for Christmas cookies into plastic bags for the next day's activities. I remember him standing across the room from me, leaning against the kitchen sink.
"I'd like to stay," he said.
There were only a few people who could determine when Nick was intoxicated, and I was one of them. It drove him mad. He'd press to tell him how I knew, but I never did. He could consume a God-awful amount and still stand straight. And—Nick had driven himself to the point where he could be dangerous. The alcohol had chewed away some of the good parts of him, and I could no longer predict what he was capable of doing to me—or to the kids for that matter.
I could smell liquor on him, so I knew he'd been dipping into the bottle. I wasn't sure of how much until he squashed the tip of his tongue flat on the inside of his teeth and sucked air.
Yes—it was as simple as that: When Nick sucked air through his teeth, he was the wrong side of drunk. I had to say no to his request to stay.
But there was something desperate about him that night, and when he went outside and climbed into his Santa-red truck, I watched from the window. It wouldn't start. Nick came back inside and used the phone to call a friend to come collect him.
The next morning, I gathered up the kids, pulled the cookie dough out from the fridge and started rolling. I had resolved to make these sessions a tradition as soon as my firstborn was strong enough to press cookie cutters into dough. Each year, we'd cheat and eat bits of uncooked dough; we'd sneak colored sprinkles and silver balls, and we'd wait for the cookies to bake. We'd burn our tongues on hot cookies, then soothe our mouths with cold milk. It was a magic time of the year, and I was as taken with the process as my children were. The phone rang while we were working on the second batch of cookies. The only words I heard my sister-in-law say was, "It happened."
I didn't understand at first. I was laughing with the kids. When the realization struck, I dropped the phone to the floor—then I dropped to the floor. I didn't have to tell my eldest: He just cupped my face in his little hands, pulled my eyes to his, and cried with me.
We buried Christmas a few days later. We tried to make cookies the following year, but something seemed to be missing from the mix. The joys of being together on those days never tasted the same. I stopped trying to make Christmas cookies with the kids a few years after his death.
Don't get me wrong—the holidays still gave me pleasure. The kids still loved decorating the parts of the tree they could reach. They still received their mountains of presents, and we still loved the celebration of life and family we experienced in the loving arms of my husband's parents. But if I could do it over again, I would rather Christmas had died in my arms—instead of a cold, dark, lonely apartment on the other side of town.
I miss you, Nick, and I think I always will.
Copyright 1999 Joyce Bowen
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