I love the holidays. I always have. Every goofy, over-sentimentalized, Hallmark Channel movie, calorie-filled moment of them. And I have loved them even more during my daughter’s college years because it means a long break with her without the pressure of papers or assignments. It means time to sit over coffee and catch up. To shop, to go out to lunch and to just be.
The Christmastimes of young children may inspire nostalgia but for me they exist as one big blur of school concerts, class parties, dance recitals, and late-night toy assembly on a single mom’s limited budget of time and resources. The holidays of her childhood were, for me, frenetic and exhausting and I was frankly glad when they were over, and life returned to normal. I don’t remember any of them with much clarity — except for one.
The Worst Christmas Was My Favorite One
It was Christmas Eve, 2006 and she was seven. We had finally gone to sleep after placing the gifts under the tree, nibbling on the cookies, and filling the stockings. All was calm, all was bright. Until about 3 am, when I was awakened by the unmistakable sound of a child in distress, a child on the verge of getting violently ill.
Hoping the incident was simply the result of too many sweets at her Grammy’s Christmas Eve party, she was safely tucked back into bed only to get sick again an hour later. By the third time, there was little doubt that this was the dreaded stomach bug. It proceeded to strike like clockwork every 30-60 minutes for the next fifteen hours. Merry Christmas indeed.
Christmas Day dawned cold and bright and, although we were bleary eyed from the long night, I tried to rally her spirits and interest her in opening a gift or two, but to no avail. Her dad stopped by, bearing Gatorade, ginger ale and popsicles from the gas station convenience store. But even they were no match for this strain of stomach bug.
I remember that the only presents I could entice her to open were some new pajamas (much needed at this point) and an American Girl Doll movie about a plucky heroine named Kit Kittredge. For the next six hours she lay near me while I read, and we watched Kit solve the mystery of the Depression-era boarding house over and over and over. (Thirteen years later I could probably still recite the entire movie word for word).
I felt sorry for her and sorry for myself. For I knew that under the tree was a present I had scrimped and saved my single mom salary for and carefully packaged to surprise her – tickets to High School Musical: Live in Concert, which for a seven-year old in 2006 would have been akin to being in the audience at the Ed Sullivan Show when the Beatles took the stage. In other words, it was BIG.
All I wanted was to see her face when she opened that gift – I think I was as excited as I hoped she would be. And yet the answer to my “do you want to open some presents?” question was only greeted with muffled groans and a shake of her head as she burrowed deeper under her blanket.
Eventually later that night, my then girlfriend (now wife) arrived bearing a plate of food from her family holiday dinner, having driven a five-hour round trip just to make sure I had a proper meal. The stomach flu finally gave up the ghost, and I tucked my daughter into bed thankful for the long ordeal to be over. “Worst Christmas ever,” I thought.
But I was wrong.
You see, every year at Christmas, my girl and I reminisce about that year of her stomach flu. She remembers being sad and sick, but also safe and cuddled up with mom, as well as the excitement of a Christmas that finally came on December 26th. (Yes, the High School Musical tickets were a big hit and thirteen years later my eardrums have almost recovered from the experience).
I remember a Christmas Day so quiet and so still, stripped of all the noise and commotion and distilled down to the bare bones of motherhood – caring for a sick child. In some ways that day was one of the greatest Christmas gifts that I ever received, for it came at a time when I doubted my ability to effectively parent my complicated girl. I remember the endless loop of that American Girl movie, the comfort of the lamp that shone softly on the new book I read while she napped, and the way the plate of turkey and stuffing that had travelled hours to me felt like the best food I’d ever tasted.
Other Christmases past may blur and blend together, but I have no doubt that, as long as we live, we will remember that Christmas that wasn’t about presents or big family dinners, but simply about a mom and her girl.
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