You don’t choose your family. They are God’s gift to you, as you are to them.
I plopped the last of the ready-made cookie dough onto the cookie sheet and shoved it into the oven. These standard-issue chocolate chip cookies would be a far cry from the bejeweled affairs I’d baked for twenty-six years, but the only reason I’d even summoned the effort was because my youngest son, Ross, had opened and re-opened the cookie jar four times the previous night, saying with fourteen-year-old tact, “What? No Christmas cookies this year?”
Since today was the twenty-third, and his older siblings, Patrick and Molly, would be arriving Christmas Eve, Ross informed me that they would be “big-time disappointed” if there wasn’t “cool stuff” to eat. This from the same kid who had never watched a Christmas TV special in his life and who had to be dragged into the family photo for the annual Christmas card.
I never considered a family picture this year. A big piece of the family was now missing — or hadn’t anybody noticed?
All my friends had been telling me the same thing since the day of the funeral:
“Pam, the first year after you lose your husband is the hardest. You have to go through the first Valentine’s Day without him, the first birthday, the first anniversary…”
They hadn’t been kidding. What they hadn’t told me was that Christmas was going to top them all in hard-to-take. It wasn’t that Tom had loved Christmas that much. He’d always complained that the whole thing was too commercial and that when you really thought about it, Easter seemed to be a much more important Christ-centered celebration in the church.
The phone rang. Molly was calling collect from the road. She and two dorm buddies were driving home after finals.
“Do you know what I’m looking forward to?” she said.
“Sleeping for seventy-two straight hours?” I asked.
“No.” She sounded a little deflated. “Coming home from Christmas Eve services and seeing all those presents piled up under the tree. It’s been years since I’ve cared what was in them or how many were for me — I just like seeing them there. How weird is that?”
Not weird at all, my love, I thought. I sighed, took a piece of paper and penciled in a few gift ideas for Ross, Molly, Patrick, his wife Amy and my grandson, Shane.
And then I snapped the pencil down on the counter. A part of me understood that the kids were in denial. Tom’s sudden death eleven months earlier had left them bewildered and scared. And now at Christmas, their shock was translated into exaggerated enthusiasm. The Cobb family Christmas traditions provided a sense of normalcy for them. Patrick had even asked me last week if I still had the old John Denver Christmas album.
But as far as I was concerned, there just wasn’t that much to deck the halls about. Tom was gone. I was empty and unmotivated. At worst, I wished they’d all just open the presents and carve the turkey without me.
When the oven dinged, I piled two dozen brown circles on a plate and left a note for Ross: “I don’t want to hear any more complaining! Gone shopping. I love you, Mom.”
The complaining, however, went on in my head as I elbowed my way through the mob at the mall.
Tom was right, I thought. This is all a joke.
It really was everything he hated: canned music droning its false merriment, garish signs luring me to buy, tired-looking families dragging themselves around, worrying about their credit card limits as they snapped at their children.
Funny, I thought while gazing at a display of earrings I knew Molly wouldn’t wear. All the time Tom was here pointing this out to me, it never bothered me. Now it’s all I can see.
I abandoned the earring idea and took to wandering the mall, hoping for inspiration so Molly would have something to look at under the tree. It wasn’t going to be like years past — I should have told her that. She wasn’t going to see a knee-deep collection of exquisitely wrapped treasures that Tom always shook his head over.
“You’ve gone hog-wild again,” he would always tell me — before adding one more contribution. Instead of buying me a gift, he’d write a check in my name to Compassion International or a local food pantry, place it in a red envelope, and tuck it onto a branch of our Christmas tree.
“This is a true Christmas gift,” he’d tell me. “It’s a small demonstration that Christ is real in our lives.”
I stopped mid-mall, letting the crowds swirl past me.
Tom wasn’t there, a fact that the rest of the family didn’t want to face or discuss. But he could still be with us, maybe just a little.
I left the mall and quickly found a Christmas tree lot. The man looked happy to unload one very dry tree for half price. He even tied it to my roof rack.
Then it was off to Safeway, where I bought a twenty-four-pound Butterball turkey and all the trimmings. Back home, the decoration boxes weren’t buried too deeply in the garage. I’d barely gotten them put away last year when Tom had his heart attack.
I was still sorting boxes when Ross emerged from the kitchen, munching the last of the two dozen cookies.
“Oh, I thought we weren’t going to have a tree this year,” he said between mouthfuls.
“Well, we are. Can you give me a hand getting it up?”
Two hours later, Ross and I stood back and admired our Christmas tree. The lights winked softly as I straightened a misshapen glittery angel Molly had made in second grade and Ross’s first birthday Christmas ball.
I wanted to cry.
The house sprang to life when everyone arrived Christmas Eve. In the middle of our church service, however, my spirits sagged. There was no lonelier feeling than standing in the midst of one’s family singing “Silent Night” — surrounded by a vivacious college daughter; a sweet, gentle daughter-in-law; a handsome, successful twenty-five-year-old son; a wide-eyed, mile-a-minute three-year-old grandson; and an awkward teenager whose hugs were like wet shoelaces — and being keenly aware that someone was missing.
Back at home everyone continued to avoid the subject.
“The tree is gorgeous, Mom,” Molly said. She knelt down and began hauling gifts out of a shopping bag to add to my pile.
“I love what you did with the wrappings, Pam,” Amy said. “You’re always so creative.”
“I forgot to buy wrapping paper,” I told her. “I had to use newspaper.”
It was Christmas as usual — easier to pretend everything was normal than to deal with harsh reality. Ross and Patrick sparred over whose stocking was whose, and Shane parked himself in front of a bowl of M&Ms. They all got to open the customary one present on Christmas Eve, and after doing so, they schlepped off to bed.
But there was one more thing that had to be done. I went over to Tom’s desk, found a red envelope in the top drawer, and stuck into it a check made out to the American Heart Association. It seemed appropriate.
“I know the kids — and even I — have to go on with our lives, Tom,” I whispered. “But I wish you were here.”
It occurred to me as I tucked the red envelope midway up the tree that one of the kids would say, “Oh, yeah — I remember, he always did that,” and then there would be an awkward silence and perhaps sheepish looks.
I hoped so.
Morning, or at least dawn — came way too soon. Shane was up before the paper carrier. I dragged myself into the kitchen and found it already smelling like a Seattle coffeehouse.
“This is what we drink at school,” Molly told me and handed me a cup.
“Is anyone else awake?” I asked.
She nodded her head, and for the first time I noticed a twinkle in her eye that was unprecedented for this hour of the morning. “What are you up to?” I asked.
“Mom!” Patrick yelled from the living room. “You’ve got to see this!”
“At this hour of the…”
What I saw was my family perched on the couch like a row of deliciously guilty canaries. What I saw next was our Christmas tree, dotted with bright red envelopes.
“Man, it got crowded in here last night,” Ross said. “I came down here about one o’clock and freaked Amy out.”
“I almost called 911 when I came down,” Patrick said, “until I saw it was Molly and not some burglar.”
I had never heard a thing. I walked over to the tree and touched each one of the five envelopes I hadn’t put there.
“Open them, Mom,” Molly said. “This was always the best part of Christmas.”
From Patrick, there was a check to Youth for Christ, to help kids go on mission trips like the one Dad supported him on to Haiti five years earlier. From Amy, a check to our church for sheet music, because some of her best memories of her father-in-law were of him helping the children’s choir. From Molly, several twenty-dollar bills for the local crisis pregnancy center, “because many of the women who go there have probably never experienced the love of a husband like Daddy,” she said. From Ross, a twenty-dollar bill for a local drug program for kids, “since Dad was all freaked out about me staying clean.”
The last envelope was lumpy. When I opened it, a handful of change spilled out.
“Mine, Gamma,” Shane said, his little bow-mouth pursed importantly. Amy finished his thought. “He wants this to go to the animal shelter — you know, for lost dogs. Like the one he visited with Dad just before he died.”
I pulled all the envelopes against my chest and hugged them.
“You know what’s weird?” Molly said. “I feel like Daddy’s right here with us.”
“Yeah, that’s pretty weird,” Ross said.
“But true,” Patrick said. “I feel like he’s been here this whole time. I thought I’d be all bummed out this Christmas — but I don’t need to be.”
“No, you don’t, my love,” I said. To myself, I added, Neither do I. I have my family, and I have my faith.