It arrives as the clock chimes one. It is an ephemeral spirit that appears to be both old and young at the same time with light streaming from the top of its head.
For reasons that I have never bothered to investigate, when Christmas comes around, I am besieged by memories, most of them unpleasant. After I became too old for Santa Claus, it seems that I was most preoccupied with things that had to be done. Puerto Rican Christmas songs are typically happy affairs, most of them totally unrelated to the birth of a special child. Yet there are a couple that relate the plight of children who did not get any toys, and those were the ones that stuck in my mind the most.
As I got older, my parents, God bless them, felt that it was important for us to learn how to give at this time. I clearly remember the time that they took my sister Julie to the orphanage, so that she could give an expensive (for us) doll to a young blind girl, who (of course) could not stop crying with joy when she wrapped her hands around that piece of plastic. I was not there, but just listening to my mother tell the story placed me in a dark mood for weeks.
My mother taught in a low-income neighborhood in those days. She often brought a hungry child to have lunch with us. Me being the youngest, thus the closest in age to these kids, I was assigned to sit with them at the kids´ table. This one day the Christmas tree was out; fully decorated. Halfway through our meal this child, who had not stopped looking around our very humble home, spoke to me.
“Your family is rich.”
I was, at most, seven years old, but I knew darn well that we were not rich. I responded.
No, we are not. I have been to houses where people are rich. We are definitely not rich.
“You are rich. You have a refrigerator. And a Christmas tree.”
I shut up. I ate as quickly as I could, and I prayed that my mom would take him back as soon as possible. I did not enjoy my presents much when they were given to me.
When I left to go to med school in Saint Louis I used to come home for Christmas. During summer break after my sophomore year, I “acquired” a girlfriend. She was smart, funny, gregarious, and popular. Her cousin was my sister’s best friend. She was beautiful. The perfect match for me.
I knew that I would be happy if I married her. I decided that I would ask her to marry me during my family’s New Year’s Eve party. That evening she called me. She had developed a high fever; she would be unable to attend. I had a plane ticket to leave for Saint Louis early the next morning.
I asked a family member to drive me to her place. I sat by her sick bed, surrounded by her family members. I had people outside waiting for me; all of them anxious to get to the party. I gave her a quick hug and said good-bye. A few weeks later she sent me a Dear John letter: she had found someone else.
If life were fair, her husband would have turned out to be a lazy bum who treated her poorly. As it is, they are happy; their kids have done well; they have more than enough money. She made the right choice.
Once I had children of my own, I decided that their holidays should be ruined much like mine were. It was only fair. In those days I took care of a few patients who were nursing home residents. There was one gentleman who had no family, or maybe he had relatives that he had managed to alienate during his long life. In any case, I knew that he never had any visitors.
For a few years running I would not allow our son Miguel to go anywhere near his Christmas toys (there were years when it was a haul, until he got old enough to realize that he was getting too much) until he accompanied me to the nursing home. We took cookies for my old patient. Once we sat down, I forced Miguel to ask this man about his years as a Cardinals Minor League player (He always wore a Cardinals cap; I think even when he slept). For a minimum of thirty minutes. Once I saw the agony in Miguel’s face reach a certain level of anguish, I figured that this was enough of a learning experience for him, for that year, and I stood up to leave. Inevitably, the man’s face became sad. He would always say:
“Do you have to leave this soon?”
That final thrust of the sword was priceless. I felt that I had done enough to sour my son on Christmas.
Fortunately for Miguel, I did not succeed. He is a kind, generous soul who knows how to have fun in many more ways than I could ever imagine. He is like his mom.
I have also failed to drive any of my loved ones into my woeful Christmas abyss. My sister Margarita was born New Year’s Eve. She is now and has always been there for me. She is another one of those infuriating people that always seem to be having a good time. She exudes good vibes which invariable manage to find their way to me.
My brother-in-law Javier takes care of my helpless sister Ana Julia 24/7. Without a break. He has repeatedly told me that he has never been happier. He always smiles when I see him. He is the epitome of joy and peace.
My sister Julie’s phone, until recently, was ringing almost constantly, carrying messages from people who needed her help. I had to put my foot down: If you get into my car, you must turn off your phone. I just could not concentrate on driving while hearing of so much destitution.
My sister Cari has followed in my parents’ footsteps. She teaches; she mentors; she helps where she can. She raised three delightful, smart, fun-loving kids of her own.
My daughters Caryn, Amy, and Alison have wisely learned to ignore their father’s Scrooge-like behavior. They married like-minded souls; men that I would be proud to call my sons, which I do. They have given us eight boisterous, smart, infuriating grandchildren, because they are the picture of joy and health, and they behave like kids are supposed to.
I leave my wife for last. With infinite patience she listens to my lists of things that need to be fixed in this world. She nods; she turns her head a certain way; she smiles. When I am done talking, she comes over to my side of the breakfast table and she plants a kiss on my forehead.
“You are a great person. The best thing that ever happened to me.”
I understand, deep inside, that my life turned out the best possible way that it could have.
We do this to ourselves. We have illusions of what we think a great world, or a great life, would be. We fail to realize that we have within ourselves most of the answers. That we will never get to do everything. That the old flame who left us was not the right flame after all. That if only we learned how to make lemonade out of all those lemons, we would have a nice, refreshing beverage that would last us for a while. Until thirst struck again, because this is how life works, and it would not be any fun any other way.
Today, I shed the ghosts of Christmas past. I wish all my readers a most wonderful day, and week, and existence. I pray for patience and I ask for understanding. May all of us, once this plague leaves us, be able to shake hands, and hug, and laugh together again.
May we have many, many more Christmases to reminisce about.