He sat at our kitchen table, wrapping presents. The kids had finally gone to bed. We did the hot chocolate tradition and ate spaghetti like always and they opened their one Christmas Eve gift: pajamas. I bought them matching ones last year, because I guess I’ve become that mother.
Sometimes I surprise myself with my cheesy parenting. I do things now I never would have done at 22, when my first child was born. Too cool, I guess. Above that nonsense.
As I get older I find myself moving beneath it all.
At one point while I made us some tea he looked over at me and I felt connected to him in a way that stopped and silenced me, together on this Christmas Eve, a whole pile of gifts yet to be wrapped, kids in matching pajamas sleeping on the floor in the bedroom, the baby in our bed. The surprise. Their faces. The gifts we saved and planned for.
Our 4th child born that June. Six months old. The first Christmas of our last child.
I thought of the years we’ve wrapped presents together, of the 14 times or so, with one two three now four little sleeping beings in the house. Maybe one year we were apart. Maybe a couple we fought. Maybe a few I was drunk.
Now we’re just here.
Sometimes it irritates me how stupid moments give me the most insight. The banal, meaningless ticks of my life move on and on, and then they just stop ticking, and I’m there, here, new. It was a stupid leaf blower that made me realize I was a slave to alcohol.
It was looking at my husband on a Christmas Eve that made me see my mother for the first time.
I saw my mom in her bedroom alone, wrapping gifts while my brother and I slept soundly, oblivious to her hands. I saw her writing “Santa” on the tags, sorting the pile she created herself. When? When could she buy the gifts? When were we not there?
I saw her carry each gift under the tree, sure we were asleep, sure it was enough. The lights, the paper, the bows. They fell into the middle of the room and glistened. I wonder if she stopped and looked and smiled, the way he and I do, when it’s all done and we see it all and anticipate and hug each other, right before bed.
Though I saw her crawl into bed alone, and rise when my brother and I did, oblivious again to the hours, hands, thought, writing and preparing.
I wonder if she missed a friend. I wonder if she missed my dad. Or her mom. I wonder if she wished there was somebody to share it with. Somebody who would care as much as her. Our eyes. Our jumping up and down. Our glee and delight and joy. The tiny expressions. The things only she and my dad would notice.
We lacked nothing. We wanted nothing. We knew no empty because our mother was there.
We took and took and took, as kids do. We just felt what she created, breathed it in without a thought: home, life, Christmas. We never wondered how it got there. We never questioned how it appeared.
You. You are how it appeared.
And I don’t think I ever saw you before, fully, mom, before that day, when I looked at my husband and felt the warmth and love and energy between us and thought how Christmas had become as much our tradition TOGETHER as it did something we did for our kids, and how many glances do we throw to one another each year? How many? A hundred? A thousand? How many times do we send a knowing smile to each other when she is about to open that one gift? Or we see them dance. Act silly. Hug each other.
Or just watch them being them, really, when the beauty of the moment and tradition and family comes barreling into the room in all its sacredness and MY GOD somebody must see this with me. I can’t be the only one.
And I am not.
But she was. And maybe you are.
And I understand a little now what that means.
And now, I see you again, mom, a few months after Christmas Eve. Now that my husband is gone 5 or 6 days a week and I’m alone most days nights and mornings. It’s all on me when he’s gone.
And I see it’s not just the Christmases.
It’s the little freaking things. It’s the little, everyday, every moment things. It’s every breakfast and lunch and dinner. Every trip to the store. Every event every school paper every early release every tantrum every sick kid every swim practice every this and every that. Every conversation diaper change bath. Every appointment. Every bill due yesterday.
Every fire. Put it out. Get up. Do it again.
And when the baby waves for the first time it’s just the kids and me. Nobody in the world cares as much as I do. In that second there’s nobody else to see, laugh, freak out. I wish he were here. I take a picture and share it.
But it’s not the same.
But I get a break when he comes back, so I don’t know what it was like for you or the hundred thousand women and men alone right now with the baby who just crawled, or walked, or graduated. I don’t know what it’s like for my friend who lost her husband one night, stolen from the home and bed they shared with their baby girls. My best friend who raised her son and two brothers alone for 18 years.
I don’t know what it’s like for you single mothers and fathers, but for a few minutes lately I’ve been feeling what you do, and I was damn near crushed under the weight of your strength, determination, love and almost insane fucking bulldog tenacity, because there is no choice and no other way, and the kids need to live, know, know you’re there, know it’s okay, know it’s home. It comes rolling out beneath and around them and they don’t even wonder from where. From whom. From when.
They just get to be. You give them that. How the hell do you do it?
Someday I hope they see you, too.
And write a note or send a line that says “thanks.” Or better yet, show up. Open their eyes. Give it back.
I never quite saw you, mom, the hundred thousand times I didn’t need to, because you were air to me, everywhere, unquestioned, unmoved and unmovable.
I took a breath and you were there.
On Christmas Eve, and the day after, when only the mess remained.
I take a breath and you are here.
I see you now, though. Everywhere.