In every room in the house tonight, I can hear the branches of trees and bushes scraping, scratching, and tossing against the windows, rubbing the sashes, even rumbling through the wall behind my bed. I can hear the hard wind teaming through the soaring evergreens outside. It sounds like eternally soughing surf, frothy-white in the moonlight.
It’s Christmas night, nearly midnight. Christmas 2016 is almost over. The wind whines and crashes, rises and falls. The house is being buffeted like a ship at sea.
My daughter sleeps in the top room, the little room at the top of the house that is her bedroom — the coldest room in the house by far. My son brought her the space heater a short time ago. I hear only the soughing wind. It rumbles and soars. Tomorrow, the deciduous trees will be stripped of all remaining leaves.
Pine trees with graceful long boughs rocked rhythmically in the wind earlier today too. The storm was just beginning then. In the trees beside the pines, three-inch long yellow leaves shimmied and shook in vertical lines.
I could see them out the window of the second floor at Piedmont Gardens skilled nursing facility where I visited my dad. I was distressed, after trying and failing to bring my kids along. My daughter was legitimately sick, on Day Four of flu, and while the fever has finally broken, she has a wracking, unproductive cough that weakens her.
It made sense that she couldn’t or maybe shouldn’t come. But then my eighteen-year-old son suddenly claimed to be nauseous, grabbed a lemon to breathe the scent of (a trick his father taught him to dispel nausea), and hunkered down behind his computer.
I left alone to see my dad on Christmas.
My father was wearing only a couple of hospital gowns. My sister said they lost dad’s clothes, or they were in the laundry, the nurses weren’t sure which. We should put his name on his clothes, they said.
My father was very confused and was having trouble speaking as well. The pain meds they give him for the broken hip make things worse. He can’t form sentences or articulate much. When he is able to, the words he strings together make little sense.
A vespers service was in progress. A female pastor read from a Bible. She said we’ll only be saved and come into the light if we accept God into our lives. I decided to take it as metaphor and basically agreed. That is actually true. If you can’t see the positive in life and realize we’re all connected, we’re all part of the same living, breathing organism, and that there is a benevolent force in the world, you will always feel alone and separate.
It’s the same message in every religion. It’s hard to do though — to believe this, to really know and feel it.
My dad got two presents from the staff — a stack of seven new white tee-shirts and an LED “candle” that you turn on and off with a switch on the bottom. My sister opened them for him.
After the reading, the pastor played Christmas soul music on the stereo. The woman in front of us with her thin, grey hair braided in two corn rows told the group at large that this was her sister beside her, and this was the first time she was visiting.
When I went to put my dad’s tee shirts on his bed, the wife of his room mate was in the room, putting clothes away in her husband’s drawers. She wore a charming and surprising sailor suit: A navy blue wool top with two white stars on each of the corners of the back flap that hangs to the shoulder blades and a white US Navy “summer hat” (I learned from a Google search) with a faded name and some numbers stamped on it.
I admired it. She told me it was her father’s — the shirt and the hat both — and that before he died he made her promise she would wear it every Christmas for him. He was a navy man, she said, as were all five of his brothers. “I get a little sick of it by now, to be honest, but… I promised.”
She’s now in her late seventies or early eighties. The suit was in perfect condition and very smart looking. Very chic. For some reason, it made me sad that her father and all five of his brothers were proud navy men, so proud that at least one of them had asked his daughter to wear his uniform every Christmas after he died.
I wondered if things had improved or declined for her family. I wondered if the devotion her father felt to the Navy was warranted. If any of her kids were in the U.S. Navy, if that option would even occur to them.
I wondered if young black men today feel less a part of the fabric of society than their grandfathers did or more so… if they’d want to “fight” for their country, or if the debacle of Iraq and Afghanistan had changed things. I wondered if military service is still a leg-up for many — assuming they can survive it now that we seem to be at perpetual war.
I returned to the dining room. A Filipina nurse was trying to start the movie: Scrooge, starring a young Bill Murray. She couldn’t get the volume to work and said the movie was canceled. Then, she figured it out. The staff passed out slices of thickly frosted carrot cake and cups of eggnog.
The movie was ridiculous. Our other sister, who lives in Hawaii, called. My dad attempted to talk to her. A loud clatter in the movie prompted him to tell her we had just experienced an explosion. He made no sense, but he smiled and laughed his distinctive chuckle a lot. I admired his handsome profile and felt my heart swell with love to see his face soften as he listened to my sister’s voice.
After a while, I took the phone out in the hall and talked with my sister a few more minutes. She told me she’d found herself a boyfriend with two kids after her husband walked out on her and their daughter last summer. Now, the husband is back and wants to come home. She’s erecting a fortress against him, and her daughter is of course upset.
I’m impressed she got a boyfriend and is doing the blended family thing already. She apparently has more confidence than I do in that model.
We kissed my dad good bye and took off for Christmas dinner at my house. When we walked in the door, the air was redolent with the scent of sauteeing onions and roasting lamb that had been marinated in olive oil, garlic, rosemary, and thyme. My son had gotten the roast going. My ex was sauteeing onions. They had broccoli steaming in a pan. They’d forgotten the potatoes; I got those going.
My ex, with guidance from me, made a sauce for the broccoli of chopped toasted hazelnuts, olive oil, four anchovy filets, a handful of parsley, and harissa (north African spice blend of red japone peppers, cumin, coriander, Hungarian and California paprika, garlic, salt and caraway).
I roasted red and sweet potatoes with whole garlic cloves (unpeeled; we peel them after; they are delicious), red onion, olive oil, salt and pepper.
My kids, thankfully, had made up after warring this morning and nearly breaking my heart. My son was relentlessly mean to my daughter, as he had been to me last night. He’s stressed about his dad, who’s been sick. He thinks he’s being funny, and sometimes he is funny in a macabre sort of way. But it gets to be too much. It gets exhausting. He can break us down.
He broke my daughter down this morning. She eventually fled the room in tears. I served a poached egg breakfast, but she was in the shower, crying. I took my son into my bedroom, closed the door, and told him that since he’s 18, I don’t have to house him anymore. If I decide he’s not good for my daughter, he will have to live elsewhere. My priority has to be her well-being. If they can’t get along, it won’t be her to go at this point.
Somehow, something got through to him today, and while I was at my dad’s they’d apparently covered some ground together. They were easier together. Both were more relaxed. There were little signs of love, kindness, appreciation. I saw them standing beside each other out of the corner of my eye in the kitchen doorway. I heard them relating here and there, a word of acknowledgment granted, a warm voice. A blessing.
The lamb was perfect. The sauce on the broccoli was great, and there was too much. My son sprinkled the rest on the lamb, which was super, along with an extra shower of chopped parsley. The juice in the bottom of the roasting pan was to die for. The red wine I’d opened last night — an Oakville cabernet — was silky and rich.
No one fought at dinner.
After dinner, we gathered in front of the fire. My sister handed out the thoughtful presents she’d brought for everyone — even more thoughtful when you realize how very poor she is, working as substitute teacher in Oakland’s public schools with no real benefits, no property, no retirement, no savings, and increasingly precarious health. She liked the Norwegian sweater I’d picked up for her with the metal latches for buttons.
We played an adult version of Apples to Apples called Cards Against Humanity that my son had given my daughter for Christmas. We also cut into the laughably tall skyscraper of a cake I’d picked up at AG Ferrari at half-price on Christmas Eve — it looked like the mountain in Close Encounters of the Third Kind. My sister had fun telling my kids about that movie.
After the game, my ex took my sister home. The kids and I read a funny little Edward Gorey book I’d picked up. I put on choral music, and we listened to it. My sick daughter rested her head against my shoulder. We snuggled under the alpaca blanket I’d given their father for Christmas. He loves it. When it’s not on our laps, it’s been perpetually wrapped around his shoulders since he unwrapped it this morning.
This is all a long way of saying, life is not perfect. Many things are not perfect. My children’s father is fragile. My father is fragile. Our connection to one another is fragile. The love we feel for each other is not always expressed, is sometimes even suppressed. We bumble about. We make mistakes. We can be bitter. We’re not always polite.
We’re like a little boat in the sea. We get tossed around in the waves, buffeted about by the wind. We rock, sway, lose our footing, lose our ballast, go hurtling down wave faces and land oomph in the trough below. If we don’t point the boat the right way, the wave can crash our boat to smithereens.
Sometimes, though, we can’t point the boat the right way. We get overwhelmed by the elements. Then, something else has to come into play. The grace of God some would call it. There by the grace of God, they say. That means, I’m here and alive because the life force in the universe chose not to withdraw itself from my body just yet.
It’s beyond our control.
We keep slip-sliding along. I’d like to say we’re doing the best we can most of the time but I’m not sure that’s true. When we remember, though, we do. When life rears up and presents us with a choice, we do. When a young teenage girl cries in the shower on Christmas morning, for example. When the face of an injured, demented elder wearing a hospital gown and seated in a wheelchair is suddenly wreathed in smiles that make him handsome again. When a dutiful daughter who is now eighty-something still wears her father’s Navy uniform on Christmas and has done so through thick and thin decade after decade after decade…
These are examples of grace. They are what Christmas is about.