The year I turned 40 Todd and I celebrated our eighteenth anniversary. We have two children, ages 5 and 9. The year my parents turned 40 they celebrated their twentieth wedding anniversary. They had three children, ages 18, 13, and 9.
On the surface it may seem like we shared a similar path, my parents and I. But I was 38 the year my then-7 year old son arrived and not-quite-40 the the day we met our 5 year old. Contrast that with my parents who welcomed their first child before they could legally drink. At an age when I was staying out at bars until 2 am, my Mom and Dad were raising a hormonal teenager, a defiant seven year old, and a free-spirited toddler.
I don’t know how they did it.
Growing up, we struggled. With Reaganomics failing to trickle down and steel mills closing up all across the rust belt, my Dad was often out-of-work. My Mom found full-time employment as a clerk at a local department store, a position she held for years even after my Dad had achieved long-term job security. Throughout the years we lived in a series of rented homes. We were frequent visitors at the food bank. We bought groceries with food stamps. There was no extra spending money, no family vacations. Even McDonald’s seemed a luxury.
Of course at the time we never knew this because at the time my parents made sure we always had the things we needed. We may have bought our clothes from the sale rack at the discount store and eaten an unusual amount of Hamburger Helper, but for the most part it seemed we did not want for anything. Looking back I don’t remember the struggles. I remember the Christmas Santa Claus came to visit us at the farmhouse. I remember the make-shift living room floor picnics at the house on Market Street. I remember the elaborate birthday parties on Buffalo Street. I remember the unconditional love.
I don’t know how they did it.
My parents at age 40 had a dramatically different life than I have at age 40. I hold a mortgage with the promise of home ownership. I take annual trips to Puerto Rico. I buy clothes on sale out of choice, not necessity. The struggles and sacrifices of my parents gave me this life; I would not have it otherwise.
So I hope my struggles and sacrifices, however trivial in comparison to those of my parents, serve as teaching moments and provide for Chris and Elijah the tools to achieve their dreams. I want to create memorable birthdays and Christmases and living room picnics and offer to my sons the unconditional love my parents so freely gave to me.
It was number twelve on his Christmas list. It was the first thing he told Santa Claus. Shortly after making his annual wish on the remains of this Thanksgiving’s turkey carcass, he entered into negotiations with the Elf on the Shelf. Wishing wells, shooting stars, the occasional stray eyelash. Whatever would help the cause. My son was determined to have his wish: a brother.
When we told Chris that the adoption agency had matched us with a child — someone who, if all things fell into place, might very possibly be his new brother in a few weeks or months — he stopped eating his dinner, calmly stood up and then executed a rather impressive triple somersault expertly sticking the landing before effortlessly melting into a perfectly-posed standing bow. Not really. But he did smile a huge smile the length of his face, announcing that he had never been happier while simultaneously shrieking with delight.
So you can imagine our surprise when, several moments later, he burst into tears. On a normal day Chris is a very messy crier, but these were sloppier more hysterical tears. They were Oscar-winning tears. Todd and I just looked at each other. We expressed our concern, but Chris assured us he was okay, telling us he “just needed to be alone for a few minutes”. At first I thought he was simply trying to get out of finishing his dinner, but then I remembered that Chris has a lot feelings.
He went up to his room. To be alone. Because he has a lot of feelings. Like any good stage mother not wanting to miss out on a moment of the drama, I counted to almost sixty before rushing upstairs to get the scoop. Like a good parent I respected his need for privacy and allowed him a few minutes to compose himself before going up to check on him. I found him perched on the ladder of his loft bed — sobbing uncontrollably.
Me: What’s wrong?
Chris: (hysterically, through tears) I’m just so happy.
Me: But you’re crying.
Chris: I know.
Me: Are you okay?
Chris: (more hysterics and more tears, but smiling) This is the happiest day of my life.
We have of course explained to him that this new brother is not a done deal. There is a second family being considered. There are unknown factors and forces beyond our control at work. It’s out of our hands, kid. He says that he understands and he pretends to listen, but if we are not chosen, if he doesn’t get his brother, he will be devastated. As devastated as Todd and I. But we’re adults. He’s just a kid. With a lot of feelings.
The day after Thanksgiving we took Chris to visit Santa. Chris is eight years old — nine in February — so this very likely might have been our last Black Friday visit with jolly old Saint Nick. Of course I hope not. I hope he believes forever.
It’s selfish really, wanting my son to stay in this perpetual state of holly jolly arrested development. But I miss believing in that magic. I miss that blind faith, that anticipation, that innocence. And so the reasoning goes if he still believes then I can believe too.
Because as long as Chris believes then maybe just possibly Santa Claus is real. And if he is real then maybe he really does live in the North Pole with his grandmotherly wife and his army of Roloffs. And if the wife and the little people are real so then it stands to reason are the flying reindeer. And if he can make reindeer fly then circumnavigating the globe in one night is suddenly not so impossible. And if it’s not impossible then it must be possible. Santa Claus is real.
Which is all I want. Because if Santa Claus is real then I’m eight years old again. It’s Christmas Eve and I’m too excited to sleep. Like every Christmas Eve since I was three, I’ve been up all night waiting until that moment when I can rush down the stairs to see what Santa brought. It’s the magic of Christmas and I haven’t lost it. It’s still in me.
Except I’m not eight years old. I’m an adult. A cynical and jaded adult.
Like the man on the radio this morning as we drove Chris to his bus stop. The commercial voice announced, “The holidays are a stressful time.” Chris interrupted, “Why are the holidays stressful?” I started to list the reasons: money, family, low levels of serotonin that bring on S(easonal) A(ffective) D(isorder)…but then I realized that he was not asking a question, he was making a point:
There is no legitimate reason for this to be stressful. It’s Christmas. It’s magic. It’s Santa Claus. Stop making this complicated. Just believe.
If only. Because as we get older — no matter how hard we might try — we can never truly recapture the innocence and magic of our Santa years. It always eludes us. Just.
My wish for Chris is that he never outgrow his Santa years; that he keeps the innocence and the magic of Christmas with him always. How different the world would be if we could all do just that very thing.