It’s 7 a.m. and I tell Patrick to get my slippers. I poke my feet out from the sheet at the side of the bed, wiggle my toes, shiver-saying, Brr, they’re cold.
He pans the floor, finds the pair, stands up, slippers me, but backward.
“Other way, Doodle.” I shake one back down to the floor. “You’ve got the left one on my right.”
“Oh, yes,” he nods, makes the swap, re-covering them so they pitch the right way.
And then I swing feet down to the floor.
Maybe I should be embarrassed that this is how we do Mondays. That I make my toddler fetch (but in my defense, my mom went even further, making us girls brew her coffee back when we were small enough to have to consult her, every morning, about dose: Mommy, I forgot–how many “leaping” teaspoons?)
Once I’m slippered and sufficiently caffeinated, I upshift, slippers to sneakers, and we drive to the gym. I deposit Patrick in childcare, tell the workers I’ll be on an elliptical, then pop in ear-buds and dissolve into podcasts. I am catatonic and happy and hamster-wheeling for 45 minutes before I squirt down the machine and unthread my wires and wipe my brow, one quick sip of warm fountain water before I requisition the kid.
He sees me and smiles and sprints to the gate, hand still twining a fire truck toy.
“Time to go, buddy,” and I tap the Hot Wheels. “Engine stays here, though.”
You see where this is headed, right? Know how it ends?
With me working back finger by finger, peeling the red sucker out? And how, with each small surrender, he’s writhing more and more, frenetic about shaking me loose, rocketing his volume up, UP, UPPPP, like maybe there’s actual glue on the skin, like I’m leaving whole swaths of it bloodied and stuck behind?
I put him on hip and start walking, fast. And he presses his little mouth like a megaphone to my ear.
I. WANT. MY. FIRETRUCK.
“It isn’t your fire truck.”
(Snot-sniffles, then the reprise. Louder.)
I. WANT. MY. FIRETRUCK.
I set him down beside our car. Squat, find his eyes, then his ear, the left one. I tap it like it’s the head of a microphone. Testing, testing. Is this thing on?
He thinks I’m funny when I do this (or I pretend that he does, because I think it’s funny), but the point is, I’ve got something to say. I speak softly and sternly and wrinkle my nose in supreme mommy-concentration. Slit my eyes into severe little slots, so he knows: This is important. This is business.
And then I start singing, and it’s a warning, ominous:
Oh, you’d better watch out, you’d better not cry…
And like that, there I am, in the parking lot, preaching the holy fear of Santa. His everywhere eyes, his fussy bookkeeping. I am indoctrinating my child in the great cosmic accounting that is Christmas, making sure he keeps an eye to his back, always minding the hidden cameras, because Big Brother Santa is nothing if not a persnickety and adjudicating fellow, his red jelly bowl jiggling as he tallies your score.
And will you move forward? Rack up enough for the good list?
By the time we get buckled into the car seat, the whimpering has nearly stopped.
I meet Patrick in the rearview mirror.
“Are you a nice boy?”
He is tentative, even in the eyes. The answer’s slow.
“And Santa brings presents to the good little boys, right?”
It slips out, the whisper of a grin. This time, the tone’s brighter, a flush of hope.
I put on a blinker at the light, and that’s when I realize I’ve set up the math so simply: Be good, get good.
Green arrow, I take my left.
I am teaching my kid karma, I think. But I’m sure not teaching him Christmas.
God, the Father, a perfect a parent as I am not, I am just now, the next morning, here in my kitchen, remembering something. That he has but one list, and it’s this: the short-fallen list.
The not-perfect, not-holy, selfish-and-ingrown list. But it’s the preening list, too: it’s for all of us who are so good at peacocking, prancing around cute and proud.
A list for all of us whose best deeds are day-old dish rags and smudged finger paintings and gravelly skinned knees from all the lusty acrobatics, all the leaping and lunging and running and trying, breathlessly wanting to be enough, but here we are: Not enough.We’re polishing clumps of clay, scrubbing them down until there’s nothing left but our mud-mangled hands.
So, he’s got a list, too, God does, with every last one of us on it.
And here is the wild part, the deviation, the hold-on, hey-stop, can-you-rewind-that moment: Do you see it now?
Play it back, slow: See him sweep over the list and check it twice and frown and nod and look at his palms, then nod again and do some kind of manual override on the whole system?
See him wrapping it, swaddling it actually, his best gift, himself? See? Because here it comes: He’s sending it down anyway, because he so totally and instinctively loves, because that’s his whole nature, to reach out and stretch out and love us even while we are yet…
Is it just me, or are you, too, just now finally getting it?
The insanity, how it’s just backwards, a total plot-twist? Unprecedented, sure, because look:
He’s giving the Gift to the naughty list.
I am one kids’ pageant, three peppermint lattes, and fourteen dozen peanut butter balls into my season. Two tree-fetchings, too (we helped the in-laws cut theirs, then dragged ours up from the basement). My shopping’s done, the babysitters queued, Pandora set to Bing Crosby’s White Christmas Radio, and yes: we have watched Frosty eight times.
It still hasn’t snowed, at least not enough to stick, and I’ll be honest, I’m finding it tough to jostle my head into quite that right place, the one you try to dial into this time of year. It’s like I’ve got a bum set of bunny ears, bad antennae, and can’t quite get a station, just some scrambled fuzz. I know it’s unseasonably warm, but I also know this has got nothing to do with the thermostat, because Christmas isn’t a kind of climate any more that it’s something you wrap, or sugar dust; I know you can’t roll it out smooth with your old wooden pin, or punch it out, shapes from the dough, or tray it up in the oven, because it isn’t something you frost, or Amazon-order, or dollop with cinnamon dots, or ship for free, or even, let’s face it–and this last one might be the kicker–it’s not something you even actually feel.
I know, in the head, even in the dark of the heart, that Christmas isn’t that flimsy, but I treat it that way. Every year. I don’t know why, but I baby it, try to shim it all up, set it in place, so carefully. I do. I still always treat it like some breezy thing; something finicky, something that flutters around and you try to get your clumsy hands cupped around it the exact smack moment it pauses to land. Christmas isn’t as slippery as I make it out to be, but my lungs forget. They huff breathless, anyway. They forget what some part of me knows even deeper: that Christmas is firm, cold fact.
That it is truth, it is gospel, a piercing, probing Light slicing the darkness, a nail driven, the white bright fire of the un-overcomable dawn, rising on a new kind of kingdom, a new kind of economy: Where justice is served and now look, mercy is set hot on the table.
I know that Christmas isn’t the party, but the invitation.
Stop it, stop it, stop the striving already.
I know that Christmas isn’t how you arrange the plates or fold the napkins, but this: God, in spite of everything, laying it all out for us.
Not whether or not we deserve it, but because he’s so darn sure that we don’t.
The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of deep darkness a light has dawned.