None of it was planned. My year long love affair breaking up right before the corridor of holidays not to commit suicide by: Thanksgiving, Christmas, my birthday, and New Year's. Things are bad enough being single on all those days. Going through my real birthday without a single kiss. Oh sure I had several guys who were willing to be the obligatory cheap piece of ass. Even had a date scheduled. Turned it down. It wasn't just that I wanted to be kissed and touched and held. And it wasn't that I wanted all that with someone I loved. Or even cared about it. Or could care about if i got to know him better. I just wanted it with someone that I could tolerate longer than it takes me to drink a cup of coffee.
But then the day before my birthday party, I got the phone call from my mother that my grandmother had cancer-a throat tumor, which needed surgery and six months of radiation.
And to think last year she was just in the hospital for congestive heart failure.
Last year I had managed to avoid Christmas in PA. After 31 years, I finally missed one. My mother's cunning plan was to invent a story about a boyfriend who just desperately wanted to spend his Christmas
with me. I even leaned on my lover to provide the necessary subterfuge. To call and at least act hopelessly in love or at, the very least, very needy.
But this year I was out of luck as well as out of love.
I knew from the minute I got the phone call that I was going to PA. I knew it was going to happen. Because even though her cancer has a 90% likelihood of recovery ( something my mother chose NOT to share with me until we in the car already half way to PA), it COULD be her last Christmas. And my mother wouldn't be able to live with the guilt if we, both of us, didn't go.
And it COULD be her last Christmas
, but the truth is it could be any of ours- my Uncle Danny with the bad hip, my cousin Camille who is thinking about majoring in music at college, Bettina's boyfriend who seems to be nothing more than a lurking shape in a sweater, my cousin Debbie with Lupus, the new baby Douglas, even my mother.
There is a house by my mother's in Upstate New York. It has a large hand painted sign in the front lawn proclaiming, "REPENT NOW-The end of the world is nigh." As I drove by it today I noticed that it was decorate with Christmas lights as well. As if the Lord would postpone the End of Days until after Christmas. But the truth is that hospice, ERs, and morgues
are just as full on Christmas as any other day of the year.
And the truth is it has to be somebody's
When you grow up disabled and chronically ill these are the realities you live with. Medical emergencies are no respecters of birthdays, holidays, or special events. Anymore than any of my ex-boyfriends have been. Actually now that I reflect on it, getting chicken pox on Easter wasn't nearly as bad as the guy who stood me up on my birthday.
For as long as I can remember, the Italian side of the family has been having a party on Christmas Eve. In the old days day my parents used to cross country ski through the woods to their house for the party. Then my grandmother's moved. Then the parents got too old to handle all the preparations and the children, adults now with children of their own, have taken over. Soon their grandchildren will be hosting it.
In the old days, the men used to drink and smoke in the kitchen, the wives would end up in the living room drinking coffee and eating sugar cookies and the children would play on the floor in the front room with the tree and the television. Slowly, the smoking was relegated to the front porch. The drinking, which had been things like scotch, bourbon, and whiskey, changed into mix drinks. One year I arrived to be greeted by a pail of margarita mix the same color as anti freeze. The men were no longer in charge of the bar-now the women were the ones who fixed the drinks in order to ensure they weren't too strong and to keep track of who had how much. Now the men smoke in the garage, the children play in the basement with the playstation, and the wives and young women run the ground floor pretty much-setting out food, singing karoake, gossiping and discussing.
We drive to Doug and Lisa's new house which is in a new development. A gated community. "Who would want to break in?" I think. My relatives, it seems, have fallen victim
to the culture of fear. There are four cars waiting to get in at the gate and another four behind us. There is only one guard.
The guard at the front gate should give up his post and go to Hollywood where he can make his name playing the most ridiculously annoying guard in cinema history. The type of guy where you stand and applaud when the killer buries a weed wacker
in his skull while he tries to explain to the killer the delicate nuances of mall security. Instead of just asking for our name, checking the list, and handing us the map, he takes ten minutes to explain why he couldn't let in my cousin Danny because he wasn't on the list. Even though we didn't ask. Even though I haven't seen Danny in two years and honestly can't be sure I would recognize him. Having thoroughly exhausted the topic of Danny, his absence on the list, and the whole detailed description of the procedure for admitting someone not on the list, he checks the list for us. We are there. Thus making this whole performance moot. But it takes him a while to check off the name. Then he has to mosey across the five foot long guard hut and get us the map. This takes more time than William Shatner
trying to recite the Gettysburg Address.
It doesn't take much time to drive to the house. Once I get out and see how over the top
the outside decorations are, it hits me that I don't have enough vodka in my system. Because anything short of having enough
vodka to send me into a coma wouldn't be enough. Because this isn't just going to be Christmas. It's going to be CHRISTMAS. All the way- With reindeer toilet paper, antlers for the dogs, and homemade candy sleighs. With eggnog till you puke and jingle bells till your ears bleed. With husbands smoking in the garage, children playing on the playstation
in the basement, and shots of sambuca
being circulated fast and furiously among the wives to keep the wide grins pasted across their faces. I'm going to spend the next few hours trapped in a house that is going to be a hodge podge
of K Jewelers, Walmart
, and Radio Shack Christmas advertising with a little bit of the Lifetime Channel thrown in for extra schmaltz.
I have a brief moment of terror when I want to believe in God so I can ask for a miracle.
But there are no miracles in gated communities in PA than there are on 34th
street. Namely because even Santa doesn't have the patience for that kind of security check.
And in that moment of unbelief I know that as much as I want to be sober enough to wrap presents and finish my mother's slippers when I get home that I won't be. That the only way to survive this event is to drink. Not too much. Not as I did when I was twenty-two and threw up in my grandmother's bathroom when I got home and spent the whole day hung over and my mother thought I simply had an intestinal flu, but drunk enough to keep that inner voice asleep. To keep me cordial if not happy
in the face of everything I absolutely fear. Everything I don't want to talk about.
In the face of Madeleine, the daschund
As Lisa holds the door open for me, her brood of dogs-the three corgis
Max, Monty, and Morris-as well as Madeleine waddle into to see who the latest guest.
I forgot about her. Madeleine, not Lisa. He Who Can Not Be Mentioned, the one who has left me to run this gauntlet of holidays on my own, he loved daschunds
I'm sorry he loves daschunds
Unlike me. Me he doesn't love me stubby legged though I may be. But this dog could command his affections in a way I could never hope.
And this is the first warning I have that what is going to undo me is not what I expect-not the harassment about yet another Christmas
without a boyfriend by my side, the questions about why I have changed jobs, the confrontation about how little my relatives know me, but a simple conspiracy of events to remind of the one person I don't want to think about. The one person I'm doing everything-drinking vodka, crocheting angels, covering myself in glitter to forget.
But for now there is the hugging and greeting. Lisa, Doug, Mary, Lorraine, Danny, Dan, Mary Ann, Dominic, the other Danny, Jim, Kim, the list goes on and on. Hugging, getting drinks, identifying the dishes of food after handing out plates, introducing us to the few newcomers, explaining the absence of old favorites. The whispers about affairs, divorces
, firings, and child custody hearings will come later. For now it is all loud brash talk about the addition on the house, better benefits at work, the latest achievement by one of the children, the potential move to a warmer climate, and the vacation plans for January.
long panels above her kitchen are stuffed with every kind of decoration. I wonder at the time and the effort of not only putting these decorations up, but how quickly she has accumulated them in only about 14 years of marriage. Not to mention the storage space. In addition to these decorations, in each room there a christmas village set up amongst the usual brica a brac-the miniature statue of David, the faux antique candy dishes, and mismatched drink coasters.
As I stand on the threshold of the dining room, not enough liquor in me yet to be at ease, Debbie comes up to me. Debbie. The only member of my family for whom I only have kind thoughts. The only one. She has lupus and married a man who now seems reformed but for the last twenty years must have been a trial to the most understanding of souls. He complained about her appearance loudly and publicly while often remarking
that if I wasn't his cousin I would "be in trouble". He couldn't keep a job except as prison
guard because he got along so well with the prisoners
. And although he is capable of being dynamic and entertaining can also undependable, angry, and cruel. Debbie has borne this as well as three children, two of whom are large and unruly and their behavior so markedly odd that the entire family worries about their future development, without complaint. She is frail this year, as she always has been. With black Farrah hair that overwhelms her delicate face. Her face seems sooty. She wears heavy make up but it looks as if she has ground ash into her skin. It's the lupus. Three years ago while wrapping Christmas presents her knuckles had swollen
up to the point of making her hands seem like boxing mitts. But when she asked her husband to help her get more soda of the back of her car, her husband made some sarcastic remark-my mother went to help instead.
She takes my hands in hers, "How old are you now?" "32" "Oh God 32-you make me feel so old. When you were five when I was just married."
Did I say I only had kind thoughts for her?
She doesn't mean it, not to hurt me. I smile. She still holds my wrists. "I really discovered the Christmas spirit this year." Debbie is deeply religious. All about God's master plan. She believes it. I envy her innocence. At the same time, if God has a plan, I would like to look at the blue prints.
"You have to understand. I know this man. He's a diabetic. He can't even afford his insulin needles. He's this poor and this other family, this couple, they just lost their home. But you know what they did? They bought him a whole box of those needles and put 40 dollars in with the box-wrapped it and invited him over for today for lunch. When he opened it and saw the money, he started to cry, 'Now I can eat.'"
I want to be touched by this story. I want to have the same ability as Debbie, but for every faith inspiring story there are stories about parents who gave a baby beer because they were curious what he would be like drunk. Parents who only pick up their kid with head lice
at the local school when threatened with a call to the cops. A father who injects his infant son with a syringe filled with HIV tainted blood so he won't have to pay child support. A mother who sells pictures of her daughter eight year old daughter online to pedophiles.
All true stories.
Debbie's eyes are filled with tears. I just want her to let go of me so I can walk away. I can't stand to be in the presence of her faith and feel nothing.
"I'm sorry," she says, "I'm a bit emotional this Christmas." She looks at me, "And you are too."
What does she see in that moment? My eyes are dry. All I can think of is how spiritual bankrupt I am that I feel nothing while this woman spills out this tale of compassion. But does she see something else? What is it? Have I finally become so distanced from myself that I am touched by this story without awareness? Or does she see how much I want to feel something other than rage and hurt and desperation and panic and somehow can't quite make it?
I sit at the table and eat. I consistently find the least populated areas in the party because I no longer know who to be around these people. If I knew what to play, understood the character, I would be more comfortable. I used to be the prodigy. For years Doug has been telling me how disappointed he is I never became a professional actress. He was sure I was going to be. Sure of it. He doesn't tell me that this year. It's sunk in. He's gotten over it. Now I'm a has been, an also ran, an almost was. I'm an aging starlet not quite old enough to play maiden aunt and not young enough to be the rebel.
I'm Peter Pan
at the end of the novel looking in at Wendy and her family with longing, but unable to cross over the threshold into the nursery-unwilling to abandon this twilight childhood for growing up-envious and incapable until, like Peter, I transform into Captain Hook.
In the front room, the girls have started up the new state of the art karoake machine. I hear my younger cousins singing, Crazy," I knew you'd love me as long as you wanted...I'm crazy for trying and crazy for cryingAnd I'm crazy for loving you."
There is actually a logarithim by which one can calculate how depressed she is by how profound karoake seems.
I wander back into the dining room, where the liquor is, and wonder if anyone will notice me pouring another drink.
And then I wonder how much I care if someone notices me pouring another drink.
My cousin is now snuggling on the couch with her boyfriend who seems only to lurk and never speak. It's what I've wanted since before my older cousin was married and my younger cousin was married and before my parents separated
and after my parents separated
-to have Christmas
with someone. To introduce them to my cousins, to whisper the backstory and the few good stories not to discretely into his ear as we wander through the party. To be able to announce his accomplishments as I greet this cousin and that aunt. And to snuggle on the couch with him when I no longer feel like talking to those relatives. To have an actually adult love affair instead of being stuck with men who apparently stoppe maturing emotionally at 15.
No one asks me about men this year. This is the first year they don't even bother. They see no one with me and figure "Why bother?" They've been hearing the same responses for years. They figure they'll save me the embarassment of explaining and themselves the embarassment of pretending they care. Which is worse-to be harassed about the non existent men in my life or to have your family give up on me?
Of course there are men-the pornographer, for one, and the Jamaican chef who keeps calling, the tall stockbroker who stood me up on Friday night. Of course, he was from Jersey. The one thing my father was right about-nothing NOTHING good comes out of New Jersey. But I hardly think that I could bring any one of them to this party. All the pornographer does is talk about his job-screening interracial porn, editing adult features, and his ex girlfriends who are ALL porn stars.
I'm sure my grandmother would love that.
I get drunk, drunker than a person should get in front of her mother and grandmother, but I manage to drink myself into a good mood, out of my embarrassment
and my rage, but quite out of my disappointment and loneliness. Drunk enough that I pose for a happy picture with daschund-that will show him. Not that he'll ever see it. Not that I'll ever send it to him. Not that he even bothers to call, even though I don't want to speak to him of course not, that prick it's all his fault, but he could still call and live up to his "I still care about you and I'm going to try and keep in touch" claims. To prove he's not the coward I've come to see him as. That he can overcome his fear of how I might respond to actually call and see how I'm doing.
My mother decides it's time for us to go. As she drives she talks to my grandmother about who is fat and who dresses like a whore and who has put on weight and who has quit his job and who keeps in touch with their ex husbands and who has too much free time on their hand because they made candy christmas sleigs for their children. I sit in the back and look at the lights go by. I want to feel the Christmas spirit. I want to feel happy and thankful and loved. If not for me, for my mother who is trying her best not to have Christmas suck, who is trying to help me forget how shattered I am.
But all I feel is the empty blackness of the night sky reflected within me and even the christmas lights don't offer relief.