Not exactly a Hallmark holiday movie

In 2006, my daughter wanted a laptop for Christmas. Not a toy laptop, but a REAL one. It was all she talked about. She was 8, and in those pre-chromebook days, a laptop for an 8-year-old was not a reality in our family (of 4 kids) budget. (Honestly, even a chromebook likely wouldn’t have been.)

I spent hours scouring the internet for something that was a close facsimile to her dream, and eventually I found it: a VTech laptop with a keyboard and screen that looked (mostly) like a real computer’s. I ordered it and moved on to the other things on my checklist, which was much deeper than my resources that year.

It wasn’t a good time for us; although I had not yet fully admitted it to myself or anyone else, my marriage was ending. I was losing weight and battling insomnia and treading fear. My twins were doubting Santa, and I worried that this might be the last good childhood Christmas for them. I couldn’t even imagine what the next year’s holiday might be for them, if I couldn’t figure out some way to stay married to their father. I didn’t just want to fulfill their Christmas dreams that year; I needed to.

So when, less than a week out from the big day, on an afternoon when I had a dentist appointment to fill a tooth cracked from my jaw’s merciless grinding, I received an update to my laptop order indicating that it would not be delivered until after Christmas, I lost it.

I lost it in the way I was losing what had been my life: not suddenly, not dramatically, not even that noticeably, but in a slow, crumpling sort of way. I showed up at the dentist’s after a long day at school, feeling shaky and tired and panicked about when and how at that late date I was going to come up with some kind of comparable replacement for the laptop, but getting that filling taken care of was on the long list of things to do, and I had hauled myself there in spite of how I was feeling because I knew that my feelings were a little ridiculous and I didn’t want anyone to know about them. When the dentist asked how I was doing, I said, casually as I could, “fine, just a little stressed because a Christmas present for my daughter isn’t going to arrive on time.” No real biggie. He shrugged as if to say, What can you do, right?

Lying back in the chair, as he moved a needle full of novocaine toward my mouth, I reminded myself to relax my fingers and toes, and to breathe.

After several shots, my mouth was numb, but when he began to drill, I could feel it, deep inside my jaw. I told myself it wasn’t that bad, that it was OK, but after a few minutes I raised my hand to let him know that it wasn’t OK.

He stopped and injected more novocaine. It was late in the day, and I could sense his impatience.

He tried drilling again, and still I could feel pain. After a few moments, I raised my hand again. He injected more painkiller into my jaw.

After a few minutes he tried again, and still I could feel pain. I shook my head.

“I can’t give you any more of this,” he said, “and we’re far enough into this procedure that I have to finish it.”

The physical pain was not tortuous; I could take it. My fear and bewilderment, however, felt nearly unbearable. Why was this happening? Would there be a sudden moment of excruciating pain? What was wrong with me, and why couldn’t I get a grip? It made no sense that I was feeling anything; one whole half of my face felt like a rubbery mallet. Was it all in my head? I felt trapped in the chair, with my big, dumb, numb (but not numb-enough) mouth held open by the dentist’s rough hands. I closed my eyes when he began drilling again, and tears rolled from the corners of them and soaked the hair above my ears. I wasn’t crying, not in any way I ever had before or since, but tears were falling. I couldn’t stop them.

He didn’t speak to me for the rest of the procedure, and I felt shame in the face of what seemed like his anger. I supposed his afternoon was ruined, too.

“I’m sorry,” he said when he was done. “I had no choice but to finish.” I’m pretty sure I apologized in return. At the least, I know I assured him that it was all right. That’s the kind of thing I would have done back then. I’d have said whatever would most quickly get me out from under the beating fluorescent lights of his clinic and into the opaque darkness on the other side of its windows.

As it turned out, my husband somehow procured the faux-laptop from another source, and my daughter had it to open on Christmas morning. If my life had been a Hallmark movie, I would have realized, when my husband saved my daughter’s Christmas, that I’d been all wrong about so many things, and that horrible afternoon at the dentist’s would have been the low point before my wake-up call. Our moppet would have beamed with joy on Christmas morning and we would have looked at each other with love as she pulled us together for a hug.

Yeah, that’s not how it went.

On Christmas morning she did her best to look happy and express gratitude, but I could tell she was disappointed that it wasn’t a REAL laptop. I don’t remember any loving glances or hugs between her father and I. Things between us were already too raw and too far gone for touch.

Because it was the year of her laptop, Santa brought my daughter a laptop ornament; every time I’ve hung it on our tree since, I’ve remembered that afternoon at the dentist’s office. I continued to see him until I got divorced in 2008; he was our family dentist, and I didn’t feel able to leave his practice until I left so many other things that had made up the mosaic of our family’s life.

I’d like to tell you that the years of Christmases after that one were better or easier. I’d like to tell you that I was wrong about 2006 being some kind of last Christmas and that I continued to create holidays that were as magical for my kids as the ones I created for the first eight years of their lives. Or, I’d like to tell you that I hit some kind of Christmas rock bottom in the dentist’s chair and realized that no present or holiday was worth the stress and pain I felt that day. But they weren’t and I didn’t do either of those things. We struggled and celebrated through Christmases with different kinds of challenges and pleasures, and I know the holiday was never quite as wonderful for my children after that last year before divorce changed the foundation of their lives. In fact, there were years not long after that one when both of my children told me that they hated Christmas, a sentiment I sometimes (silently) shared. While I eventually reached a point where I no longer second-guessed my choices, sometimes I deeply missed the years I stayed up until 2:00 or 3:00 in the morning finishing my magic-making and was woken only a few hours later by belief-filled feet pounding down the hallway outside our bedroom door. Sometimes I still do.

Last week, my daughter, who is planning a Christmas celebration across a continent and ocean with a young man she loves, asked me about our Christmas day traditions. “I remember the advent calendar and decorating stockings before Christmas, but I can’t remember much about the day itself other than opening presents,” she said.

“Oh, honey,” I said. “I was always so wasted by Christmas day I didn’t do much more than make a breakfast and clean up the wrapping paper and take a nap. And some years we spent the day in the car.”

I told her about staying up long after everyone had gone to bed, wrapping gifts. I told her, laughing at myself, about the year her dad and older sister had built a train table for the Brio set, and I was painting the little town scene on the base of it until after 2:00 AM on Christmas morning. I told her about the year I made her a dress-up trunk. “I had to find a trunk, and the clothes to put in the trunk–which I got from multiple visits to Goodwill–and the flower and letter decals I put on the lid of the trunk.” I told her about how my favorite moment of Christmas was often the one that happened in those middle-of-the-night hours, when everything was finally done and I would sit by myself in front of the lit tree in our dark living room and sip a glass of wine and relish the calm. I even told her the story of the laptop year and the afternoon at the dentist.

“Well, you know why I wanted a laptop,” she said. I told her I didn’t.

“I wanted to be like you,” she said. “Every morning when I got up, you’d be downstairs on your computer.”

“Really?” I said. “I never knew that.” I remembered those years when I used to get up at 4:30 in the morning so I would have time to write, and how that time often ended when she, like me, always an early riser, came down our stairs to find me sitting on the couch, tapping away. I both loved and dreaded the sound of her footsteps.

She paused. “For someone who’s so aware of so many things, how could you have missed that?”

“I don’t know,” I said. I suppose it’s because missing things is what we do, especially when we are in the thick of it.

This year, for the first time in so long I can’t tell you how many years it’s been, this season has been a source of almost nothing but joy. I have loved finding gifts for the people I love, and decorating the house, and making plans. For the first time since divorcing, I’ve sent a few cards. I even spent an afternoon making Scandinavian-style paper snowflake flowers to hang in the kitchen windows, a frivolous kind of crafty something I’ve been wanting to do for two years. Aside from Covid-related issues, I haven’t felt stressed or hurried or worried about anything having to do with the holiday. This year, the way we’re observing it is just the right size for the time and money and energy we have to spend on it, and the occasional sneak-attacks of longing for who and what won’t be part of this year’s season feel more like gifts than grief. I’m glad to have had so many of the things I’ve lost.

I’d like to wrap this story up with a well-tied bow, neatly joining the disparate ends of the ribbon connecting my Christmases past to my Christmas present, but (like so much of the holidays, so much of life) I can’t get it to fit into a tidy package. My ordeal in the dentist’s chair isn’t a clean metaphor for my marriage or its end, and I’ve got no big nugget of wisdom to share, no sure and hard-won lesson to impart. There’s no real moral to this story that is full of “both/ands,” rather than of “if/thens” or “either/ors,” or “if only I’d knowns.” Those years of mothering through dysfunction and deterioration were both hard and wonderful. I have always been a person with feelings both ridiculous and sublime. It seems like a bit of a blessing or some kind of elegant design that I couldn’t know then what I know now–about what we all really wanted and needed and how everything would go; such knowledge might have been unbearable before I was strong enough to carry it. Some things we can only pick up slowly, in pieces, over time, maybe especially when it comes to love, which at its core is really all that this story of the laptop and the dentist and the last Christmas is about: true, messy, deep, unruly, irrational, unconditional, infinite love.

Wishing all of you the kind of holiday you need.

14 thoughts on “Not exactly a Hallmark holiday movie

  1. Kate says:

    Oh, Rita. I’m so glad you’re getting to have that kind of Christmas and I love your snowflake. Makes me want to make some just plain paper ones with the kids – maybe on Thursday when they are done with school. They are at an age where craft suggestions can go either way.

    I found myself buying each kid a larger ticket item from their wishlist this year – the kind of item I wouldn’t usually – simply because it’s been a hard season in a couple of years of hard seasons and I’m not above attempting to make the holiday bright with consumerism. Still, I’m looking forward to the day. Long ago, after a meltdown brought about by too much Christmassing overstimulation, I carved out Christmas Day as a day for the four of us. No travel, no hustling to another family Christmas. We’ll stay in our pajamas. Play with our toys. I’ll (like you) take a nap. It will feel anticlimactic in (hopefully) the best kind of way.

    Wishing you a lovely holiday, Rita.

    • Rita says:

      Ah, your Christmas plan sounds lovely! Ours will be much the same. And I fully support your bigger ticket item. It HAS been years of hard seasons now, and if that will bring a little bit of joy and you can do it, I say go for it. Cane and I weren’t going to do gifts for each other this year, but now that our plans have suddenly changed we’ve decided to go shopping tomorrow to get ourselves some things to put under the tree. Sometimes you have to be your own Santa.

      About those snowflakes–easiest thing ever. One caveat: The resources I consulted didn’t really tell me the ratio of short side to long side. The paper does need to be a rectangle. I first tried it with some paper gift bags I bought from Ikea. I just cut the bottoms out to make a rectangle, and it worked perfectly. I loved them so much I bought a really nice piece of colorful paper to make a giant one for my big front window, but the proportion was off. It wasn’t long enough and when I went to join the ends the paper ripped. 🙁 I love the ones that did work, far more than makes any kind of rational sense.

  2. Ally Bean says:

    It’s refreshing to read to something about Christmas that isn’t all joy and wonderfulness. Not that I’m against that mind you, but there’s a dark side to Christmas memories for many of us. I like balance and honesty when it comes to this time of year. Fascinating why your daughter wanted a laptop, isn’t it?

    Your snowflake ornament is pretty. Happy Christmas & a Merry New Year.

    • Rita says:

      Well, you know me: I’m never all joy and wonderfulness. Just not how I roll. 🙂 I like balance and honesty with respect to most things.

      Wishing a happy Christmas and Merry New Year to you and Zen-Den, too.

  3. Laura Millsaps says:

    I love this piece. It reminds me of some of the Christmases when I was just starting out as a divorced Mom, and trying to make sure the Christmases weren’t lacking because the kids were being shuttled between two households from Christmas Eve to Christmas Day. I think, mostly, I succeeded, but it wasn’t without the same amount of compromise, effort, financial stress, and STRESS stress, that you describe here. I love that you and Grace had a moment of understanding out of that memory–signs that while we were worried about one thing, the best thing was yet to come. Merry Christmas to you and Cane and the rest of your family.

    • Rita says:

      Oh, Merry Christmas to you and Tom and all of your kids! I am so glad to be past those early divorce years. They hit right about the time that Christmas was bound to lose its luster, anyway, but it was hard not to feel that everyone’s feelings were all my doing. (So glad to be past that kind of thinking, too. Thank you, therapy and good friends.) Looking forward to seeing some photos of you and yours.

  4. TD says:

    Thank you for sharing such a personal story of your Christmas past / Christmas present. The Mother / daughter and Daughter / mother relationship has been spinning in my mind and heavy in my heart this morning. The ornament Hallmark image of hoops and yoyo on a laptop hit my memory of so much happiness that my mother and I connected through years ago. Although this image as it connects with your story has a completely different meaning, it certainly was a positive memory flash for me that my spirit needed at the particular moment in time.

    Your complete story, including dentist, those types of tears, divorce, gifting and especially the dialog between you and your daught brought tears (hope healing tears). You (your writing) have/has deeply touched me once again and I don’t know why.

    (Not that it matters, my mother is a twin with her brother. And there has been so much of herself that she shared with me all through our lives of what being a twin meant to her.)

    Wishing you more of goodness ahead!

    • Rita says:

      I don’t watch Hallmark movies, either. 🙂 Although I do have fond memories of watching a variety of prince/princess love story movies with my daughter when she was a teenager. I loved giving my girl what she wanted. I know you do, too.

  5. Larry Anderson says:

    Rita,
    A great, heartfelt story. We lived down the road from you and your kiddos would come over and hang out every so often. Your daughter worked on my laptop and she knew how it all worked without an instruction book! You have brilliant children, well parented. Happy Holidays to you and your family.

    • Rita says:

      Hi Larry! I remember you and Joyce well, and how kind you both were to our children. I still have on my tree an ornament that Joyce gave to Grace one year. I have so many fond memories of those years. Sending happy holiday wishes to you and your family, too. It is nice to hear from you.

  6. Larry Anderson says:

    We still talk about Grace, Will, Emily and all their pals. Some of the best one-line zingers ever from Grace and Will. We have pictures that might interest you. Old school photos before cell phone cameras. Send an email and we can make a plan if you would like to make some digital copies.

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