Friday, December 23, 2016

My Best Christmas

I have waited more than a month to make what will probably be my last post of this terrible year. Since its subject is Christmas, I am at least closing on an upbeat note.

I think Christmas is about memory - as much to do with what we did with Christmas in the past as what we do with it today. Like birthdays, however, it's hard to single out any specific year as especially memorable. I recall Christmases from 1974, 1995, and even a few from the years I have spent here in the Philippines. But the one that stands out for me as My Best Christmas was in 2005. Here's why.

I had been living in Des Moines, Iowa since 2001. A failed marriage took me there, and almost five years later an engagement that fizzled out resulted, eventually, in my having to get out of town. Actually, it's what happened to me after the collapse of my engagement that forced me to leave town. Because of the cumulative effects of heavy drinking, I lost two jobs and, realizing, in mid-December, that I was in the perilous position of not having enough time to find another job to pay the next month's rent, I had to find someone who would give me refuge. It was that or end up homeless in Des Moines - in January.

First I contacted some of my closest friends. Only one was willing to take me in. The rest were very involved in complicated domestic arrangements of their own. Then I contacted my brother in Denver. He surprised me by suggesting that I call my sister in Alaska, whom I hadn't seen since 1998. My brother gave me her number, and I called her.

After telling my sister about my predicament, she told me that she would only be too happy to take me in, that her door was always open for me. I couldn't speak over the long-distance line for several seconds as I wept for joy, and she kept calling out my name and saying "Hello?" fearing the line had been disconnected. After regaining my composure, I thanked her copiously and asked her when I could come.

I first thought of renting a van and driving the distance north through Minnesota and across half of Canada, which would have been a difficult drive in July. In December, at those latitides, the hazards were unimaginable. So my sister laid out the only other plan of action that would work - to gather up everything that I couldn't part with, pack it into boxes and ship it to her using "Media Mail" - the cheapest method available through the U.S. Postal Service.

She sent me enough money to ship about a dozen boxes, which I carried from my apartment in downtown Des Moines to the Post Office a few blocks away. Some of them weighed thirty or forty pounds, so the trudge to the Post Office every day was strenuous.

Once the last package was mailed, I turned in my key at the apartment manager's office, called for a taxi and caught a flight to Anchorage. I left behind in my apartment all the furniture I had bought for a married life that never transpired - a queen-sized bed, a big screen TV, book cases, and a desk. I owed nothing for the furniture, since I had already gone bankrupt in August.

It was nine years ago to this very day - the afternoon of 23 December. I flew first to Minneapolis, and then onward to Anchorage. All I could see in the starlight from my window seat was a world of white below - whether clouds or fields of snow I couldn't tell.

On the approach to Anchorage, I looked down on Cook Inlet covered in ice. The Inlet was named for Captain James Cook, who "discovered" it whilst looking for the mythical Northwest Passage. Coming in for a landing, I saw snow, snow, snow . . . and at last the black tarmac. The plane touched down, I deplaned and collected my luggage. It wasn't until I walked out of the main terminal that I heard a voice yell, "There's my little brother!" I saw a woman approaching me and thought for a split second that it was my mother - who had died in 1998. It was my sister, who had become at that moment my whole family in one person.

The air was frigid. Everything was covered in snow. My sister took me to her burgundy Ford Explorer, that she had long since named "Victoria," and drove me across Anchorage to her house at the nub of a cul-de-sac, where she lived with her two dogs and several teddy-bear hamsters. It was a relatively new house with a garage, a large downstairs living room, adjoined by a large kitchen, a front room by a big front window (where an untrimmed Christmas tree was standing). The steep stairs led to three bedrooms and a loft. My fold-out bed occupied the loft (right above the garage), and I don't remember much else from that night except going to bed.

The following day - Christmas Eve - was clear, crystalline. My sister decided that I should buy a few gifts for her, so she took me to Dimond - not Diamond - Mall and handed me a hundred dollars. Everything was on sale for the few crazy people who had waited so long to shop. I bought my sister a big (rather vulgar) crystal perfume dispenser and a wine decanter in the form of a chef.

Upon retruning home (such a beautiful word), we ate too much and watched some television. And when the sun went down at about four o'clock, my sister got out the boxes containing all of our family's old Christmas tree decorations, some of them decades old, and together my sister and I trimmed her fat artificial Christmas tree. As we removed the decorations from the boxes, I recognized many of them and we shared memories of Christmases past. Finished, the moment came to light the lights. Standing there beside my sister, gazing at the exquisite tree with blinking lights, with the frozen yard and icy street visible through the front window, I felt something I hadn't felt since I left my parents' home: I felt the speechless joy of being with my family.

During the night, more snow fell and we awoke on a gloomy Christmas morning (with sunrise at about nine). I put on a CD of music by Vince Guaraldi composed mostly for the 1965 TV Special "A Charlie Brown Christmas." After breakfast, I helped her load numerous wrapped gifts into the back of her Explorer, and she took me around to the homes of all her friends to give them their gifts. She invariablty introduced me as her "little brother" (I was 47 years old), and they all told me how she had told them so much about me. Driving away from one house, my sister hit a curb and flattened a tire. With the temperature at what felt like zero, her friends came out and helped change the tire.

Back home, we watched, of all things, Home Alone 4, a film I didn't know even existed. Watching it, I learned why. Dinner consisted of a small turkey, cooked in a rotisserie oven, a ham, and the usual side dishes of stuffing, cranberry sauce, and mashed potatoes. I don't recall exactly what we had for dessert. It was probably pastries bought from a bakery. When we were done, we watched Turner Classic Movies, which my sister watched religiously, long into the dark night.  

My sister knew, as the saying goes, how to keep Christmas well. I got about ten gifts from her that year, including a remote-control model helicopter. She had read somewhere that every man wants a toy for Christmas. I didn't want a toy for Christmas, but who was I to argue? After such a frightful year, in which my dream of being married again blew up in my face, and after a bankruptcy and losing two jobs to alcohol abuse, it was the happy ending I could only have dreamed of having. And I owed everything to my sister, who (once again) saved me from my life.

Merry Christmas, Bibbit, wherever you are.

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