The little dog sleeps, snuffling softly, in the comfy chair in the family room. The living room clock tocks boldly. The microwave hums and the furnace ka-chunks as it warms up, but these are not noisy noises. These are background noises to the quiet that comes after Christmas.
I think of this holiday sequence in sledding terms. There is the long, hard slog up the hill, tugging a heavy wooden flyer with its runners waxed and gleaming, and sometimes there are people sitting on that sled, catching a ride. They make the slog up a little more work, and they make it a little more fun, too. Sometimes, they even help pull.
And it seems like it takes forever, but finally, panting, we hit the peak. We position the sled, one person holding the back in place as it teeters, ready, if we’re not careful, to careen away without us. Mittened hands hold that flyer steady on tipsy terra snow-covered firma, though, and the whole crew climbs on board, making room for each other, hanging on to each other, jostling each other. There are comments and kickbacks, but somehow, finally, everybody’s on that old sled.
And then there’s that moment—that break in chronological time—where the sled is not sedentary, but it’s not quite moving, either. It’s poised at the peak. It’s giving us all a chance to look at the packed white vista below. “Look,” that moment says to us, “look at where we’re headed!”
And we suck in our breaths, slammed at the beauty.
And then we’re off, and if we’re lucky—as so often, we are—the ride down is amazing, a blur of wind and snow and screams and laughter and undistilled wonder, and after all that long hard work getting to the peak, it seems like milliseconds before we’ve reached the shiny flat bottomland, and we’re looking at each other, jaws dropped, howling.
“Oh, man,” we say. “Oh, man.”
We know nothing will ever be quite that great again, but some of us may brave the hill a few times more.
Then after, there’s the cozy après-sled part, where mittens crusted with snow are defrosting on the radiator, and boots are thawing on the twisted old rug in the backroom. There are the hot chocolates and the steaming mugs of coffee; someone passes cookies around, and someone is retelling the story of the riotous blur down the hill. The ride becomes faster and more dangerous with each telling and no one who rode on that sled begs to differ; we are all remembering, trying to recreate and recapture, that veil-lifting moment on the peak.
And people warm up, and gather up their things, and slowly, comfortably, disperse, until I am left—I am left by the fire with a steaming mug of joe, a piece of fudge or two, and a wonderful, unread book.
The slog, of course, is the preparation for the Christmas holidays, and then Christmas Eve is the struggle to climb onto the sleigh, with that beautiful moment of sheer appreciation right there at the tippy-top. Christmas itself, with its excited gathering and gifting and glorious meal, is the wild ride down.
There’s the getting-together in the aftermath, and when that winds down, there’s the quiet respite by the fire.
Today is my quiet respite by the fire time. It’s a time to spread out the holiday, look it over, rearrange a piece or two so they slide neatly into the way things really were.
“This,” Jim said to me on Christmas night, “is one of my three best Christmases ever.” He was staggering under a load of books, epic works of graphic literature. The biggest and fattest is something like 1500 pages; that night, Jim’s bookmark was already a third of the way in.
Jim’s dad was in the cozy chair by the Christmas tree, reading.
We appropriated, this year, the Icelandic custom of exchanging books on Christmas Eve and spending the night reading them, wonderful chocolates close at hand. We woke up on Christmas morning and opened a few non-book gifts, exclaimed over stocking stuffers, munched on coffee cake. We roasted Cornish game hens for dinner, and we watched Guy Ritchie’s King Arthur, snuggled in toasty throws, as the Christmas sky purpled into night. We ate grilled ham and cheese sandwiches for dinner, and then we all read some more.
It was simple, quiet, fulfilling, and festive. Jim said he didn’t experience attacks of tension like he often does at holiday times,–and holidays can be pretty tough for those with autism and mental illness. This morning, he posted on Facebook. “I hope nobody minds me bragging about what I got for Christmas this year,” he wrote, “but I got some really cool graphic novels.”
When your mom’s an English teacher, this kind of post does her heart a whole lotta good. I completely forgot to ask about the other two Christmases.
This Christmas had that solemn, festive tension, that miraculous wonder of God-made-human. We talked with and texted and messaged far-away dear ones, making sure connections stayed warm and solid. Home celebration was all about the books and all about the chocolate. And it was a little bit about the non-human among us, too, the aging little dog and the cats across the way.
Jim said, one morning last week, “Did you see Greta’s leg, Mom? It looks like Holmsie’s did, just before she died.”
I looked; on the back of the joint on the dog’s left rear leg, there was a big purple-y red knot, the fur all worried away. Mark said he’d noticed her nipping at it.
I called the vet’s, and they said to bring Greta in that morning.
The vet who examined the dog looked about 18; she was pretty and mop-headed and firm of hand. She quickly determined the knot was not an infection, and she took the reluctant little dog back to draw some fluid. She looked at it under the microscope but couldn’t determine what, exactly, was present.
“We’ll send it off,” she said matter-of-factly, “and if it’s cancer, we can cut it away. Although,” she mused, “there’s very little skin left there to close the gap.”
We went home with new pain medication, which helped. Greta no longer worried the knot when she snuggled on the couch. It didn’t bother her when we went out walking. On these cold, cold days, she wanted to walk farther than I did.
“Such spirit for a 13-year-old dog!” one of the nice ladies at the vets’ reception area had said. She was right, but on arriving back home after a spirited walk, Greta sinks into sleeps so deep I often get up to check her breathing.
Don’t be cancer, I think, but the old dog is warm and comfortable; she likes to fall asleep on the couch, face bathed by the lights from the Christmas tree. She knows she is loved. We will navigate whatever happens next.
The cats across the street don’t have the gifts that Greta has: they are not warm and comfortable, and they have had no folks to love them.
Something happened over there—a break or a catastrophe of some kind, and suddenly the neighbors were gone. Baby toys remained in the yard, but the house was dark, the vehicles were never parked in the drive, and we never saw them walking with their newly adopted daughter after the dinner hour. Something happened. No one knew what.
But the cats were there—the black cat with the white smudge on the nose, and the little gray and black tabby. They paced the little cement porch. They slept behind the vertical slat of the porch swing, a little protected space. They meowed pitifully.
Those neighbors had been animal lovers; their big hearts attracted all the neighborhood pets. It was impossible to think that they would leave their cats. Maybe, we thought, these cats were strays that they’d been feeding.
I made some calls. It is hard to initiate a kitty rescue.
Finally, I opened a can of tuna, dumped it into an aging Tupperware dish, and walked it across the street. The little black cat jumped up hopefully, the tabby darted in, and I put the dish down. Then suddenly, three more cats were there. One, a huge brute, twice the size of the others, ate all the tuna.
I went home and said to Mark, “We need to buy some kibble.” That night we got a big bag of inexpensive cat food, filled two old dishes, and set them out for the cats—enough for all, enough to share.
The next day, I went to refill the dishes, and there were two new ones set out, filled to the brim. Jim said he’d seen a young girl running over to feed the cats.
And then it got cold. Really cold, and there were ads warning against leaving pets outside, and the dangers of this kind of weather for our furry friends. We dug out old blankets and lined a couple of boxes, ran them across the street, tilted them toward the wall, away from the wind. Someone put out another box. Someone else covered the boxes with old rugs.
The food kept getting refilled.
And then one day, the neighbor’s truck was back, the lights were on, and the cats were again in the hands of an animal-loving host. Thank goodness.
And thank goodness we live in a neighborhood where people’s kindness extends to the neighbors with fur. Sitting in my comfy, warm chair, setting down my book, my eye rests on the ceramic nativity scene, with its sheep and oxen and camels, sheltering with the people on what we think was a cold, clear night. Christmas comes, I realize more and more, in all kinds of ways.
I fall back into my book; the afternoon wanes. The boyos come home, just a little sheepish. Their afternoon jaunt has taken them right past our favorite used book store; everything, even the books on the clearance racks, was twenty per cent off. They each have a fat bag of treasures which they add to their Christmas bounty. Jim goes off to re-organize his graphic novel collection. Mark slips into the chair in the corner by the tree, opens his book, and closes his eyes.
I heat the oven, slide in a quiche, and the smells of roasting cheese and bacon greet me when I bring the little dog in from her late afternoon foray. I love this quiet time, poised between the glorious Christmas celebration and the contemplative New Year’s observance. A little time to rest at the end of the year, and to let the tension go and open spaces so we can look ahead. Fueled by this rich, warm time, we can explore what needs to be done.
A new year pushes at the edges; it’s a year in which we will change and grow, make decisions, and take bold steps to enact them. There will be surprises, and there will be challenges, reunions, and partings. This quiet time helps us prepare, gather up the strength, enter in with hope and courage.
Happy New Year, my friends.