It was the only white Christmas I remember.
The snow came down in buckets; the storm door that marked the front entrance of my childhood home sweeping away a fresh ½ inch of snow every time someone came inside.
It delayed the entire day. My uncle, a hallmark of every Christmas morning, showed up well after breakfast time, lugging his boxes of gifts up the steep front steps.
Those steps were an afterthought to my childhood home – built well after the home was lifted on hydraulic jacks to keep it above the flood-prone Pompton River.
My mom fell down them – landed on her ass and back – on numerous occasions. I did, too. Snowmelt fell off the roof onto those stairs and refroze. They were an accident only bags of rock salt could prevent.
But despite the delay (we didn’t open gifts until 10 a.m.), I loved that Christmas. Well, I loved every Christmas as a kid, but that one in particular. The rosy cheeks of everyone who entered, the cold rush of air swept inside ever time the hydraulic spring slammed the door shut, seemed perfect.
It was like a picture of what Christmas was supposed to be; the juxtaposition of inside warmth and outside cold; of family and friends. It was a place of peace, without worry.
It was safe; it was storybook.
Maybe that’s why it sticks.
* * *
I can’t quite tell you why I woke up with that memory today. My guess is that it has something to do with my family selling the hardware store I grew up in after 32 years in business this past week.
You see, 98% of our Christmas gifts, I think, came from the hardware store.
But it also dictated our reality. All that snow meant my family worked that Christmas – snow-plowing business parking lots and driveways, getting ready for the deluge of customers that would need supplies the next day.
Owning a small business meant always being “on”.
But I’m guessing the recollection stems from something deeper, too – a desire to tap into, or recollect, the kind of innocence those memories evoke.
Today, I was lucky enough to catch up with a very close friend of mine, a guy my age who recently underwent some pretty hardcore surgery.
We talked about the impact these things can have on you – the smack in the face you get when you realize that the innocence of a quaint childhood is a mirage, that death always lingers around the corner. It’s time no more predictable than tomorrow night’s football score.
And then, he said, “I can’t imagine having to cope with that knowledge at 9 years old.”
* * *
Truth is, I can’t imagine it either. And I live with a 9-year-old who, in his own way, is doing exactly that.
In the emergency room on Wednesday he told Heidi and I, “I think I’m going to die at a young age.”
“Why?” I asked.
“Because I just have so much wrong with me all the time.”
It’s a strange thing to hear your 9-year-old say.
I told him that was bull; that he would be fine.
And I don’t just believe that, I know that.
But he doesn’t.
The scars of his descent seem to become thicker the further we get from the incident.
I’ve always said I can’t handle another trip down that road; another trip down the road of bodily destruction via disease.
But I’ve always been focused on the physical.
I wasn’t ready for the mental impact, not 3 or 4 years later.
* * *
I’m no pro. I don’t know how to gauge this.
Most days are fine. Most days are normal.
He’s a kid. She’s a kid.
Like today, we ride bikes and play hide and seek.
There’s trips to the grocery store and Target. Apples and socks and paper towels.
Everything according to plan. Breakfast in the sunshine. A lazy lunch.
A movie at night.
And, really, no complaints.
Call it our own little White Christmas in September.
And these are most days.
But the days when things go wrong? They seem like poison inside. Like a fog lingers. You can’t slice through it. You can’t make sense.
Yet it bounces around all nonchalant. Today, all is normal. Tomorrow all is broken.
It leaves me feeling like a freak.
Poisoning you with my worries when things go bad; reassuring everyone when things go right.
The days when all goes right way outnumber those that don’t.
But the frequency of broken instances – it starts as a trickle, a drop, and then a drop just a little more rapid – moves forward.
This time almost moved me to action.
But now, the peace is so nice.
Why be scared, when this time could be the last time?
Everything falling perfectly right into its little perfect place.
* * *
The great irony is, four years later, the only real danger any of us have ever faced has mostly been in our heads – the physical ailments either one-offs, or explainable as the normal aftermath of his situation.
That doesn’t prepare you for it.
But I’m also tired of talking about it, of writing about it, because it jams itself into my mind as fear – and the fear needs an outlet – leaving you as the recipients.
I’d rather write about White Christmases; where all is perfect.
Where it smells like coffee. And all I see is smiles.
And my friends haven’t stared death in the face.
And neither have my kids.
And everything isn’t gauged based on the calculation between the span of an average life and the risk of the selected activity.
Nope, mom just falls down the stairs, because somebody forgot to throw down some rock salt.
And instead of thinking, “Wow, she could’ve gotten seriously injured,” you laugh.
Because you’re 9.
And people don’t die or get seriously hurt in your world.
They get a liitle bruise when they slip on the stairs. And curse. And get back up, on their way with their day.
What a fairy tale.
What a fairy tale I used to live.
What a fairy tale some of us still do.