I took my kids on our annual trip to see Santa. We make a production of it. We take the Unnecessary Train – we could drive there faster, but trains are fun – we see the Christmas show and do our holiday shopping. The Santa bit is a twenty-minute experience in a magical workshop filled with colorful elves.
This week my nine-year-old lost a classmate. A boy that he really liked, even though he lived too far away for many play dates. A boy I really liked, and liked his parents. I always wished he lived closer. This week I watched a classroom of kids hear of the death of their friend. I saw children weep, and others turn their bodies hard and curl inwards, folding a paper over and over and not looking at anyone. I saw two boys squeeze into a small chair together and just sit there, not speaking.
I saw teachers crying in the halls and carefully watching their students for clues as to how they could help – a hug, a tissue, a chance to run around or sit by themselves. I realized teachers spend more time with these kids than practically anyone else, certainly more than most relatives. I saw the whole school’s staff try their hardest to pull themselves together for their classes.
This week I saw my son consumed by grief. Mama, I don’t know how to close my eyes to go to sleep. Every time I try I just cry and cry. Oh, Honey, Mama cries and cries, too. The whole world lost a sweet and beautiful child.
My child cried driving to the train. He cried during the slow part of the Christmas show. He cried waiting to see Santa. I picked up my child who is now too big for my lap and held him as he cried. I held him on the floor when there wasn’t a chair. I started to tell him, don’t cry, it’s OK, but I corrected myself. You can cry. Nothing about this is OK, I told him instead.
I’m sure the other parents waiting to see Santa wondered if my child was autistic, had an emotional disorder or cancer. Thankfully, no one asked. I could not have answered without crying myself, and I was not going to cry in Santa’s Workshop.
I thought about the Christmas presents our friend’s parents must have already bought and will never be opened. It was really hard not to cry in Santa’s Workshop.
When we went in to see Santa (and we are all still Believers) my boy could not speak to Santa at all – he was too near tears. He was only a millimeter more not-crying than crying, just enough to keep the tears from spilling down his cheeks. When Santa asked him what he wanted, he couldn’t come up with a single word and just shrugged. I reminded him of his list: a hat with a pompom, slippers to leave at school. He just shook his head. None of it mattered to him anymore.
God Bless that Santa for understanding. Do you like surprises? elicited a nod. Than you’ll be excited to come downstairs and see a mountain of socks and underwear under the tree? My son laughed a real laugh, and the photographer caught it just inside the frame, but barely.
I ordered the one picture that had a smile from the Santa-Picture-Pushers because I was so happy to see my boy smile, even though it was off-center and made no sense to the photo-pusher who preferred pictures with their subjects neatly arranged on Santa’s lap, not half-falling off. That picture was my miracle.
When I got home, though, I didn’t bother taking the picture out of the envelope. The picture I bought was a lie – a souvenir of a happy day that never existed. It was one of those moments you can look back on in years to come and remember only the happy times, but that’s not who we were that day. We were so sad we ran out of our house an hour early because we couldn’t stand the feel of motionless time moving backward.
We watched Charlie Brown Christmas and that seemed to help. I’m sad, too, Mama, even though it’s Christmas. It helped him to feel not so alone. Tiny Pants created a new language and there was a horse named Buttocks and I heard real laughter for a moment. I know he will alternate being okay with not being okay for a long time. Perhaps I should take that Santa picture out after all, to remind me when I lose hope that there’s a smile waiting just around the corner. Maybe that’s Santa’s gift to me this Christmas.