The aspirational “Most Wonderful Time of the Year” is upon us and I, lame Jew of little knowledge, once again find myself in regular talks with The Big Guy in the Red Suit, aka Santa.
It’s a curious situation, one I fell into on happenstance with little preparation or knowledge. Growing up with my mom and brother, ours was a Hanukkah-only home, where we lit candles when my mom remembered (typically five or six of the nights). The gift-giving went like this: The first night you received a nice present, the next night you got a book or album, the rest of the nights you got . . . socks. Needless to say, I always had Christmas envy, and not-so-secretly longed to be Catholic, because then I could go to CCD with my friends on Wednesdays, and I loved singing in Latin and always found the stained glass/candle combination to be pretty in a mysterious kind of way.
My mother worried about my impending conversion so much that I was forbidden to attend Midnight Mass until my senior year of high school. I’m not sure why she thought the Catholic Church would be interested in adding me to their roster, but when I was 17 she relented, my era of impressionability seemingly expired. She no longer was concerned that I would succumb to the pressure of Father Rob at St. John’s, the church down the block where many of my friends attended, in whose rectory I smoked my first cigarette at age 12.
Fast forward to 2003. Now 33, I became mom to a child who would celebrate Christmas and yes, believe in Santa Claus. My relationship with Santa–though relatively short-lived–is an intense one. You see, I have been bestowed with the mystical powers of a telepathic connection to SC, even in December, his busiest month. I know not to overuse this power, as he has a lot of lists to read right now, and is overseeing multiple elf-filled production lines to check them all off. Santa’s got a hard deadline, I’m well aware. So I keep it brief, these conversations.
It does come in handy, being able to talk directly to The Man and hearing his quick responses, always of the reassuring kind. You see, my Santa is a New Testament kind of guy. He forgives most kids their trespasses, as long as they’re good most of the time and they try really hard to be kind to others, even their almost-step-brothers, and don’t leave all of their doo-dads all over the house. The threat of coal-filled stockings is not one my Santa uses often. That’s saved only for truly evil children, and I know none of those. Truth be told, my Santa is a softy, a wise friend, a green lighter of wishes large and small. He offers constructive criticism but his overarching theme is being pleased with the progress. He’s an affable, big-picture guy.
While Santa came to me through marriage, after we split up, I was left in the dubious position of winging it with the Santa rules. Kind of like when you get a surprise essay test and try to psychobabble your way through it, not realizing that the more you write, the larger the hole you dig for yourself. This is all fine and good until your child reaches a certain age where they start to compare notes. Or when you end up in a blended family where your partner has more definitive rules (and scoffs at your made-up ones). Then you find out other protocols, such as:
- The aforementioned almost-stepbrother who, once a year, receives a phone call from Santa. This led to a heated discussion on cell phone reception in the North Pole. [I suggested that Santa came down to the U.S. for that call, which he does occasionally for test runs and to map out his route. This explanation was met with befuddlement (the boy) and affirmation (the girl).]
- The letter from Santa, all in cursive, that E’s friend received (who complained it was too long. Obviously not my child.)
- In my ex’s family, under “From” on the adhesive tags, it would read, “Santa, Mom and Dad.” Except for the big presents–those would just be from “Mom and Dad.” They didn’t want the Big Guy to get sole credit for any of it.
- In my fiance’s family, however, most of the gifts are from Santa alone; only one or two of the big ones are from us, with no Santa involvement whatsoever. We continue to negotiate our way around this sticking point.
- In fact, I’ve only uncovered one “universal” rule in all of this Santa-lore: Always leave the cookies out for him–and make sure he takes at least one bite, because there’s no better proof that The Big Guy was there.
Now that my daughter is almost nine, though, she may be onto some of my tricks. When she noticed some Amazon packages delivered to our door, she was quick to accept my lame explanation that some things are just too heavy for SC’s sleigh, what with all of the other presents and Donner having back issues lately. So he has them delivered. She also suggested we get wrapping paper, under the guise that since the elves are working 24/7 now, sometimes he asks me to finish the job. Seems my early fear–that she would one day be traumatized and angered by all of this mythology and deception–is being proven unwarranted. If she knows, she’s not letting on, because the payoff of believing–or seeming to believe–is just too good.
This would all be OK except for one complication: K, her 10-year-old almost-stepbrother who lives with us half the week, is a true believer. So Santa–with all of our conflicting protocols–remains a key part of Christmas. At least for now.
Before all that, though, comes Hanukkah. Today I will resurrect the menorah from the basement and vow to light the candles at least 60 percent of the nights, as I was taught long ago. E likes Hanukkah, and she likes socks, too. On some level, she knows she has it good, especially this time of year. Her only complaint came last week, upon exiting the school bus: “Mommy,” she implored, in that tone of half-annoyance that eight-year-old girls seem to master, “Why don’t we celebrate Kwanzaa?”
Happy Hanukkah. Merry Christmas. Happy Kwanzaa. And a Happy and Healthy 2012.
Today is one of those anniversaries you never forget. On December 5, 2009, one month after my 40th birthday, my daughter E was diagnosed with ITP.
To say our lives have not since been the same would not be overstatement. Still not “recovered,” E is so much better than she was when the ER doctor at Vassar Bros. confirmed his “worst-case scenario” diagnosis, her platelet count at an alarmingly low 3,000 (normal is 150,000 to 400,000) and we were rushed via ambulance down to Westchester Medical that snowy evening to receive her first of many emergency infusions.
We’re in a far better place now. E, now nearly nine, for the most part feels and looks fantastic these days. We are optimistic that she will continue to improve and yeah, maybe even beat this thing–or at least live with it on her own terms.
But it’s the anniversary of a very important day in our lives, and so I must reflect. It’s what I do. Writers write. I write about her illness in part for me–yes, it’s supremely cathartic–but also as a way to get some honest thought out there about what it would be like to go through something like this. As I’ve mentioned before, I do not offer advice. I offer candor, a look inside this world. I hope in writing about our struggles, our story is empathetic–to anyone who has or will have to go through anything similar. That is my intent. Sometimes when you put your innermost thoughts out there, it can ameliorate the shame or embarrassment and enable others to express what’s inside them, or at least find peace. I offer these thoughts to anyone who wonders what it would be like if one day, you woke up and suddenly your child was sick. Very sick. Hopefully that day will never, ever happen to you–but if it does, I know you’ll get through it. So I write to offer hope, too. Hope is a beautiful thing–like love, I’ve learned first-hand that we can’t really live without it.
Life-changing events like this, for me, are experienced through three lenses: snapshots (the imagery of vivid moments), time (sometimes slow motion, sometimes fast forwarded, sometimes out of sequence, a la “Pulp Fiction.” Often not linear, because hey, that’s just how I roll) and deep breaths–the moments you step back, close your eyes and try to absorb the salient lessons all of this reality should be offering you.
At two years in, here are some of the visual memories I have of our first few weeks:
1) This day two years ago. E woke up with blood on her pillow. That happened the night before, but not as much of it, and I chalked it up to the dry heat. (We had just started running the heat in the house full force, which had resulted in prior bloody noses. Though not like this.) On this Saturday morning, however, with a flash of horror I noticed unusual tiny pink dots covering both of her shins, along with a series of bruises. I brought B, my now-fiance, over to look at her legs: “What’s that?” I asked him. (He’s very knowledgeable about most things and it takes a lot to freak him out.) He didn’t know, but agreed it was strange and she needed to go to the doctor. The rest of the day was a blur of increasingly horrific details–the karate testing where my little dynamo could barely manage a front kick; the weekend after-hours clinic where the doctor had no idea what she had, but told us to get a blood test at the nearest hospital; the drive to the local ER through the first snowfall of the season, the longest 15 minutes of my life; the four nurses it took to hold E down to take her blood, the horror of her shrieking; the confirmed diagnosis; the hour-long ambulance ride down to Westchester Medical’s Maria Fareri Children’s Hospital, just E and me, the way it would be for so many of our hospital trips; the two days it took to get her levels back up, only to drop again a week later.
2) My solo train ride home. Not prepared for an overnight hospital stay, and needing to get back to take care of the dog and get showered/changed, etc., the next morning my ex took a turn for a few hours as I returned home by train to get a quick break and drive back with the car for my second overnight stay. (His stays at the hospital were far, far fewer than mine, which was partly my choice and partly his desire not to be there. Enough said.) On the platform in Tarrytown, more than 24 hours before my first wave of fear that something was wrong with my daughter, for the first time I allowed myself to cry. Not sob. Cry. Primal, from the gut, unrelenting waves of sorrow. Finally by myself, not needing to be the strong one for E, I let it out–the whole ride back.
3) Eight days later, our return trip back to the hospital. Having now read up on ITP, my hope was that this would go away as quickly as it had come, as it did with many children E’s age. But less than 10 days later, her levels had dropped precipitously and we were back at Westchester for another overnight stay. Little did I know that this would be our pattern for the next six months. The doctor sat me down, informed me that he wanted a bone marrow test, “To rule out anything more serious.” “You mean, you’re checking for leukemia, right?” I asked. “That’s right,” he said. The next morning, she was wheeled down for the test. I was with her, watched as they finally were able to calm her enough to put her out. The nurse–a pretty Russian of about 29–made the mistake of telling her they were going to give her something to put her into a “nice sleep.” E didn’t like that idea at all, made me promise they wouldn’t. When she was finally calmed down and the medicine was administered, I watched her stop mid-sentence, her eyes rolling back. Then I was quickly ushered out of the room to wait. “It won’t be long,” the doctor said–“15 minutes.” Nearly an hour went by–not a process guy, this doctor didn’t get me the buzzer so they couldn’t find me, even though I remained in the waiting room the whole time–and finally I was called in to the recovery room. “It’s ITP, no sign of anything else” the doctor said as he breezed by us. When E awakened, she was mad at me for not keeping my promise and allowing them to put her out.
These are just some of the early scenes we’ve shared these past two years. And while I don’t know what’s coming next, I’ve gone from “not jinxing it” to upholding a decidedly hopeful outlook. She is doing great. And no matter how difficult it’s been, we’ve been together on her road back to good health, determined to find our way back to the lives we once had.
Today, I am grateful. My heart swells with joy as I watch her on the ice skating rink Monday nights–something she never could have done two years ago. Though we can’t say this is fully behind us, where we are is a wonderful place to be. It’s great to appreciate what you have, a lesson I only fully learned from this experience.
“Even more important than the warmth and affection we receive, is the warmth and affection we give. It is by giving warmth and affection, by having a genuine sense of concern for others, in other words through compassion, that we gain the conditions for genuine happiness. More important than being loved, therefore, is to love.”–Dalai Lama