I bought my dad a Christmas card.
It was an impulse that struck in the card aisle at King’s grocery store, where I’d gone to buy candy and Diet Snapple when I was in New Jersey a few weeks before Christmas. My hand reached for it before my head could tell it not to, the card with sleeping golden retriever puppies on it, Santa hats on their tiny golden heads. I thought, this is what I would have bought for Dad. I could not convince myself to put the card back in the display.
At the register were the dark chocolate sea salt caramels he once told me he loved. When explaining to me how good they were, he had rolled his eyes skyward with great exaggeration. The next time we saw each other, we both brought a bag to give the other, and laughed at the synchronicity. I can’t remember if it was last Christmas, or my last birthday, or if it was another earlier time altogether, because I also don’t remember much laughter in the last year. I laid the caramels on the checkout conveyor belt, atop the sleeping Santa puppies card that I would never inscribe, never send.
Christmas was the most anticipated and revered holiday in our family throughout my childhood. Kelly and I would wake early, opening the dozens of presents piled under the tastefully decorated tree, exclaiming in joy as our dad videotaped us. My mom cooked waffles and provided commentary for the videos, cueing our cries of just what I always wanted while our grandparents sipped coffee and our cat squished his body into the now empty boxes that had held our gifts.
My dad inherited Christmas Eve in the divorce fifteen years ago. The fanfare and ritual of our previous Christmases muted, relegated to holidays past, leaving in their place something quieter, something simpler. We went out to dinner, then returned to his house to open gifts, my dad sipping Scotch as one dog settled on the couch between us, the other at his feet.
I missed one year, when I exiled myself to London for Christmas in 2013 while Kelly stayed in California, but when my dad picked me up at Newark Airport on December 26th, his unconditional happiness at seeing me made it almost not matter. I didn’t realize then that the final Christmas Eve with my sister was already behind us. Last year, my dad and stepmother and I skipped the restaurant and ordered in Chinese food. There was no celebration except the one that echoed softly, but we are still here.
I sit on a tan couch this morning with my legs stretched in front of me, the ombré blues of the Gulf of Mexico in the periphery of my vision. I hear the waves crashing six stories below, louder than I would have imagined for what looks from this vantage point to be calm, just a faint rippling in the water. I need a blanket in the air conditioning that blows through the living room, despite the 82 degrees that it already is outside. I begged for the change of venue this year, but am now longing for cold weather, familiarity, home. There are record high temperatures in New Jersey, though, and the home I am really longing for is one that no longer exists.
I stare at the golden retriever card that proclaims comfort and joy, and place a caramel on my tongue, letting the chocolate coating slowly dissolve to reveal the saltiness beneath, loving them simply because my dad did. My mom and stepfather are on a walk. It is still up here, high above the waves, shaded from the glaring sun. I close my eyes, bite down on the caramel that has softened in my mouth, and allow myself to believe, just for a few exquisite moments, that when I wake tomorrow, it will be to the family I once had, eating waffles and holding our presents up for the camera, unaware that our time together on Christmas mornings could ever be finite.