“Do you think there will be a present waiting?” asked Cooper.
Their mom shrugged, “Yesterday might have been it. I would like to know who did it so I can say thank you. I guess we’ll just have to go see.”
They were quiet on the ride home. Good quiet. Cooper fidgeted in his seat with Christmas excitement and the lingering effects of caffeine. When the little Ford pulled into the parking lot, before their mom had turned the car off, Cooper was out and bolting up the stairs. Mara and her mom hurried after to him just as eager to see if there was anything. Cooper was standing at the door holding a piece of paper looking puzzled.
“What does it say?” Mara asked. Cooper handed it to her. Their mom and she crowded around the paper. It said:
Come to Bethlehem and see
Christ whose birth the angels sing;
Come, adore on bended knee,
Christ the Lord, the newborn King.
Christ whose birth the angels sing;
Come, adore on bended knee,
Christ the Lord, the newborn King.
Thank you for coming tonight to celebrate the birth of Christ. Please come tomorrow to the community room at 12:00PM. All will be revealed! Come hungry because there will be food.
Your Secret Friend (or is there more than one?)
Cooper exploded, “I want to know now. I don’t want to wait anymore.”
Their mom worked the key into the door and said, “Me, too. But it looks like we’re going to have to wait.”
“Awww,” Cooper replied. Then he perked up, “Can I have hot chocolate?”
“No,” their mom and Mara said together. “After your stomach upset let’s stick with water for now,” their mom continued.
“Cereal?” bargained Cooper.
“Okay, cereal.” They all bumped around the kitchen together getting the necessities for cereal. Each had their preferred bowl and spoon. Choosing the right cereal. Crispy rice? Frosted wheat squares? Bran with raisins? Fruity O’s. They settled at the table and debriefed about the church service. They laughed about the wise man with the squeaky voice. Marveled at Esther being an angel. It was so suitable to her. All the people that they had met that were there.
“I think everyone in Texas goes to church,” commented Mara.
“Not everyone,” said their mom as she drank the last of the her sugary milk from her bowl. It gave her a slight milk mustache and made her look younger than she had in a while. Then she told them stories of some of the rough people who came into the diner late at night: bikers, cops, students studying late, soldiers from the airbase trying to sober up for work later in the morning.
Cooper cradled his head on his arm as he listened. Mara could tell he was fighting to stay awake. As their mom talked his eyes would close, pop open, close again, open again, until finally they closed and he was asleep.
Their mom looked over at him and smiled. The smile said I love you, crazy boy. Their mom rubbed his hair and kissed his ear. “Time for bed, Cooper,” she whispered.
He sat straight up and said, “I get to choose the next song.” Then he looked around dazed. “Oh, were not in the car.”
Their mom and Mara laughed. “Go brush your teeth,” said their mom as she cleared away the bowls and boxes. “You too, Mara. You both need to get to sleep so Santa can come and before I have to leave for work.” Her mom was working the midnight to 8:00AM shift.
“We’re a little old for Santa, Mom,” Mara retorted.
“You’re never too old for Santa!” their mom replied.
Some how that rankled Mara. I’m not a baby who believes in fairy tales or who needs coerced to do things with an imaginary all seeing gift-giver, she thought as she brushed her teeth and washed her face. Looking up from the sink, her dripping face reminded her of a picture of herself when she was about Cooper’s age. She is sitting on the floor by the Christmas tree absorbed in a gift she had just opened. Her face is surprised and vulnerable. Her mouth is half open and her eyes startled. She looked that way to herself in the mirror. The peace from being at church with people who listened was gone and the sour taste of anger was at the back of her throat again. She needed to go to bed before she discharged it. Before she ruined it for Cooper and her mom.
The pillow felt cool and soothing. She curled into a fetal ball with her eyes squeezed shut. She made herself breathe slowly in for 4 beats and then slowly out for 8 beats and she imagined her body laying on a warm beach. She strained to hear the waves and feel the warm heavy sand under her. And then she was awake. Her phone was ringing. It was the tone for her dad. She reached down into her purse beside the bed. She found it by touch--feeling for the buzzing angry insect.
“Hello?” She squinted at the phone: 2:03AM. “Dad? Are you okay?” She could hear a thumping bass, raucous laughter, and tinkling sounds. Like ice in a glass.
“Mara. This is your dad. How’s my baby girl?” Only he said it more like “Howsh my beby gurl? Yeah. Drunk dialed by her dad. On Christmas.
“Hey, Dad,” she replied “Where are you?”
“I’m just spending some time with my buddies, my good buddies and then some one said ‘It’s Christmas.’ and I knew I wanted to be the first to wish you merry Christmas. So, merry Christmas, baby girl. Your daddy loves you. Daddy loves you so much. And he’s so sorry. I’m so really sorry.”
“It’s okay, dad,” Mara’s eyes burned. She rubbed them with the back of her hand. Rubbed them hard. So hard they teared up and rolled down her face. “It’s okay, daddy.”
“I miss you and Cooper so much. I love you both. You’re everything to me. I’d take a bullet for you.”
“I know, dad.”
“I wish I could be there in . . . where are you? Where are you now?”
“We’re in Texas, dad.”
“Texas! Texas is great,” he shouted, “I’m in Kentucky, well, right now I’m in Nashville.”
“Nashville!” someone roared in the background.
“It’s a little loud here. I’m at a . . . party. But I miss you. And your brother. And your mom. Is your mom there? Can I talk to her?” He tone had gone from happy to despondent in a short paragraph. Her dad wasn’t one of those happy drunks for long. There was a brief spike when he was hilarious to be around and then he crashed into despair and despondency. He was almost there now.
“She’s at work. She works nights at a diner.”
“What? Can’t hear you.”
“She’s at work,” Mara said slowly, loudly and distinctly.
“But it’s Christmas,” her dad said. He was confused.
“People still need to eat on Christmas. Truckers, soldiers.”
“I miss her. She was a good woman. I let her down. I let you all down. I’m sorry. I’m really sorry. So sorry.”
His voice trailed off.
“It’s okay, Dad,” Mara tried to bolster him, “We’re okay. We miss you too.”
There conversation continued for almost 15 minutes. He was sorry for not sending Christmas gifts. He was going to send some money and gifts soon. He was sorry. He loved them so much. Tell Cooper he loved him. Tell him he was sorry. Finally, Mara had to say good-bye. They couldn’t hear each other. The party on his end was ramping up.
Mara lay back on the cheap, lumpy mattress. She stared up into the blackness. Well, Merry Christmas to me. Her eyes narrowed against the tears that crowded into them. They slipped out of her eyes and into her ears. How very country of me. Her stomach lurched. She ran to the bathroom and threw up all the Christmas cookies and fruit loops. Several times. She stood up shakily and rinsed her mouth. Her body had a weird sweaty feeling even though she was freezing. She got back in bed. It was still warm. Once again she curled in to a tense, closed circle. She wrapped her slender arms around her knees and hugged hard. In her head she tried to get back to the beach. It wasn’t possible. The sun was gone.
Finally she turned on the light and started reading Frankenstein. It was on her winter break reading list. The language was difficult and the story moved slowly. She had to concentrate to understand what was going on. When her teacher introduced the book she said to ask who was the real monster? After forty-five minutes of reading Mara couldn’t keep her eyes open. With her last bit of conscience she turned out the light.
Cooper’s was pounding on the door and saying, “Time for presents. Time for presents.” The clock said 5:45AM.
“Cooper,” Mara yelled, “The rule is 7:00. Not before 7:00.”
“That was dad’s rule,” he replied opening the door, “and dad’s not here, so we can do what we want.”
There was something wrong in that thinking, but Mara couldn’t figure it out. “Wait, mom’s not home yet. We have to wait for mom.”
“Awww, Mara,” he wailed, “I can’t wait anymore. I’ve waited so long.”
“Go get my present to you,” she said, “bring it here.”
In less than a minute Cooper was in the bed putting his cold toes on her legs.
“You’re a popsicle,” Mara exclaimed, “How long have you been up?”
Cooper shrugged, “4 something. Can I open this now?” shaking the little box.
“Yes, but just that. The rest will have to wait till mom gets home. Promise?”
“Yes, I promise.” His knuckles were white from his tight grip on the present.
He’s going to explode and have a giant melt down, thought Mara, if he doesn’t chill out.
“Okay, open it, but stay here with me in bed till seven. Then we’ll eat some breakfast and hang out till mom comes.”
“Deal.” He ripped open the wrapping. Little pieces fluttered around Mara. “What is it?”
“It’s an electronic game. For when you can’t go to a friend’s house to play. You can play this one.”
Mara could tell he was disappointed.
“Try it. You might like it.”
He wrestled the package open and the game was soon beeping away. Mara drifted back into sleep.
“Mara?” Her eyes shot open. Cooper was inches from her face.
“What, Cooper?” Mara’s eyes felt like sandpaper. “It’s almost 7. Did you want to make me breakfast?”
Mara looked at the clock. 6:45. “Cooper, I’m going to lay here for at least 15 more minutes. Then, I might think about breakfast, maybe.”
“I do like the game, Mara. It old school. You have to take this frog across the highway with out it getting smashed. Do you want a turn?”
“No. I want to sleep some more. Let me sleep for bit more so I won’t be so grumpy.”
“Yeah, that’s probably a good idea. You’re pretty grumpy now. You should sleep some more. I’ll just play the game though I already got all the way through it once. I’ll start again. It will be fine. You do look awful. There are black smudges under your eyes. And your breath is extra stinky, Did you brush your teeth?” Mara turned toward him her tired eyes narrowing together with anger. Cooper tried to soothe her, “I could sing you a little song to help you sleep.” He started singing an Elton John song “I can’t light no more of your darkness,” in his shrill 10 year old voice.
Mara pulled the pillow over her head and tried not to be mad at his Christmas excitement and his efforts to help her sleep, but anger was the stronger voice.
“Cooper! Stop!” shrieked, “Go back to your bed until 7. Then come get me. I. am. trying. to. sleep.”
Cooper practically fell out of bed in his haste to get away from her fierce onslaught. He put his hand on the door knob and said, “Dad, used to get up with me. We would wait together.”
“Dad’s not here, Cooper! Face it!” She threw her mother’s pillow at the closing door. Could she be a worse person? Yes, she could have told him he was being a manipulative little ass-hole. Merry Christmas. Her stomach knotted and her insides started twisting like awakening snakes. Her mind pictured at least three of them intertwined and encased in ice. The water dripped off as they defrosted by the heat of her anger. The grey snakes started to squirm and wriggle. She put her hand on her stomach. It gurgled uneasily.
Mara got up and brushed her teeth careful not to gag herself. Cooper had wrapped himself in a quilt in the living room. He was staring at the little tree with it’s pile of pathetic presents. What a sucky Christmas already and it wasn’t even 7AM.
“Do you want me to make pancakes?” she asked.
“With chocolate chips?”
“Do we have any?”
Cooper thought. “No. Mom said they cost too much.”
“Pancakes are good even without them.”
Mara made pancakes in the shape of teddy bears. The time dragged by as they waited for their mom to come home. They sat on the couch and watched a Christmas parade. They shared a quilt eventually snuggling together and falling asleep. That’s how Their mom found them when she came home from her waitressing shift.
Mara lay in bed Christmas night. So tired. What a long, weird day. This was the worst Christmas and the best Christmas ever and at the same time. She missed her dad. He was so far away—geographically, emotionally. She wanted her dad to be a good part of her Christmas, not the drunk dial that it was. But he tried right? Maybe one day he’d get it.
They went to the community room at 12 and saw all the people who had made their Christmas sweet: Mrs. Anders and her son, the Brantleys, and Boaz and his dad.
Esther’s face shone with joy as she yelled, “Surprise!”
Micah jumped up down asking, “Did we fool you? Did you know it was us? Did you?”
Boaz held his hands up in surrender, “They didn’t me tell till yesterday. I really didn’t know. I’m not a liar. Truly.” His sister Ruthie was there with her dad. They sat in a corner quietly holding hands.
Before they ate they all joined hands and Mr. Anders prayed. He thanked God for the food and for all those gathered together there. He prayed for loved ones who weren’t there. He prayed God would bless them. Mara thought of her dad hungover somewhere in Nashville. God be with him, Mara prayed. Then she added God, be with us all.
The story of choosing them was told as they ate turkey with the works. It was Mrs. Anders. She recruited Christina to help her. Mr. Brantley was the one who would put the gifts on the door because he was so fast. Mrs. Anders wrote the notes and bought the gifts. Christina made the cookies. It was obvious that it gave them all so much joy. Their mom kept saying thank you and wiping away tears. All Cooper could say was, “Best Christmas ever!”
She was starting to sink into the blackness of sleep. Was it the best Christmas ever? Yes. Because it should have been her worst Christmas, but the people gathered in that room made it into something different. When Mara asked them why Mrs. Anders said, “I’ll tell you, Mara. I don’t know that you’ll believe me, but here it is. Jesus came to give us new life. He came to save us and free us from sin because he loved us. What we did for you and your family was because of his love for us. We wanted to love someone who needed it. We prayed and God showed us your family.”
“You did this because of God’s love for you?” Mara was skeptical.
“And because of God’s love for you,” Mrs. Anders replied softly. “At first we did it because we wanted to help someone, but as we got to know you and Cooper we did it because we liked you. You became our friends. We did it because of who you are.”
Mara shook her head, “I’m not a nice person.” She thought of how mean she had been to Cooper because she was mad at her dad and how mad she still was at her parents for divorcing. “I don’t really deserve all you’ve done.”
Mrs. Anders face crinkled into a smile. “Yes, you don’t deserve it. It’s a gift not a reward.
Mara shook her head, “You’re right I don’t think I understand, but I am glad that you did.” She looked at the people in the room and how happy they were and thought how happy they had made her mom, Cooper, and her. She smiled a crooked smile at Mrs. Anders. “Thank you.”
As she lay in bed sleep starting to close in Mara couldn’t help thinking about God choosing her family. It made her feel . . . comforted. It made her feel not forgotten. It made her feel God had not forgotten her and her wandering family. So, yes. Best Christmas ever.