My dear Sweatpants & Coffee tribe,
The house smells of baking and coffee. It’s deliciously quiet, now that I’ve shoved a bag of still-warm cookies into my daughter’s arms, handed her half a breakfast quesadilla (hot, fast, portable) and a lidded cup of milk to scarf down in the car, and bundled her out the door so my husband can shuttle her to a holiday gift exchange with other members of her gaggle. I’m left alone with my thoughts, and that can be dangerous this time of year.
Down the hall, my son slumbers and likely will until noon. He is 21 years old today. Just a blink ago, he was newly birthed and exhausted, gazing at me sloe-eyed beneath impossibly long lashes, a small alien, trying to make sense of this new reality. Bob joked that if he’d been born just a day later, we would have named him Jesus. Pronounced the Spanish way: hay-SOOS. Jesus Hoffman. I got a hospital cafeteria steak and lobster dinner, because it was Christmas Eve, and instead of the usual cotton beanie all newborns are given, Matthew had a tiny, red Santa hat knitted by a volunteer.
This has always been a time of joy.
When you grow up in Hawaii, Santa doesn’t come down the chimney. Most people don’t have one. My sister and I were told that he came in through the sliding door that opened onto the back patio. It made sense; lots of room to park the reindeer, we thought. We did have a cardboard fireplace that we put up in the dining room, so we’d have a place to hang our stockings. It had a tin flame cut-out that turned on a heated bulb and made flickering patterns on the wall. We had a Nativity set with white Jesus and, one year, a flocked Christmas tree in the front window so people outside in the tropical heat would see a festive, snowy scene.
These are some of my happiest memories: massive, raucous family parties with both blood relatives and “calabash” cousins. Long, folding tables covered with vinyl table cloths (these were the good ones with the lacy pattern – fancy, but easy to wipe down) held so much food that they’d actually sag in the middle. Aluminum platters of fried noodles, maki sushi, kalua pig, chicken long rice, lau lau, Spam musubi, manapua, and of course, rainbow Jell-O. Some auntie would bring a turkey and mashed potatoes, for the traditionalists, and my mother was always grateful because she hated roasting a big bird – too much anxiety. I remember my parents hauling out their huge song book when it was time for the music, my mother on the ukulele, dad on vocals.
Her ukulele, a Martin original that has turned out to be worth thousands, now belongs to the sleeping 21-year-old. I don’t know what happened to the song book – possibly it resides with my sister.
I remember the laughter. I remember the cousins racing around in the dark, in the hot night, calling to each other. I remember the lilting voices of the grownups as they sang and talked story. I remember the year, after one of my father’s interminable prayers where everyone closed their eyes and held hands while he blessed the food for a full five minutes, Bob asking my father for permission to marry me. I remember my parents alight with happiness as they held my son. And then later, I remember my mother with us in California, holding onto my baby daughter like a life raft. She saved us that year; both my father and Bob’s died while I was pregnant with her, and the new life was a path forward.
I’m trying to hold the good memories in my hands, but they feel like water. I am dipping in and out of the grief of my first parentless Christmas, overcome by sorrow and remorse for all the times I should have been better but wasn’t. For the phone calls I was slow to return. For the impatience I could barely hide at times. For the preoccupation with my own hectic life. For what I wish I hadn’t said and for the things I didn’t say enough. I am intermittently flattened by grief, even as I celebrate. Because of course we celebrate. Even when it’s hard to breathe and my throat is thick.
Yesterday, it hit me like a contraction – a sudden paroxysm of sadness and regret that left me clenching my fists and puffing out slow breaths like a woman in labor. My children flanked me like golden retrievers, pressing their bodies against my sides. I whisper-screamed my forever-guilt about not doing enough. Not being enough. About the teeth-gritting years where I was the bitchy filling in the caregiver sandwich when my mother came to live with us, and the kids were both in school and Bob was often away for work. “That was such a big chunk of your childhood,” I say to my son. “It was so much for you guys.” He lays his bearded head on my shoulder, just as he did when he was little. “You were amazing,” he says. I do not feel amazing. But he means it. And so, I take the compliment and try to stifle the inner voices that rise in protest.
The thing about staying in the complexity of the present moment is that you have to let many things be true. I’m sad. I’m lost. I’m joyful. I’m grateful. I’m tired. I’m persevering. It’s enough.