I got Christmas with my family this year, for the first time in two years. Well, not the whole family, as my sister is too busy being married and entertaining her in-laws to return to the Midwest for the holidays this year, but that’s just what happens when people get married—they split holidays and feign interest in people they barely know, just as we do with our own extended families.
There are two absolutes in my family for Christmas: There will be some presents and delights, but those are balanced by awkward moments with relatives that only come around once every few years.
Still, this Christmas was important.
The weekend started with my mother in the hospital, which has been the norm for 2012. While most children would panic over their parents being in the hospital, it’s one of the few times that I actually feel relaxed: At least I know that she has around-the-clock care and access to the medicine and machines that allow her to breathe. It’s terrible, but I find that I get extra hours of sleep when she’s admitted. At least I know I won’t get any phone calls in the middle of the night that way. Well, at least I hope I won’t.
I visited upon arrival and she was in bed #33, the number of many memorable athletes like Jason Varitek, Zdeno Chara, even Nick Swisher, which put me at ease. We gossiped about my love life, nail polish, sports, and life in Chicago while sipping root beer and watching college hoops, our mutual love, in the visitor’s lounge. She sounded good, at least in spirits, as we chatted like we would over a nice dinner. I tried to ignore the fact that she was in a hospital gown and hooked up to machines. I pictured us drinking margaritas instead and it helped a lot.
After five days in the hospital, they let her leave yesterday, which is just as normal as her being admitted in the first place. Once the doctors get her medications stable she’s free to roam the world with those that don’t require 40-pills a day and a constant stream of oxygen from a machine, until she crashes again. Her lungs only work with the perfect combination of steroid medications, oxygen, and rest. As long as that Trinity is in check, she’s fine. In the absence of one, she’s a mess. An absolute mess.
When she got home, she wanted to open presents immediately. I got her a robe since she spends much of her time in pajamas these days, and I was surprised to see a small box with my name on it. Our usual Christmas tradition is just a pile of cash and a shopping spree the day after Christmas, but this year that approach wasn’t feasible—she can’t gallivant around the mall without a wheel chair or Hover-round and I’ll be in New York on vacation before the stores re-open.
I opened the box to find extravagant diamond earrings, the type of extravagance that comes with insurance papers, certification cards, disclaimers, an uncomfortably high volume of stickers, and a price tag higher than my big-city rent. I was elated and uncomfortable. It was the nicest jewelry I had received since the engagement ring I sold on Craigslist after the messiest breakup of my life, but I knew the earrings came with a hidden meaning.
These were the “I might be dying” earrings. I hate to call them that, but I know my mother and her sentimentality well enough to know that this wasn’t just earrings, but the gift that you give your daughters when you’re terrified—when you’re not sure you’ll see them next Christmas. And as much as I tried to smile and appreciate them, my mind immediately wandered to her at the jewelry counter, where she pondered what she’d like her daughters to have in her absence and she settled on timeless diamond earrings that sparkle even in dull light.
I removed the tags and shoved the studs in my ears. I piled my hair up into a loose bun on top of my head so that my lobes and neck were exposed for modeling. When she nodded in approval, I hugged her and rushed to the bathroom, slipping across the hardwood floors of the kitchen as I dashed to admire them myself.
They were not only gorgeous, but also important. They made me feel taller, prettier. They distracted from the scars on my neck that have never healed from surgeries of my own. I kept turning my head to watch them sparkle in the light. My mother intercepted me just outside of the bathroom door to tell me that she wanted to make sure we had something nice because she was so uncertain about her future. I’m not sure when she bought them, but I imagine it was probably somewhere between the most recent hospital visits and talks of being added to the lung transplant list.
We drove four hours to Ohio today. I wore the earrings with a blue polka-dot dress that reminded me of one I refused to wear when I was a child, but loved now as an adult. Lola slept on a blanket of my lap and we watched episodes of Parks and Recreation on the iPad while my folks hummed along with Christmas carols. My dad made a point to tell me that “Same Old Lang Syne” is his favorite Christmas song, just as he does every year when he hears it. I tried to sleep, but every time I did someone had something to say. It was like a sleepover where you think everyone is finally asleep, but finally someone pipes up and sparks the conversation again. It wasn’t a nuisance at all.
After we arrived, I had a list of errands to run before our holiday party started. Two errands in, I swept the bangs out of my eyes and realized one of the earrings was missing. My eyes welled with tears and I started yelling that we had to pull over so I could find it. I plunged my finger between the seat cushions, nearly lost a digit as I traced the seat’s track looking for gold. I moved the floor mats, shook out Lola’s blanket, and all that I could find was the silver earring back that was supposed to lock into place, but had clearly failed.
We checked the grass when we got back to my grandparent’s house, but the ice on the grass and salt on the driveway were just red herrings—the sun sparkled those fucking giant lumps of salt just like diamonds, but every one of them was worthless.
I searched the bathroom. I crawled on my hands and knees on the carpet, as Lola followed me around wagging her tail, thinking I was on the floor to play a game with her. My mother remained calmed, insisted she’d buy me a new set, and I choked back tears as everyone assured me that it was okay, and I assured them that everything was NOT okay. When my grandmother insisted that it must be in the car since we found the back under the seat, I snapped angrily, “IT IS NOT OUT THERE.”
I went into the bathroom and cried quietly. There were too many people in the adjacent room for my typical sobbing and I’d already created enough of a scene by snapping at my grandmother (I later apologized). I checked my sweater and my dress. I shook everything out, but came up empty. I kept thinking that I had been careless with something so sentimental and that fortunately my mother was in the other room for now, but there might come a time when she would not be there and I would have lost something she specifically gave me with explicit instructions: “Remember me, and oh, by the way, don’t lose these.”
It was on the floor register in the bathroom. The prevailing theory is that the earring fell out, down the front of the blue polka-dot dress that I adore and rested along my waist, cinched tight by a royal blue belt, but who cares how it got there, because there it was there, resting on a little metal slat just inches from falling into the hot air return, to assuredly be lost forever. I grabbed the earring, threw open the door, and proclaimed sarcastically that it was a Christmas miracle. Of course to everyone, myself included, it felt like a real miracle, but it’s certainly hard for me to show emotion, especially in these types of situations.
I touched up my makeup and joined my family for our holiday with extended family. It was impromptu and didn’t last long. Everyone has families, children, in-laws, and better things to do, but for a few hours I pretended to be interested in stories from cousins proclaiming that their five-year-old is the smartest on the planet, aunts who all need surgery for their sciatica, and my grandfather, who loves to talk about his time in the Navy.
When it was time to leave, we returned to our hotel. My mother has been asleep for hours already, exhausted by the company and the traveling. I’ve been anxiously sitting in an empty hotel lobby, sipping bourbon from a soda can, feeling the heat from the fireplace, and flipping through the channels on the communal television.
Soon, I’ll tuck myself in, readying for Christmas morning. I’ll wake up, put on a fancy dress even though we are agenda-less, and put in the diamond earrings that my mother gave me. I’ll spend the day embracing my lobes to make sure they are secure and giving some extra attention to my mother. We don’t know how many more Christmases we will have, but we’ll undoubtedly savor the ones we have.