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By Keith Wise
Every year, my family spends Christmas Eve Day the same way. 2006 is no exception.
“I don’t want to wear that.” Adam tosses the red button-up onto the living room floor. My younger brothers and I are supposed to wear red shirts and khaki pants for the family photo. “I’m wearing this.” He defiantly pulls on a Spider-Man shirt—age eight and too old for this.
“Church doesn’t start until four. It’s only two,” says Matt, still struggling to tie his shoelaces at age six.
I finish the knot for him and announce, “Grandma says good Catholics are always early.”
“Santa?” Luke points to an ornament on the tree. Nearly 21 months old, he can manage two syllables now.
“Yeah.” I hand him the glass bulb. “Santa comes tonight. He’ll bring you toys.”
“Toys!” Luke drops the ornament, sending shards across the hardwood, before he totters to the play box in the den.
“I’m telling mom,” says Adam, nibbling on a chocolate chip cookie in the kitchen. The oatmeal raisin, peanut butter, and snicker doodle cool on the counter after a morning of baking.
“Fine, but those cookies are for Santa. And if you eat his cookies, then you don’t get any presents this year.”
He drops the cookie in horror, spitting mush into the trashcan.
During mass, Matt and Luke exchange Scooby-Doo fruit snacks. Adam, wearing the red button-up, sleeps on dad’s lap. And I kneel next to mom in prayer, mostly thinking of the traditions to follow.
At Grandma and Pop Reynolds’s house, my four aunts and uncles, three cousins (today six), and we Wise guys eat dinner: honey glazed ham, macaroni and cheese topped with roasted tomatoes, cranberries, green bean casserole, mashed potatoes, and crescent rolls. Donning our Christmas jammies, we scurry to Grandma’s bedroom with our mothers.
Grandma Sonia says to me, “You’re the oldest, why don’t you read tonight?” She hands me The Night Before Christmas. Though my little brothers and cousins wrestle in anticipation of Saint Nick, Grandma listens.
Soon we hear the jingle of bells and lean our ears to the wooden door. “I hear him! I hear Santa!”
Pop Mickey and the dads yell for us to come downstairs. We parade into the den, pouncing on our personal pile of presents. Some are from Grandma and Pop, some from aunts and uncles, and some from Santa himself.
Many ten year-olds doubt the existence of Santa Claus, but not me. And here’s why:
Though some of my fifth grade classmates long proclaimed Santa a myth, I know they merely lack faith. How sad their lives must be not to believe. Why would all those cartoons and movies and songs lie? Why would Father Jason lie? Why would all the adults in my life lie? They wouldn’t because that would be unbelievable.
Christmas morning is more of the same: presents from my parents and Santa.
“Read the letter,” says mom pointing to the slip of paper hidden in the tree. “What does Santa have to say this year?” She grins at dad.
Saint Nick is a thoughtful guy. He takes the time to praise our behavior and offer some sound advice: Keith, enjoy your last year of elementary school. Thanks for all you do to help mom and dad. The cookies were delicious! Just remember to be mindful of your brothers’ temperaments—quit agitating.
Fair enough, Santa.
That afternoon we venture to Grandma and Pop Wise’s house with my other four aunts and uncles and three cousins.
Grandma Christine dances to a different tune. “Our stomachs can wait, but presents cannot!” She winks and hands me a golden box.
I tear the paper and find a mobile. Basked in a blue glow, fish swim against the coral and kelp of the sandy, ocean floor.
“I thought of you the instant I saw it. Never underestimate Macy’s clearance.” Grandma sneaks me a sugar cookie, before returning to the kitchen in her red satin robe. From the den, I hear her tone-deaf version of “Jingle Bell Rock.”
The next month when I have the flu, Grandma Christine stays with me.
“Can’t we play in the snow? Just for ten minutes.” I propose beneath flannel sheets.
“I’ll tell you what.” She kisses my forehead leaving behind an imprint of plum lipstick. “When you get better, I promise to take you skating on the river.”
Two days later, Grandma Christine catches the flu. She goes to the hospital when the virus causes her to experience a mild heart attack. The doctors tell us of a link between the flu and coronary artery disease. They say she will recover.
Mom takes me to basketball practice the next week. During the water break, Grandma Sonia appears. She and my mother hug—only the exchange lasts longer than normal. Then I catch sight of Aunt Shannon.
Somehow I know they are not here to watch me play.
Grandma Sonia comes to me and says that mom feels sick and we have to leave early.
“But I want to stay.” This is my first practice after recovering from the flu.
Grandma Sonia extends her hand. “We have to go sweetheart.”
Confused, I tell my team goodbye, take her hand, and do as I am told.
The car ride home is silent. Aunt Shannon drives while mom sits in the passenger seat. Adam and Matt are absorbed in their video game. Luke sleeps in the seat next to me. Flurries begin to fill the sky. I watch the whiteness fade into the black night.
At home, the adults immediately sit my brothers and me on the couch in the den.
Something is very wrong. My stomach feels empty. “You’re not sick, are you mom?”
She shakes her head and pats the cushion next her, indicating for me to come closer.
I try to meet her eyes, but she looks away. Then she says, “Grandma Christine had another heart attack. It was all so sudden.”
Warm blood rushes to my face. I forget how to breathe. No, please, I pray.
After wiping tears from her eyes, mom whispers, “She died.”
For an hour, I cry on Grandma Sonia’s shoulder, refusing to let her go. I fear that she too may leave tonight and never return.
That night I keep the mobile spinning, watching the fish swim until I fall asleep.
We are moving soon. Pop John, Grandma Christine’s husband of 44 years, says he can no longer live alone in the house on the river. My parents purchase an acre of land and are building a new home with an in-laws quarter. They say we need more space anyways. I cannot bear the thought of leaving Sand Dollar Way—the only place I have ever called home.
At the end of August, I will start sixth grade. As a celebration, mom and dad take me to a sit-down dinner. I am shocked when they agree to my order: medium rare steak and lobster tails. I don’t know why I ordered the steak; that morning I lost a tooth.
Dad reaches across the table and hands me a dollar bill. “This way, I don’t have to do this later tonight.”
“For the tooth fairy,” says mom, keeping her eyes glued to the menu.
I examine the money in my hand. “No, I don’t want it. Take it back. Please.”
“Keith,” says dad resting his hand on mine, “the tooth fairy isn’t real.”
Exhaling, I think of that one night when the tooth fairy forgot to come. The following morning, my parents acknowledged that maybe she was too busy that night. Some minutes later when I returned to my bedroom, there was a dollar under my pillow. I never questioned it.
Thinking back, while I talked with mom in her bedroom that morning, dad excused himself at some point to use the bathroom.
“So the tooth fairy isn’t real.” I could hardly manage a nod.
“Or the Easter bunny,” says dad.
Okay, that one never really made sense to me. Try imagining a giant rabbit coming into your home in the middle of the night.
“All right.” I gently pull out my hand from under dad’s. I am no longer hungry.
My parents exchange worried glances.
Finally mom speaks up, “Or Santa.”
Staring into my parents’ eyes, I see the truth long hidden there. All those years, and I never once suspected it. I thought I had it all figured out. I believed.
For the next half hour or so, tears flood my cloth napkin. The last time I cried was for Grandma Christine. Here I am, age eleven, in an Outback Steakhouse, heartbroken by my favorite people, crying over Santa Claus—a mythical man who was never alive.
Finally I compose myself, resting my head on mom’s shoulder. I ask, “Is God real?”
Four months pass, and it is Christmastime again. The house is nearly packed for the move. We will leave the first week of January. I insist we put up the tree anyways. It feels right.
Despite all the changes, Christmas Eve 2007 follows tradition: mass, dinner, holiday stories, and presents. Grandma Sonia wears Grandma Christine’s red satin robe. I claimed it when we cleaned out her closet this past summer. I wanted someone special to have it.
It is after mass and we are at Grandma and Pop Reynolds’s house. Come dinnertime, I sit at the rickety folding table for the kids, just as I always have.
“Not anymore,” says Grandma Sonia. She pulls out the wooden chair next to her at the large dining table.
My parents smile at me. I take my place with the adults. Grandma Sonia holds my hand as she begins the family prayer.