“I still don’t understand how people can not believe in Santa”, Elihu said from the backseat as I drove him to friend Keithie’s house for a birthday party. I considered for a second asking him to explain his thinking, but decided instead to let him do the talking. We were on thin ice here, and I wanted to see where this was going. How he, in his ten-year old world was working this all out. “I mean, how can you not believe when there’s so much physical evidence of Santa?” he continued. Again, I said nothing. I so did not want to blow this by leading the witness. So, uncharacteristically of me, I remained silent in the front seat and contributed nothing to the discussion. “How do people explain all the presents if they don’t believe in Santa? How can they? How is it possible that there are so many presents around the tree if it’s not Santa?” he said with a hint of impatience. Ah, I thought to myself – presents, of course. I got what he meant. And from that perspective, I can understand his thinking. Kinda hard not to believe in the face of all that physical evidence. I knew he’d be spending the next few hours with some rough-neck country kids who hadn’t believed in Santa since Kindergarten. I prayed to myself that the topic wouldn’t come up, cuz these boys probably wouldn’t hesitate to tell them what they thought. We were traveling outside the nurturing, childhood-preserving culture of the Waldorf School, so anything was fair game. But Elihu was resolute and fully committed to Santa, even now. Even moments after singing “Grandma Got Run Over By A Reindeer” and discovering for the first time the lyric “you may say there’s no such thing as Santa, but as for me and Grandpa we believe”. (I had felt a pause in the car. A moment of thought, of mulling things over after hearing that line, but then somehow sensed he’d made it work and it didn’t end up challenging his beliefs). So if those boys had other ideas, I had a feeling Elihu still wasn’t ready to buy em.
The last few years we’ve had a handful of unexpected things happen to us around Christmastime which have certainly helped to keep the magic alive. When Elihu was six, we returned from seeing Santa to find that one long-awaited paper white bud had finally opened, a miracle he attributed to the Christmas Spirit we’d generated by being with Santa. One year we pulled in the driveway to find a beautiful, wrought iron birdfeeder holder – complete with birdfeeders and bags of seed. I myself was so stunned that I didn’t have to worry about faking a thing. Equally as surprised as Elihu, I searched my mind for the likely suspects while Elihu just accepted it with the most matter-of-fact attitude. He knew it was Santa, who was being kind to pay an early visit here in Greenfield, as he knew that Elihu would be in Illinois for Christmas. While it was thrilling, it wasn’t beyond belief for him at all (as it was for me!). And last year we had a fresh Christmas tree miraculously show up on our doorstep. Again, he took it in stride. My mouth was still hanging open while he was already working on getting it into the house. This year the miracle was perhaps smaller, but it gave me pause. A few years ago I made a large outline of a dove in white lights which I hang over our garage door. It’s a pretty large installation, so finding that half of it didn’t light (after I’d checked and then gotten up on the extension ladder to hang it, argh) was a huge bummer. I decided to keep it lit anyway, hoping it would motivate me to take it down and fix it before too many days passed. But one morning we woke up to find the whole bird perfectly lit up. It had just fixed itself overnight. I was flabbergasted and incredibly relieved. Elihu, however, has come to expect the unexpected and simply told me it was simply “the little extra bit of magic that hadn’t shown up yet”. ! Whatever the cause, I was appreciative and grateful, and secretly I took it as a sign that things were going to be alright. That I should finally free myself of that persistent, internal hum of worry that followed me through my days and nights…
I shouldn’t read meaning into things that aren’t meant to convey anything special, and yet the spontaneous re-lighting of the dove, and just in time for our party (mostly snowed out – the only folks who came were neighbors with tiny children. It was one of the loveliest parties ever) signaled to me that the world was ok, and some magic force wanted me to know it. My heart was lifted, my stress eased just a bit. Things seemed hopeful again. But as with anything in life, things never stay just so for long.
Whether it was the storm, the county plow truck or our own ‘dumb Mike’ the plow guy, it didn’t really matter – but the sign for our family’s Studio – the concert hall in which dad had hosted his Festival of Baroque Music – had become dislodged from the frame and now hung awkwardly, threatening to fall into the roadside ditch. There for many a year, many a storm, and today it goes. A strange feeling of something not being right – of being somehow different and wrong – came over me as I saw it. It’s a large, heavy sign, and I surprised myself in finding I was able to free it from it’s frame and drag it to the safety of our driveway, where I rested it against some trees. Then we continued up the driveway, past the Studio itself and up to mom and dad’s house for a quick visit. Things, I’d just heard, had been quite strange and different with dad the night before. The broken sign at the road seemed to me like an omen of sorts.
Last night had been brutal. Dad was found in the morning sitting on the couch in his own excrement, upset, detached, unable to make sense of the simplest instructions. Mom and Andrew were able to clean him up, and somehow mom got some food into him too. But by the time Elihu and I arrived, dad was slumped over in his chair, his hands nervously moving, twittering in a strange, new fashion, his gaze fixed on the floor. When I went to him and tried to say hello, he didn’t even lift his gaze. After some coaxing, he did respond to me, but returned within seconds to odd little non sequiturs, bits of sentences that still – God bless him – were very well-constructed and incredibly ‘almost’ plausible-sounding. And after some tricky discussions about action plans for the next forty-eight hours (mom is so defensive and controlling about the whole subject it’s very difficult to make progress. It’s the old ‘lead a horse to water’ thing going on) we decided he needed to be returned to the couch, where he’d likely stay the night. It took all four of us – me, mom, Andrew and Elihu to get dad to the couch. Yeah, things were different now.
I know there are good days and bad days, and they can come and go, but even so, this really did seem to be an entirely new level here. (I was losing my faith that we’d see him bright and engaged again as we did just two weeks ago.) We got him comfortable as possible, but his hands were still trembling, tugging, moving, searching for something… he was still unsettled. But as the minutes passed be began to grow more calm. That was good to see. Before we left, Elihu did his best to connect with grandpa. He leaned way over, putting his face inches from dad’s. Elihu told him that he loved him so much, and immediately dad’s face transformed from that of a vacant, old man to that a young boy’s grandpa. He smiled, made eye contact with his grandson and said “Oh Elihu, I love you so very much too”, they kissed goodbye and then we left. On the way out I put my arm around mom’s shoulder, told her I loved her too, and that I knew this was hard. Once again, I saw her eyes become damp. She does not cry. She does not relinquish control. This is going to be a very hard time for her.
On the way down the driveway I see the sign, resting on its side for now. The sign was due to come down in the next couple of months anyway. We’re having a parking lot put in the woods just to the left of the Studio – phase one you might say in ‘our’ (my) plan to separate the Studio from mom and dad’s property. If we’re going to have our own stand-alone arts center, we can’t share a driveway with the neighboring house. And much as my mother may use her best dramatic passive-aggressive tone when speaking of ‘my plans after she’s gone’ – as if I can’t wait for her to leave already (!) she must understand that one day her house – gorgeous and memory-filled as it may be – is a house that someone else will be living in one day. (I point out to her that I already have a perfectly good house. What do I need with this one? This she seems to understand. And yet, she must not get it completely, it seems…. sheesh.) And I am fairly sure a new family wouldn’t want to share their driveway with an arts center. Cars, people, comings and goings… Naw. So we’ve got to do a little restructuring now. So, as I said, the sign was due for a move soon, anyway. It just came unexpectedly, abruptly, like this new phase with my father. Who is finally the least like my father of all the versions I’ve seen so far. Yes, it feels there is a changing of the guard coming soon, and that there are signs all around, both little and big, to help remind us.
I got home tonite to find two pieces of mail. One, a bill. The second, quite likely a solicitation for money from my kid’s school. Already the guilt began to grow inside when I recognized the Emma Foundation – crap, another campaign I am in no position to contribute to. But I would, if I could! Crap, I say to myself under my breath as I open the letter. And at first, I can’t understand what it is I’m seeing and reading, because my expectations were so the other direction…. And then, I get it. And probably because of all the emotions that have gone on over the past day – seeing my dad like this, seeing the imminent end of my child’s innocence, realizing that there is so much unknown before me – all of it and more – it all just sort of wells up in me and I do what I know my own mother would benefit from ever so much more than even me in this moment: I cry, I cry, and I cry. I get a mix of feelings – it’s kind of in the same space as a mystery Christmas tree showing up from out of nowhere at your door just when you had no idea how you’d be able to afford one yourself, it’s that, it’s a feeling of instant humility, a prideful dash of ‘do we really appear that needy?’ and then finally, a gentle reconciliation with what’s just been given to you in love – and most likely after a healthy process of consideration. In this case, a vote has likely been passed, several folks have been putting their heads together on this, and they came out voting for Elihu. He is the recipient of a generous donation towards his Waldorf tuition. The note is even signed by the mother who lost her own ten year old child and who created this fund in order to create a lasting legacy in her daughter’s honor. Wow. Hardly a humbler, more honored feeling than this.
Change is everywhere, yet it’s so embedded in the everyday that we can’t see much of it for ourselves. The evidence of that change is there, but actually recognizing it for yourself is the challenge. In my own casual, armchair efforts to better myself as a student of life, I’ve long reminded myself to notice the tiny voice within, magnify it ten times, and then heed its message. Sometimes we know something’s changing, but we don’t want to believe it. Some will think me a naïve tree-hugging Spiritualist to hear me say that I do believe things happen as they are supposed to (not to be confused with things happening as we’d hoped they would). As with my surprise divorce and out-of-character cross-country move, these were unwelcome changes that created the opportunity for so many new experiences we’d otherwise never have had. Suffice to say, sucky things can beget better things.
The evidence tells me my father is going to die soon. The evidence tells me that my son is growing up. Both of these are hard things to understand. Thankfully, the evidence also shows us that there are some people in this world who act towards others in love and kindness and will go to great efforts to do so.
And it still does kinda seem there’s an awful lot of evidence to support this Santa thing too.