Ghost of Christmas Past

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During my social work education in college, I took several classes that focused on tools related to understanding complicated families. One of those tools is a genogram. Squares represented men, circles were used for women. Lines connected romantic relationships, and little dashes meant children. An X over a person represented death, a double line through a relationship represented divorce. I’ve used genograms with hundreds of clients over the years now. Some families look clean and organized on paper: father, mother, brother, sister.

My family genogram ended up looking like a massive printer malfunction, or like someone dropped a pizza on the floor. It was rampant with divorces and remarriages, couples who had kids that were his hers and theirs, and adoptions. If I could add slashes and dashes for prison sentences, domestic violence, and sexual abuse, faith crises and drug addictions, well, we’d have Picasso’s Starry Starry night in family tree format. Beautiful, but far too much to take in one glance.

But each little square and circle on that paper represent a human fixed in time, someone with experiences, heartbreaks, setbacks and successes. And each of those people, most of them related to me by blood, have their own changing stories, their own epics. For most, the endings remain unwritten. But even the youngest of my siblings is in her late 30s now, so there is a lot of history to draw upon.

And that takes us to 1985.

Back then, my family was my entire world, that and religion. We have one family Christmas video preserved now. It’s beloved to me. It was made in December, 1985, when I was newly 7 years old. I was the little brother, the sixth of seven children. Back then, Mom and Dad were still married, if unhappily. My little sister Sheri was three, and she had thin yellow hair that grew down past her waistline. (Many years later, Sheri and I would be the ones who came out of the closet). And all of the older kids were there, ranging from 11 to 20 in age at the time. Grandma and Grandpa were there, my mom’s parents, and my oldest sister’s boyfriend. The video shows us all around the Christmas tree, singing songs, laughing, performing special talents for each other, opening gifts. My mom and sister Kara played the nose harps as a joke, someone did a piano solo. We each took a day of Christmas and sang all twelve verses in little one-line solos. The camera pans around the room as we each share what we are thankful for. At one point in the video, I take out my recorder from school and I play a carol for the family, not actually playing the instrument but more realistically just blowing notes through it, generating the sound with my voice and sounding like an eerie robot. Later in the video, I ask if I can lead the family in a song. I stand in the center of the room, right in front of the camera, and I lead the music, just like I’ve seen Mom do in church a thousand times, except I forget to bend my elbow. I lead on the right cadence with my wrist hinging in every direction as my family laughs at me, and at the time I didn’t understand what was so funny. I was beaming. Family, music about Jesus, Christmas. It was perfect. I’m smiling from ear to ear.

That was over 30 years ago. 33 Christmases ago, to be exact. That realization startles me. And in another blink of an eye, it will be 30 years from now and I’ll be seventy and my children will be men.

But what if I could go back? If I could time-travel, step back into that room as a grown man and just watch it all as it happened… I wouldn’t be able to experience the family just then, in the present like that. I have too much perspective for that. I’d see everything that lies ahead for each person in that room as I watched them. If I wanted to, I could tell Grandma and Grandpa the days they die on. I could tell Mom that she only had to put up with my dad’s anger and depression for five more years before she would finally choose to leave him. But then I’d also have to tell her that her next husband would be worse, he would use fists and control and insults and profanity to terrorize her for a few years. But then, I could tell her, then she’d meet the man of her dreams. She’d be 60 by then, but he would make her so happy for the rest of her life. I could tell my dad that he would never really change, that in 30 years he would be nearly 80 and still sad and quiet and angry and morose. I could look him in the eye and tell him how I felt about his depression and the way it ruined him, and about the impact it had on me.

Would I change anything if I could? Would I want to? Would I warn them about their futures? Would I grab my oldest sister in a hug and tell her that she wouldn’t be able to have children, but that she would finally choose to adopt three when she was in her mid-40s, and that it was definitely not going to be easy after that? Would I tell my second sister that she would meet the love of her life at age 18 and they would go on to have six children together, but also tell her that this picture perfect world would not be easy, that it would be full of health struggles and financial burdens? Would I warn my only brother to stop touching me in our bedroom when the doors were closed tight and no one could see? Would I tell him to stay off the drugs and to change his ways before his three marriages, his criminal charges, his domestic violence issues, his animal cruelty issues? Would I tell him that he would father three incredible children, and that all three of them would turn out great not because of him but in spite of him? Would I grasp my middle sister, Kara, and tell her that she’d have to put up with 15 years of two terrible marriages so that she could have her four children, but that if she could just put up with the abuse, drugs, and anger from her first two husbands, she would finally meet the man who would make her happy? Would I tell her that her kids would add up to seven before she was done, and that she’d have her youngest child around the same time she became a grandmother? Would I warn the sister just above me in age to never start smoking, never start drinking, as those habits would dominate the rest of her life?

I love all of my family, of course, but when I watch this old video, I see Sheri and I the most. Sheri was the baby of the family, the quiet, introverted, and obsessive little girl would grow up to be a kind, loving, incredible woman. But first she’d have to get through her boy clothes wearing and no makeup high school years, and then brave coming out of the closet in her early 20s, and it would not go well at first. If I could change things, I’d want her to do it early, to not wait until she was in her 20s. I’d want her to save herself the years of religious indoctrination, to not waste a single moment thinking she was anything but amazing. Maybe instead I would just reassure her without changing events. She has a future, I would tell her, one with a wife, a full-ride college scholarship, a life full of opportunities. I’d tell her that in many ways she would grow up to be my greatest example, despite being younger than me.

And then I look at me. If forty-year old me could go back in time and spend an afternoon with seven-year old me… my heart breaks just thinking about it. I have a son that size, just 7 years old. He’s so small. He watches the world around him with hope and wonder, and he sees the best in everyone. Someone being a bully just breaks his heart. He has so much to learn. I see him in 7-year old me. I’d wrap little me up in a giant bear hug, and I would ask me how I was feeling. I would ask, and I would listen. I feel like no one ever asked me back then. I would ask the questions no one was asking me then. How do you feel about your dad’s sadness? Do you like church, do you believe in it, what do you like about it and what don’t you? Do you know it’s okay to have doubts? I’d ask what was happening behind those closed bedroom doors, and tell him that that isn’t okay for someone, anyone, to touch him like that, and I’d encourage him to speak up and I would tell him I was there to protect him. And because he would be too young to understand, I would try to find a way to tell him how my life has gone. I would tell him that gay people are normal, and that anyone who tells him that he is broken or an abomination or that he can be cured or that he should just ignore it and hope that it goes away, that those people are wrong even if they don’t mean to be. Believing those things would take some of his best years away from him. At worst, those people are big homophobic meanies, and at best they are just misinformed. I would tell him to come out, early and to the right people, and that he should spend his adolescence being real, learning how to love himself and take care of himself, learning how to fall in love and make friends and how to dream big. I’d tell him to love church but recognize that it is flawed and that it doesn’t have all the answers, so he should keep the good and let go of the rest. I’d tell him to eat well, to exercise, to find healthy outlets for his emotions. I’d tell him to not waste two years in missionary service, that he’ll regret it later. I’d tell him he is beautiful just the way he is, all the parts of him, the compassionate and the creative, the social worker and the storyteller, the singer and the quiet thinker. I’d tell him to not be so lonely in his 20s, to not wait so long to kiss, to hold hands, to fall in love, to have sex. I’d tell him to never compromise and marry a woman just because he believed it was the only possibility for him, because both he and she would end up hurt.

But then, I’d take it all back. I’d regret every word. He’s 7, and telling him all of that would put far too much weight on his shoulders (and goddamnit, he was carrying too much weight as it was). If I told him all of that, I’d want to run screaming into a corner, because if he changed anything, If he didn’t spend those years thinking he was broken, if he never served a mission, never learned to believe God hated him, never married a woman… that if he came out of the closet even six months earlier, than his two sons wouldn’t exist. And they have to exist. The world can’t BE without them.

Instead, I’d have to tell him to be strong. To hold on. To know that his suffering in the long run would pay off, because he would eventually come out, he would eventually find love, he would eventually learn to love himself. He would be 32 when it finally happened, so he only had 25 years to be depressed, then he could learn to live. And in coming out, he’d break some hearts, he’d have to redefine everything, and he would have to navigate a new life with two beautiful little boys, and it was going to be so hard for a while but it would be so worth it because those little boys would be the lights of his entire world, and he would learn how to see himself as a light as well. And I’d tell him that the greatest payoff of all of this, all the years he spent hurting, is that he would raise his sons to have all of the things he never had.

I can’t change then. But I can change now. I can give my sons what I wish I could go back and give to me then. I can ask questions and listen to their answers. I can talk about hard things. I can teach them about nutrition and exercise, about compassion and kindness and integrity. I can teach them to love themselves, to follow their dreams. I can teach them about taking care of the planet, being kind to animals, and reaching out to the underdog, the outcast, the misfit. I can teach them to be themselves, to love themselves, and to follow their dreams. And if I can do all of that for them, then I don’t need to change the past.

Because someday, 30 years from now, perhaps my boys will look back to this time in 2018 and wonder what could be different. Maybe they would choose to come back and give warnings about dire future events, or give hints to themselves about how they can have happier lives if they make different choices. But my greatest wish would be for them to look back to now, right now, and see it as one happy Christmas in a long life full of happy Christmases, with nothing they would want to change.

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Fireworks at Christmas

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The snow drizzled down in wet dollops, and I wondered if it was fake, being shot out of a machine from a hilltop nearby. But it kept falling, heavier, collecting around my feet and settling on the trees. By morning, there would be a few feet of powdery, wet snow.

I stood facing the mountain, bundled up in a heavy coat, a snow cap pulled down over my ears. I clutched A, my 6-year old, close, to keep him both warm and safe. Next to me stood my boyfriend, Mike, his hands in his pockets. At his side was my nine-year old, J. We huddled together in front of a campfire, one built in a circular tin. There were hundreds of people on the platform, all in coats, scarves, and hats, many with young children. Some wore festive gear, like light-up Rudolph noses, Santa beards, or elf hats, and many clutched plastic cups of white wine or champagne in their gloved hands.

The night wasn’t going exactly as I’d hoped. When I booked the expensive room at Snowbird resort, I’d been planning a romantic getaway for Mike and I, one with wine, a nice suite, a hot tub, and a fancy dinner. It was Christmas Eve, after all. But the ex-wife had crossed wires a wrong way, so suddenly, there we were, my sons with us on our evening out. Santa had already visited that morning, on Christmas Eve, a regular occurrence for my sons who have two Christmases in two homes. Thus, with a mantra of “if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em”, playing in my head, I just packed the kids up to the resort with us.

When the fireworks started, a teenage girl nearby began jumping up and down in obnoxious excitement, putting on a show for her friends. “Oh my god, you guys, the fireworks are starting, yay!” Her jostling knocked me backward a bit, and I had a mental vision of knocking my son into the tin can fire. I spoke up loudly.

“Hey, please don’t jump! There’s a fire here!”, and the girl looked as if I’d punched her in the face.

“I–I wasn’t trying to–I wouldn’t have–”

“You’re fine. I’m not mad. Just please don’t jump around. There’s a lot of people here, and little kids.”

“I would never hurt a kid!” she said, defensively.

Her friend, a burly teenage boy, put a hand on her shoulder, turning her toward him. “Hey, come on, it’s not worth it. It’s Christmas.” They turned away, acting as if I had just started a fight, and I could do nothing but role my eyes, and console my son, who always grew worried when there were angry tones.

The fireworks flashed in the sky. I bent down to whisper to my son, “I bet you’ve never seen fireworks in the snow!” before realizing he was plugging his ears to avoid the sounds. I looked at the other son, whose face was bright red as he shivered.

Soon, a string of red lights began appearing at the top of the mountain, slowing winding into a long line as the fireworks blasted overhead. Skiers had headed to the mountain top and were headed down the mountain in a procession, holding red electric torches, forming a gorgeous, bold, crimson line that arced into a short zigzag toward us. The snow continued falling, and then Santa’s sleigh, bedecked in green and red lights, began flying down toward us, a modified version of the ski lift. I excitedly pointed up to the kids, showing them that if they squinted they could see his red suit and waving arm, but they were too cold to enjoy it.

The show lasted ten minutes. Santa landed and handed out candy canes. The skiers put out their torches. And the fireworks finished with a beautiful booming resonance, leaving evanescent plumes hanging in the dark, snowy air. Both kids were begging to go inside.

Thirty minutes later, the four of us squished in around a wooden table in a fancy restaurant. Old timey Christmas songs played on the loudspeaker. The kids drew Pokemon on the backs of the menus with broken crayons, soon ordering macaroni and cheese and chicken nuggets, at $18 per tiny plate. Mike and I ordered delicious red wine. He got crab and steak while I ordered the only vegetarian option on the menu, some savory mushroom concoction that left me hungry. Dinner took nearly two hours, and the kids, though well-behaved, began to almost pass out in their seats.

Coats and hats back on, we trudged up the hill back to our hotel. We’d been downgraded from the fancy suite to a standard room because of the kids. We slipped and sloshed up the hill, which was covered in inches of snow, and the kids began crying with exhaustion and cold, but in no time we made it. We collapsed into the bed of our substandard rooms, and I contemplated the dual reality that I was thrilled to have my sons with me, anytime and always, yet how very different this Christmas Eve night without them might have been.

The next morning, as we waited for the plow to come and pave a way out of the parking lot for us, I contemplated the hotel’s terrible coffee and how badly I needed a nap. One kid had a small anxiety attack about never getting out of the snow while the other consoled him. I held my boyfriend’s hand, remembering fireworks, red torch lights, wet snow, tin campfires, and jumping drunk girls, then compared it to the previous Christmas, when I had slept and awakened alone.

As we drove down the mountain, taking turns choosing Christmas carols to sing, I thought how maybe this wasn’t such a bad Christmas after all.