The Last Christmas

Photo courtesy of Colette Simone.

I worried this was her last Christmas, last little girl’s Christmas. She was 9 and 3⁄4’s and on the cusp of disbelief. A boy in her class told her there was no Santa, and she rushed home to report the blasphemy indignantly. She knew there was a Santa Claus. 

Two years ago, she had lain awake listening. As she struggled with drowsiness, a crunch on the roof bolted her awake. She shut her eyes tightly, joy and fear rushing through her. She hid her head under her pillow, so Santa wouldn’t find her awake. “I heard Santa’s sleigh land on our roof last night!” she told us breathlessly the next morning. That falling branch anchored her faith and helped fend off the doubt that would inevitably enter her world.

Two years later, she had lived 730 more days of childhood, and skepticism was creeping its way forward. She went at it with skirting questions: “Can you believe Patrick doesn’t believe in Santa Claus?” She was looking for reassurance.

She procrastinated writing her letter to Santa, which she’d once been so eager to do. She didn’t show me the letter before putting it in the mailbox less than a week before Christmas. I’d already stooped to asking directly what she wanted.

Christmas Eve at Grandma’s culminated in “Uncle” Santa distributing gifts. A year or two ago, we’d told her that this Santa was one of the big guy’s helpers, “not the real Santa, because he was busy delivering presents on Christmas Eve.”

“Is that Uncle James dressed like Santa?” she’d asked. Yes, it was. A drunken and jolly Uncle James at that, under a massive white beard.

We arrived home late to sprinkle glittering oats on the lawn–a healthy snack for the reindeer before they continued on their way. We set out a plate of goodies and a glass of milk for Santa. We placed baby Jesus in the manger beneath the nativity and the star, signaling the imminent arrival of Christmas.

Deciding what to put under the tree for Genevieve was difficult that year, not only because I hadn’t seen her Christmas list. She was moving from little girlhood into tweenerhood; too old for many toys, too young for teenage interests. 

In early November, we were in the hardware store, and she stopped in her tracks to stare at a huge Christmas display. I was irritated to see it up so early–it said that I should be shopping for Christmas weeks before Thanksgiving. We were in a hurry, and I was not in the mood. But Genevieve had no such feeling of unease, and it was a challenge to drag her away to more practical matters. She stared at the lighted reindeer pulling Santa’s sleigh. “Mommy, they’re sooo beautiful,” she chirped in her little girl voice. 

I answered her unspoken question: “When we brought home the lighted angel last year, Dad said no more Christmas decorations!” He was the one climbing the ladders and putting them up, after all. 

I could see the yearning in her eyes, and we paused to look again on the way out of the store. She followed me out silently, but I could feel her desire for the twinkly reindeer–and for the real ones they represented.

It had been a difficult fall, and my mind was preoccupied with less joyous matters. My mother-in-law was not well. She usually visits 2 or 3 times a year and always at either Thanksgiving or Christmas. She had just suffered a heart attack, and it seemed she would be hospitalized over Thanksgiving, but it was more than that.

We’d been noticing that she had increasing trouble managing her house and driving from its remote location. Her memory was worsening; she couldn’t recall her grandchildren’s names. She called to ask for help figuring out what the green blinking arrow (the turn signal) in her car meant and how to turn it off. Just before the start of school, we made a last-minute trip from Maryland to Massachusetts to check on her.

When we arrived, we could see plainly what we’d sensed over the phone. Her once-spotless Cape Cod-style home was falling apart. The floors were dirty; she had knocked a bag of sugar  off of a high shelf and couldn’t bend down to clean it up. Mice had infested her pantry. She couldn’t remember how to cook many of her favorite recipes and had a nasty burn on her arm that didn’t seem to be healing. She had taken to eating ice cream for meals.

Sharp as a tack, a devout practitioner of her faith, and a loving grandmother, she had always been the head of the family. At 72, turning off the life-support machines for her husband had almost done her in. But his wishes had been clear, and she did as he’d asked. After, she struggled to make a life without him, but her circle of interest slowly shrank. Leaving the home they’d built together in central Massachusetts–where they raised their children, a mile from where he was buried–was never a thought.

Now 84, her world was breaking down. Her three children looked for solutions that would enable her to stay in her home. We found shuttle services, so she wouldn’t have to drive. We reorganized her pantry, placing everything easily within reach. A schedule was created to take her shopping and to doctor’s appointments, but we knew we would soon be facing difficult decisions. Then, in early November, she suffered the heart attack.

I know that life doesn’t happen conveniently, but this couldn’t have come at a worse time of year. Thanksgiving passed without her at our table. Once her heart was stable, she moved into a rehab facility, where a medical team assessed her condition. The combination of her deteriorating mental state, the ravages of 4 hip replacements in 20 years, and the weakness from her heart condition meant that she would not be able to return to her home.

Christmas looked bleak. It wasn’t clear whether she would be able to leave the rehab facility, and travel was out of the question, probably forever. Both of her nearby children worked during the day and couldn’t provide the support she needed. We offered to make space in our home, but even in her healthiest state, she would have been too disoriented outside of Massachusetts, where she’d lived all her life and where she planned to be laid to rest.

Just before Christmas, she moved into an assisted-living facility built in an old mill a mile from her oldest son. She has her own apartment there but eats meals in their “restaurant” and takes part in group activities and outings. She has never been a joiner; she is a woman with her own habits and rituals who does not accept change willingly. She became depressed.

In the weeks between her move and the holidays, we thrashed about trying to decide what to do for Christmas. “Let her get used to her new situation and come in the spring after she settles in,” my brother-in-law said, I’m sure trying to spare us.

“She will be miserable whether you are here or not. Let the kids enjoy Christmas at home,” my sister-in-law told us. 

We decided to do both, have Christmas Day at home and leave the next day to spend the rest of the break with my mother-in-law. So, I was late getting into the Christmas spirit and shopping for gifts. I did managed to buy things, but I don’t recall any of them except one. 

The kids receive presents from Mom and Dad, but Santa always brings the “wow” gift. The week before Christmas, I realized I didn’t have a “wow” gift for Genevieve. I fretted over it but lacked inspiration.

Then I remembered the reindeer that had made her eyes sparkle long before I could even think about Christmas. My husband had bah-humbugged the idea when she ran in the door that day to tell him about them. But now, I could feel in my heart that it was the right gift for Santa to bring her. She’d fallen in love with those reindeer, and I sensed that this might be the last year she believed they travelled the world to bring gifts.

I rushed back to the store, but not a single reindeer was left. I had the staff check with other stores, but they were sold out everywhere. My husband, Jon, got on board and joined
the search. With a sinking feeling that I’d missed the opportunity, we dashed to Target, Home Depot, Costco and Wal-Mart, burning through most of a day with nothing to show for it. This is just how Christmas will be this year, I thought bitterly.

My next door neighbor Pat is the best kind of neighbor: a friend who’s always there with a cup of sugar and shoulder to cry on. A few years older than I, her children were finishing college and starting careers. She had been through this stage of life, and she’s always a great source of ideas and solutions. Raising two boys, she had a soft spot in her heart for my Genevieve, the little girl she was watching grow up. She was Genevieve’s fairy godmother. 

Pat knew what our fall had been like, knew my mother-in-law from many holiday and summer visits and knew the impact her absence had on us. I ran over to see what she might suggest.

A day or two after later, she called to say she had found reindeer for Genevieve! How like Pat, listening, not saying too much, and quietly restoring my faith in the good, just when I need it most. The breath I’d been holding in all weird fall long rushed out of me, and Christmas spirit filled the vacancy.

Now, Christmas Eve was winding down with the kids in bed and the presents under the tree. Jon snuck next door to retrieve the reindeer hidden in Pat’s garage. We placed them on the lawn, so they’d be visible from our front windows. We plugged them into a timer set to turn on at 6 AM, delivering Santa’s surprise. It felt perfect, and finally, sometime past midnight, we fell into bed exhausted.

In the wee hours of Christmas morning, I was barely conscious of Genevieve crawling into bed with us, snuggling down under the covers. At 6 AM, the timer kicked in, lighting our wreaths, garland, the angel on our balcony, and the reindeer “Santa” left grazing on our front lawn. Light flooded our room, but the sleep-deprived parents barely moved.

Genevieve, however, dozing with the light sleep of a child on Christmas morning, popped up in bed like a jack-in-the-box. I didn’t process what was happening until I heard her feet hit the cold, hardwood floor and, too late, my eyes flew open.

Oh no! I thought, the surprise will be spoiled. I’d wrapped up the box the reindeer had come in and imagined her joy as she opened it to find the note from Santa telling her to look outside. Too late! She was staring out the window. As I sat up, I saw the Christmas lights reflected off her pale face, her mouth hanging open.

“Mommy! Mommy!” she shouted, her voice high pitched with excitement. “Santa came!! He left reindeer for us!!” A smile spread across my sleepy face, and Christmas arrived. 

Being a parent is often difficult. Day-to-day life is stressful, self doubt clouds our vision, and some things are just downright heartbreaking. But occasionally, rarely, there are moments like this, when you see the world purely through your child’s eyes and remember that it is magical.

The next day, we travelled north to Massachusetts and spent the rest of the holidays with my mother-in-law. Most of it was awful. When we arrived, she had not bathed in days and refused to open our gifts. She alternated between questioning when she could go home and saying that it was just about time she died. It was terrible to see my wonderful mother in-law and the kids’ loving grandmother in such a state. 

Over the next week, we saw her begin to improve. She brightened when we arrived for the day, showing a glimmer of her old self. But even so, that visit might have been unbearable if not for that one pure moment of Christmas joy that preceded it.

My instincts were right. It was Genevieve’s last little girl Christmas. Sometime before Halloween the following year, she asked point-blank if I was Santa Claus. My heart froze, but I couldn’t dissemble. I told her the truth. I said that Santa is a spirit, the spirit of Christmas. And while spirits can’t be seen, they are felt. I told her that Mommy and Daddy carry on the spirit of Santa, but that that doesn’t make Santa less real.

She cried. She talked through all the moments she had doubted and how we, her parents and her brother, had encouraged her to believe. “Who ate the cookies? You ate the cookies?! How do all the presents get under the tree? What was the sound I heard on the roof?”

She felt betrayed. “Why didn’t Zach tell me?” Her brother, though cruel at times, was also a fierce protector. He had never let on; he even encouraged her belief. He felt the truth of Santa was something she should figure out for herself, not be told.

And lastly, “How did you know I asked Santa for a picture of the reindeer?”

“What?” I asked.

“In my letter,” Genevieve told me, “I asked Santa for a picture of his reindeer. Some people at school were saying there was no Santa, and I found a gift tag that said ‘from Santa’ in your handwriting. So, in my letter, I asked him for a picture of the reindeer to see if they were real. I put the letter in the mailbox and didn’t show you to see if Santa could do it alone. I was so happy when he brought the reindeer that I loved in the store. I thought it proved he had to be real.”

We cried together; I tried to comfort her and so did her dad. In the end, she cried herself to sleep, snuggled in our bed, in the same spot she’d awoken with such joy the Christmas before. 

She’s my baby, it was hard for me too. And yet I’ll always be grateful; grateful for that last year she believed, overflowing with the magic of Christmas.

Colette Simone owns a business-strategy consulting firm in Bethesda and acts as president of the Woods Academy PTA and the Seven Locks Swim and Tennis Club board. She lives in Bethesda with her husband, Jon, and their two children.