A week ago, I was driving along on a lonely, dark rural road covered with fog. Wipers thrashing this way and that, I could still barely see in front of my hood...the rain showers were intermittent, but all the water and humidity surrounding me clouded my view still the same. Headed to the beach I was, hopeful that the weather would eventually clear and I'd get some much-needed relaxation and fun, if even for a day. I had made the mistake of starting this drive...a little more than four hours...right after my workday had concluded, and also during the 'drive home' rush hour (just for that extra little bit of stress). Traveling by myself, I had been lucky to that point, not too hot and not too cold, singing along with song after song until eventually one station and then another soon faded away into the ether. Eventually static took over everything that wasn't a religious sermon, talk radio, or Spanish programming and I just switched the radio off. Now, with an hour still to go before my cozy hotel room by the sand would come into view, I found myself driving over a lengthy bridge that crosses the Alligator River. With only the 'twhup, twhup, twhup' sound of rubber tires rolling over concrete engineering to keep me company.
There was not another car in sight, in either direction. And my shoulders were stiff and sore from concentrating on the road, on the rain, on the bridge with the water running alongside.
Finally, after what seemed an eternity, I crossed the Alligator and found a place wide enough for me to pull over my truck. I took several deep breaths and then eventually got out, doing neck stretches and arm pulls...anything to keep me more alert and loosen my aching, tense neck and shoulder muscles. For a couple of minutes I did this, looking around for another set of lights in the distance or maybe the rogue deer, but found nothing. I climbed back in for the last bit of the trek, not exactly renewed but far from dispirited now. Several more neck rolls and arm stretches happened as I started up, pulled away, and gradually built up speed again. Channels of water ran alongside both sides of the road now, as the highway crawled further and further into the welcoming shores of the Outer Banks. The rain let up, but the fog was thickening.
I tried the radio again, and was pleasantly surprised that a reception from a Virginia station came in loud and clear. The voice, familiar in some ways but not immediately identifiable to me (and on commercial break was discovered to be none other than rock n' roll showman Alice Cooper on his syndicated show), was talking about favourite Christmas songs...songs that have been huge hits, songs that have survived all sorts of social change since their initial release, songs that always pull on the heartstrings year after year. The usuals ("White Christmas" by Bing Crosby, "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" best known from Burl Ives, "Blue Christmas" from Elvis Presley, etc) of course made the cut. As one rainy mile rolled into the next, Alice got me thinking about my favourite Christmas songs...or, rather, why I don't have one especially.
Indulge me a moment while I give you my Christmas back story...
I am the only child of parents who never really had time or energy to properly celebrate the holiday. My beloved father coped with a terminal illness for most of my life and worked full-time while doing so; my overwhelmed mother took care of him and me while (eventually) working two full-time jobs herself. He first became ill when I was just six years old and he was initially given just a handful of months to live...a diagnosis that both of my parents flatly refused to accept from the onset. That illness, though, would rule our lives forevermore. For months on end, we would all pack up the old Mercury Marquis at 3 in the morning and head two hours south for his training and treatment. Mom and Dad would train in an area I was not allowed for 4-5 hours, whereas I would stay in the hospital lobby alone downstairs with my books and crayons. (As reckless as that last bit sounds now, I caution to say it was 1976 and things were much different then, and also that a security guard stopped by to check on me every half hour. I never once felt scared or had anything bad happen to me, although I did get lonely a good deal.) After treatments were completed, we'd all pack up again and head home once more: me to watch TV and call my teacher for missed lessons, Mom and Dad off to work with me tagging alongside Dad or off to a babysitter. Even after the travel subsided a bit, this schedule was our norm.
That first year of his illness and training was especially tough on us. He became very sick over Thanksgiving, with doctors concerned that he would not see Christmas at all. Things so readily alleviated now were major obstacles back then...an infection that would not lessen, the building up of toxins within his system, a fever that would come and go without warning. My father was scared but resolved, my mother was helpless but strong...and I was clueless and wanting to talk about my Christmas list. With painful clarity, I remember serenading him and my mother and the nurses with "Silent Night" on a very rare visit to see him in the his room, located almost in the ICU. Even then, I couldn't carry a tune in a bucket, but I was proud of myself when I saw him and Mama tear up. For years afterward, I thought I had provided a happy moment.
During that same hospitalization, nurses and others tried to keep my spirits up while also trying to help me understand the severity of Dad's situation. But I was a Daddy's girl and I was in denial...Dad and I had made plans, you see, and nothing like a little kidney failure could stop that. He and I had a routine: country walks on Saturday, new car visits on Sunday, reading the newspaper and watching TV together the rest of the week around studies and work. He and I were inseparable, as I was the apple of his eye whereas I thought he hung the stars in heaven just for me. (Dear Mama was the long-forgotten third wheel, I hate to admit.) But someone, and I still can't really remember who as I've blocked much of it out, finally communicated how close I was to losing him. And somehow that Christmas wish list held no significance anymore, even though it had dominated our conversations for weeks.
So the next time I saw him in his room I held his hand like I always did and sat there until he woke up. When he did, he asked what changes had happened to the list...what did I want now from Santa, he asked from a tired and bloated face. For you to make it through Christmas and be with me, I answered. Fully awake now, his eyes met mine and, at that moment, he knew that I knew. And we smiled at each other, through tears.
From that day forward, we became a unified team once more...not only that day, not only that Christmas, but for twenty more Christmases to come. He never hid any future illness from me, nor did my Mama on his specific request. And I never really pursued gifts for the holiday after that, as the whole 'list' lost its appeal in light of the bigger wish for him to completely recover...a wish that would never be granted in this world. Dearest Mama, a woman who was created specifically to shop for and enjoy the Christmas holiday, would try her best to fit in all the traditional 'other family' routines: an overly-decorated tree, an Elvis Christmas album she played constantly, visits to relatives I didn't know for dinner. Dad and I, peas in a pod that we were, would tolerate it all as best we could, but never got into the spirit much. For he and I, surviving through Christmas was the goal, and once another season had passed by uneventfully, then did we feel joyous. In some respects, I see now we probably got that all wrong.
I lost my best friend ever eleven years ago, soon to be twelve, but not a day goes by that I don't think of Dad. Or about holding his hand, walking with him, talking with him, laughing with him. There are so many things I want to ask his opinion on, or ask for his advice on...and the silence of his lost voice is deafening. I have worn a ring of his every day since that horrible horrible day in March, but it's the only thing I still have of his. That ring and the memories.
Christmases, unfortunately, have carried on for me since his death just as they did when he was still here: very little fanfare with a few gifts for Mama, the occasional card mailed, the odd decoration put up. Christmas has been something to be overcome, not something to be relished. Mama still loves it as much as she ever did, but she's given up trying to convert me to her enthusiastic approach.
And I'm thinking about all of this, and like now having a bit of a cry, as I'm barreling down NC Highway 64. Wishing I had Dad with me to see the Atlantic...did he ever see an ocean, I wonder, as I don't know...but also remembering with a chuckle how much he hated the cold and rain in his later years. Wondering, as I sometimes do, if he would be happy with me now, supportive of my decisions, curious as to what he would criticize. Meanwhile, Alice has played some traditional Christmas tunes (well, rock-modified ones, anyway, this is Alice Cooper, after all) and he's now talking about how some of the best holiday songs are the least known here...and how it takes people some time to find their 'perfect' song.
"Yes, Alice," I said as I pulled into the outskirts of Manteo, wiping my eyes. "Yes, we all need a 'perfect' Christmas song." Mockingly, I said this aloud in the dark but warm cabin of the Nissan. I was thinking I needed to change the channel, and pull myself out of this momentary depression.
Then Alice played this song, something I had never heard in its entirety before, although apparently it's been like the Most Popular Christmas Song in the UK since its release back in the early 1970s. It's from Slade (yes, that Slade), and it's called "Merry Christmas, Everybody". (Video from YouTube.)
And so I listened, singing off-tune as usual a bit, wiping back the occasional tear as I slowly passed garlands and wreaths displayed on car washes, churches, and the random fast food sign. The rain had subsided to a light mist now, although the fog still shadowed the lampposts and traffic lights. At the end, as I turned left going into Manns Harbour, I fully admit I was belting away at a loud volume...and I did not want the song to finish. Play it again, Alice, play it again. It's tough to cry and smile and sing all at the same time, but I swear I did all three. I have virtually nothing in common with any of the lyrics, but no matter, it was what I needed to hear right then. Is it the 'perfect' song for me, or even for the mighty Christmas season? Probably not, but perfection is only judged so in relation to the moments it appears. And for that moment at least, it was a perfect Christmas song for me, and it helped clear my emotional deck...helping me enjoy my very limited time away from work.
So, Merry Christmas, everybody, and I mean that genuinely and deeply from my heart. I may not be infused with the Christmas spirit per se, but I am wise enough to appreciate the good friends and family I am so deeply blessed to have. May tomorrow be a great and peaceful day spent with your families.
And, speaking of family...thanks, Dad.