Friday, March 25, 2011

Chapter 3 -- Jolly Old Saint Nicolas

To say that I did not enjoy celebrating the holidays with my relatives for my son’s first Christmas, and Chelsea’s last, was a complete understatement.  To say that my relatives can put the “fun” in dysfunctional is truly not without humor, however ruefully put. 

So the season started off with its general, run-of-the-mill frantic Christmas gift list-making frenzy.  I, the new mother, was busy taking care of Samuel and keeping a watchful eye on Chelsea.  At the time she seemed better from her November episode but she was just not her usual perky self.  Of course my husband was deployed again, to return home five days before Christmas and three days before his parents arrived to spend the holiday with us.  So, that left me to buy all the Christmas gifts, get the tree, bring home the groceries and prepare the menu for our festivities honoring jolly ol’ Saint Nicolas.  Oh and did I mention performing all these dazzling feats with a two-month-old in tow?

Even the Christmas tree lot guy felt sorry for me.  I got the seven foot Alpine Fir for twenty bucks, with a Christmas wreath thrown in as well. “Honey,” he said with his hands on his hips.  “You’d better tell me your neighbors will help you unload that tree or I’m coming over to your house myself.”  Of course I assured him all was well and I’d be fine, but my body was still reeling with new-mommy hormones and I shed not just a few tears for myself on the way home. 

Undaunted by my frantic foment of pre-Christmas activity, Chelsea and Samuel watched me ready the house for the holidays.  During nap times and at night, Chelsea was there at my feet while I surfed the Internet and let my fingers do the shopping…I’d appointed myself Mother Christmas.  In hindsight, of course in its 20-20 vision, I wish I’d just blown off any gift-getting and just spent time on the floor playing with the baby or stroking Chelsea’s fur.  But, I digress.  You must know the rest of the story, first.  Or, nothing else will seem miraculous. 

Throughout December, in between breast-feeding my baby every three hours, I was whipping up a meal or cleaning up from one. Early Christmas morning, I put out all the gifts under the tree.  Only Chelsea knew or appreciated how much of a feat I’d pulled off.  When I gave her a new dog bed and special dog biscuits dipped in white chocolate she seemed surprised and genuinely grateful.  She sniffed the bed all over, ate her treats with glee and kept coming over to say ‘thank you’ in her special way; wagging that beautiful bushy tail and smiling with a happy pant.

My gifts were grim and included a cartoon statuette of an old lady in garden gear and an ergonomically correct pillow that arrived unwrapped two weeks earlier.  If it wasn’t for my husband who managed to order a few things when he’d gotten some computer time at a stop somewhere in the Middle East that twenty-dollar Christmas tree would have been completely devoid of anything with my name on it.  Oh well, I surmised, I guess that’s what happens when you become Mother Christmas. 

On to the turkey.  For the rest of Christmas day, I was making breakfast, cleaning breakfast, arranging hors d'oeuvres, prepping turkey, stuffing, et al.  Chelsea and my new little son faded into the background as I whipped into culinary high gear, only stopping once every three hours to feed the baby.  That old Enjoli song kept humming around in my head.  You may remember it going something like “I can bring home the bacon, fry it up in a pan…” and, if you can actually believe it, at the time I actually wondered why? 

They say God gives special insight to mothers and about an hour before dinner I suddenly knew three things with absolute certainty:  My relatives were reaching a decibel level rivaling a 727 at take-off, the Jim Beam was half-empty and dinner needed to be served ASAP.  For those of you who want to know that my holidays were over at this juncture, I apologize. The alcohol + relatives combination continued through Boxing Day.  I didn’t know we celebrated Boxing Bay in the U.S.  Ah, relatives.  Predictable. 

You know, during those few days, I’m not sure when I fed the dog.  Chelsea was always so generous with me, but never so much so as during that holiday season, which was sadly, her last.  It was also my only year to serve as Mother Christmas.  Up to that point, I was working hard to learn the lesson of NOT being the family DO-er or the resident PLEASE-er. I totally exhausted myself and had such a horrible time that I finally GOT IT! If there were any true gifts from those holidays, I counted them as those I learned--to love myself, to do the things that felt joyful, only, and to shed the rest.

My New Year’s resolution was to take a family vacation.  That is, a vacation from hosting anyone at Christmas except those who will savor our time together and have a reverence for the holy season.  I’m not a religious fanatic; just don’t ever want my Christmas dinner to devolve into a frat party.   That lesson was enough of a special gift given to me during that holiday season, or so I thought.  

As you know, Chelsea died just a month after my “horrible holidays.”  The next week, a small piece of paper kept falling out of my wallet. Written on it was the name of a golden retriever breeder I’d met by chance at a pet store/vet clinic with Chelsea two years earlier.  I wondered why it was still in my wallet.  I remembered the note, but thought I’d discarded it long before. 

At the time, I thought it was too soon for the Dog Angels to send me another.  However, I tried to visualize what it would be like when one did come my way.  Would a dog just show up on the doorstep in a box or with a bow on it?  After yet another day of that tiny scrap of paper finding its way into my hands, I decided what the heck and just called the number I’d scribbled down years before. 

“You may not remember me,” I said in the voicemail.  “Met you at the dog store.  Big peach and white colored husky; lost her too soon; kept finding your phone number on a scrap of paper in my wallet; wonder what that means.”

The return call erased any doubt of why I kept finding their phone number.  This picky breeder who only has one litter a year had a litter at that moment.  The pups were about eight weeks old and ready to be adopted soon.  Two were already spoken for, but the third, a big fluffy male, she had been thinking about keeping for herself.  My phone call changed that.  “You can have Nic if you like, I think I was holding onto him waiting for your call,” she said as if it was a perfectly rational explanation for the unexplainable.

“Nic?” I queried.

“Oh, you can change it, but we named him Saint Nicolas because the puppies were born on Christmas morning.” 

At that moment, I thought of Chelsea.  In my heart was this feeling she sent me a gift.  One final gift from her, for the big dog bones, the bed she never used, for the way we loved each other.  I said “thank you,” told the breeder I would be a good dog-mom, hung up the phone and cried – again.  I’d done it so often over the past few months.  This time my tears mingled with both joy and sorrow.  Khalil Gibran never spoke about those twin cups, equal in capacity to one another, being full at the same time. 

That first month, it was more than a bit of a challenge to orchestrate life smoothly.  My husband left for another deployment to the Middle East one week after Nic arrived.  If I had ten dollars for every pile of poop I cleaned up, Nic’s or Samuel’s, I’m sure we’d have gone to Hawaii the next Christmas. 

Getting Nic to the vet, with Samuel in tow, was a sight to see.  I kept visualizing the scene like one from an old silent movie:  Get Samuel in the car seat, lug the dog crate into the van, find a pile of poop in the hallway, clean it up with a note-to-self to put pup into room with vinyl flooring when prepping for next trip, load stroller in van, remember purse, cell phone and oh, yes, car keys.  Reverse process at vet clinic, to the hilarity of all on-lookers. 

I imagined it as if it were filmed in black and white – no voice over, just piano music and periodic cut-aways to subtitles.  Charlie Chaplin and the Keystone Cops would have been proud.  I still laugh when I think of it.  It’s my joy.  Heaven knows, after loving Chelsea, my big beautiful apricot and white dog, I’m gaining a great capacity for it. 

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