I woke up Christmas morning and snuck into the guest room to grab the four-foot tall sock monkey I’d bought our son, Eddie. He’d seen it in our local drug store two weeks ago and squealed every time he looked over at it, but we decided not to buy it. Last night, when I ran out to buy cat food, I grabbed the monkey before I went to the register, even though it cost $30, and I had to mend a little hole in it when I got home.
I crept into Eddie’s room with the monkey behind my back and walked up to his crib. He was awake and standing at the bars. “Ta da!” I said, pulling the monkey out from behind my back. Eddie looked at me, and then at the monkey, and then back at me, and then like any other morning, he reached his arms up toward me as if to say, get me the heck out of here.
I changed his diaper and then carried him into our bedroom, dragging the sock monkey behind me. My husband, Bruce, was sitting on the bed. I sat down next to him and put Eddie on my lap and gave him a bottle. When he was done, I propped him up on the bed and handed him a gift, which was neatly wrapped in striped paper and burgundy ribbon. Eddie dropped the gift and picked up his empty bottle and began sucking on it. He then pulled it out of his mouth and started playing with the nipple of the bottle with his finger. I don’t remember if he kicked the gift box away with his feet or if it just felt that way.
I grabbed his gift, peeled off the ribbon, and tore at the paper, slowly, waiting for Eddie to take my lead. He just sat there fingering his bottle. I took his hand and closed it on the paper and started tearing it off the box. He grabbed a piece of the wrapping paper and sat back and stuck it in his mouth, as if his work was done. I continued to rip off the paper until I got to the box of Lego’s inside. I opened up the package and dumped the Lego’s on the bed. Eddie looked at them, smiled briefly, and then stuck the piece of wrapping paper back in his mouth. I handed him a red Lego piece. He stared at it for a moment like it was an ancient relic and then grabbed it and plunged it into his mouth.
“Those are nice Eggos,” Bruce said to him.
“Did you just say ‘Eggos?’ “ I asked.
“I did,” he said.
Bruce gave me one of my Christmas presents – a pair of earrings in a blue jewelry box. As I opened the earrings, first the large box in which Bruce had put it to conceal what it was, then a smaller cardboard box, and then the classic velvet jewelry box that snaps open and shut, Eddie was at my side watching, his little paw of a hand on my thigh. When I finally got to the earrings, he was pulling on my arm and on the box. I took the cardboard jewelry box, stuck the red Lego inside it, and closed the lid and began to shake it like a maracas. Eddie grabbed it and started shaking it and giggling.
“’Baby’s first Christmas’ is really his third,” my brother, Richie, said later that day.
That afternoon, we went to Bruce’s sister’s house for a meal. When we arrived, Bruce’s two-year-old niece emerged wearing a beautiful beige and gold dress. She’s a pretty girl, and with her fine blonde hair, she looked like a Christmas princess – though she must have changed out of the dress at some point because when we sat down to eat, she was wearing a red dress and pink tights.
The first time Eddie saw her at Thanksgiving, he accosted her. I don’t know if it was her beauty or that he was thrilled to see someone his age. Either way, she couldn’t get away from him fast enough. This time, however, Eddie was glad to see her, but it was she who kept pulling him close so that their faces were touching, as if she was posing for a photo, and he who was pulling away like the female cat in the cartoon Pepe le Pew.
But while the girl may have wanted Eddie close to her person, she wanted him far away from her stuff. She had a fuzzy pink rocking horse that Eddie saw and wanted to ride. But when the girl saw his interest, she dragged the horse away. When Eddie saw she had a little plastic tricycle, he tried to ride it, but upon seeing this, she abandoned the horse and jumped on to the tricycle and rode it away. With no toys left with which to play, Eddie crawled into the hallway and grabbed on to the knob of a wooden cabinet and lifted himself up. He began opening and closing the cabinet door. The girl saw this, walked over to the cabinet door and grabbed the knob. She then removed a little plaque that hung from the knob by a string and walked away, almost like Dr. Seuss’s Grinch who Stole Christmas, who not only stole the Christmas presents and stockings from the homes of the Who’s, but he stole all pictures from the walls as well as the nails on which they hung.
Eddie’s too young to be selfish because he doesn’t yet value possessions. I’m not even sure he knows what it means to possess. He’s more concerned about his bottle and his snacks, though given the chance, he won’t just take one orange slice if he can easily hold two.
As we drove home, I read to Bruce an article written by a woman I’d met when I lived in Budapest back in 1993. Even though I rarely saw her these days, I felt an attachment to her because she was the first person I met there. She was the managing editor at the newspaper that had hired me, and she had picked me up at the airport and let me stay with her for a few days until I found my own place. For those first three or four days there, I remained cloistered in her apartment, nursing a jet lag and clinging to her and her husband like a life preserver because I was afraid to go outside. The only time I left the apartment was to go down to the courtyard of their Socialist-architecture apartment complex to use the pay phone to call Bruce, dropping in pockets full of forint coins for a phone call that would last only a minute or two. When I last saw Susan a few years ago, we were both back in the States, and she was a court reporter for a newspaper in Florida, though I’d seen on Facebook recently that she’d resigned and had posted photos from a trip she’d taken to see the Northern Lights in the Yukon territory of Canada. When I wrote her to ask what was going on, she said she’d written an article about it that explained everything. As I read the article to Bruce, Susan told of how she’d been diagnosed during the summer with Lou Gehrig’s disease and that it had always been a wish of hers to see the Northern Lights. She and a childhood friend made the trip to Canada to see the lights, but her friend had to dress her every day in layers and layers of clothing because the disease had already progressed to the point where she could no longer use her hands. She wrote how every day for three days, they would go outside waiting to see the Northern Lights. By the third day, she says she stopped checking the auroral forecast because she knew she couldn’t change anything. “What’s meant to be, is meant to be,” and “I don’t know what’s meant to be,” she thought — the same concept she said she ’s conveyed to her children when they ask her if she’s going to die.
Bruce found the article inspiring. Life affirming. It made him want to go out and do things. I felt that way, too, but more, it made me profoundly sad. I couldn’t stop thinking about Susan.
The following morning as I was changing Eddie’s diaper, I tickled his belly, and he began to laugh. I looked into his eyes and thought what if I knew I’d only see those smiling eyes for another year or two. I couldn’t imagine the courage it must take to face your imminent death, to know you’ll never see your children again, that they’ll grow up without you, and that they’ll feel an enormous amount of pain when you leave. To know you won’t get to live anymore, to have pancakes and thick syrup or warm chocolate chip cookies, or smell a fire burning on a cold night or feel hopeful at seeing a sunrise. I’m not brave. I’d be grabbing at the dirt like a child might grab onto a banister as he’s being dragged up to bed.
My father had to face the end of his life at 62 when he was diagnosed with esophageal cancer and told he had six months to live. He didn’t wax poetic about it like Christopher Hitchens or try to see all that was magnificent in the world, like Susan. He got depressed and bought a bunch of books about letting go, because he found it almost impossible to do.
I heard on the radio today that Steve Jobs’ last words were, “Oh, wow. Oh, wow. Oh, wow.” Perhaps when we finally let go, we find bliss.
One can only hope.