A couple of years ago I got sick for Christmas. For me, that's nothing new: I was the kid who always got sick on holidays. In third grade I was so anxious over the Baby Tender Love doll I desperately wanted from Santa Claus that I fell apart on Christmas Eve and barfed sugar cookies all night. At 11, when I was the class fat girl and shunned by all but a couple of other misfit kids, I broke out in chicken pox on the morning of Valentine's Day and went to school anyway -- I'd spent the previous evening hopefully spackling 32 heart-shaped doilies with paste and glitter. I fainted from an undiagnosed case of mono as I walked into my 16th birthday party, a "surprise" event that I had, of course, known about and breathlessly anticipated for weeks.
Adulthood, as you might imagine, only exacerbates these kinds of constitutional Waterloos. Let's see: There was the week-long flu I contracted over Christmas when my son, Zachary, was just a month old and I'd flown to Alaska to show him off to my family; there was the emergency appendectomy a few days before Thanksgiving a couple of years later. On another Thanksgiving, when my future husband invited me to meet his entire family for the first time, not even a just-diagnosed case of walking pneumonia could keep me away. As I sat trembling and feverish (but not contagious!) at the table, a brother-in-law sat beside me compulsively tapping his butter knife on the rim of a bone china tea cup and nattering on: "The last girlfriend Gary brought home for Thanksgiving wrote a bestseller," he brayed. "Gary's last girlfriend won the Pulitzer Prize!"
Who can take this kind of pressure? Apparently not me. Even as an adult, I know the yearning I felt as every childhood holiday approached. Like a phantom limb, I can still feel it: the aching desire that somehow, in some unnamable way, each birthday and Christmas and Easter and Thanksgiving would be just what I wanted it to be. (As a child, I relied on other people to make that happen; as an adult, and perhaps especially after I became a wife and mother, I assumed it was up to me.) I've never known exactly what it was that I expected, but I knew I needed the holidays to be utterly satisfying, to be perfect -- and inherent in that perfection is, I think, a hope that somehow (a bestseller? a Pulitzer Prize?) my life would be changed. And on a pretty regular basis my body has to talk me down from the narrow ledge of my unrealistic expectations.
One Christmas I was campaigning again for a Baby Tender Love, but a real one this time, and two years of disappointment and infertility had probably taken their toll on my immune system. By Christmas Eve I was too lightheaded to accompany Gary and our little boy on his annual pilgrimage to Santa, and that night we canceled a long-planned dinner with friends. Instead of prawns and trifle we had ramen noodles in the bedroom, where I was shivering under two down comforters even though I was wearing a hooded sweatshirt over my nightgown and long johns and slippers underneath. Later that night I could hear Santa drinking Johnny Walker, eating cookies and swearing while he put together a Playmobile castle by the fireplace, but I couldn't do anything about it.
By Christmas morning I was impressively ill and had dragged a pallet of blankets into the bathroom so that I could puke directly into the bathtub. The squeals of juvenile delight (from 7-year-old Zachary and 42-year-old Gary) as paper was ripped and stockings dumped out on the carpet in front of the tree several rooms away just made me feel sorry for myself: It was Christmas, and instead of vomiting happily from morning sickness, I was sitting on the bathroom floor in a stinky Lanz nightgown, cooling my feverish cheek on the tile, too sick to enjoy a single moment.
We were expected, as we are every year, at Gary's mother's house for Christmas brunch and later in the afternoon at his dad's for dinner. Getting dressed was out of the question, let alone leaving our apartment. The only reasonable solution was for Gary to take Zachary to his grandparents -- I could hardly move, and there was no need for everyone's Christmas to be ruined. Gary helped me mummify myself in clean blankets on the living room couch, and there I collapsed for the rest of Christmas, clutching my liter of flat ginger ale, tree lights twinkling behind my head, a remote tucked under my pillow so that when I got through napping I could progress to cable and peruse the yuletide movie offerings.
And you know what? It wasn't so bad. After a long, depleted snooze and some lukewarm tea, I sat through a marathon of thoroughly enjoyable Bing Crosby and Jimmy Stewart movies. By late afternoon I got that sick-time second wind, perked up enough to discover that Gary had forgotten to take the persimmon pudding (the making of which had put me over the edge the day before), which I ate during the last saccharine moments of "Blue Skies." It was the first Christmas Day I could recall that was utterly relaxed: I didn't have to rush around throwing away paper and boxes and cleaning up before people came over; I didn't have to try to cook an elaborate meal while little children begged me to play Junior Monopoly with them; I didn't have to rush from house to house and worry whether I'd brought the right stack of presents; I didn't have to remind myself I was having a wonderful time while I was really preoccupied with making everything happen. I had a little pudding and felt a little lonesome for my family and watched the ornaments sway in the breath of the heater.
Late in the evening, Gary came home carrying a weeping, overstimulated boy through the front door and into his bed. After he'd brought in a couple of large shopping bags full of presents for me from the relatives, Gary went to the kitchen and made me a plate of leftover pheasant in Calvados cream sauce or whatever it was. My boy was collapsed on his bed with his clothes on; my husband poured himself a scotch and sat beside me while I opened my presents. I was sitting there in my nightgown on Christmas night, the tree winking behind me, engulfed by a pile of presents I didn't need from people who had genuinely missed me, and it occurred to me that it was the first holiday when I'd ever had a chance to reflect on those corny clichés about gratitude, goodwill, comfort (well, sort of) and joy. If I hadn't gotten sick I might not have noticed that, though it isn't anywhere near perfect, mine is, all in all, a pretty wonderful life.