The first Christmas I was truly on my own, I left a party and drove back to my apartment late on Christmas Eve. There wasn’t any snow, but the air was sharp and cold. My breath fogged the windshield in my little car and my fingers – I hadn’t remembered my gloves – were stiff. I hunched over the icy steering wheel as I made my way to my empty apartment.
I was 20 years old and I felt as alone as anyone could be. I was, as Charles Dickens wrote of Ebenezer Scrooge, as solitary as an oyster.
Moving slowly through shadowy neighborhood streets lined with pretty houses – upright two-story houses and tiny cottages sitting side by side – I passed quiet homes that just hours before had been full of noise and excitement.
The streets were dark and empty, but I began to notice that many of the houses were not. It was almost midnight but lights were still shining, and through the wide front windows I could see men and women moving about.
Finally, passing one house after another, in neighborhoods with swing sets and bicycles in the back yards, I realized what was happening. And I stopped…
The people moving carefully around rooms decorated with beautiful trees strung with lights and tinsel and topped by angels and stars in rooms with stockings hung from the mantel, were mothers and fathers. They were busy doing the work that parents do at that time of night on Christmas Eve.
I drove on slowly, but I forgot about going straight home, forgot that I was cold and lonely, and began to turn down side streets, cruising through neighborhoods, moving from one animated window-scene to the next.
I looked hungrily at the secret side of Christmas Eve, the bringing-out of packages that had been hidden in secret places; the opening of boxes; the assembling of surprises to delight a child.
I remembered how it felt to be the child that would run into those rooms in just a few hours. I wondered how it felt to be one of the weary parents; how it felt to be in their place.
On Christmas Eve, seven years later, I nursed my first child and put her into her crib. Then, I went to work. She was too young to care, too young to even want or need a surprise under the tree.
But it was my turn.
Three more babies followed, and many more Christmas Eves. Sometimes, before I turned out the lights and went to bed, I walked outside and stood in the street gazing into my own windows. I remembered how it felt to be outside.
That was a long time ago. For 20 years I’ve moved quietly in my own home on the night before Christmas.
I don’t know where life will take my children or if I’ll always be geographically close enough to be a part of their lives. I hope so. So badly my heart hurts. But I don’t know.
But I do know that if I ever find myself as alone as I was that Christmas Eve night I won’t sit at home, nodding on the sofa as the television blinks in the darkness. I’ll get into my car, this time I’ll remember my gloves and maybe a thermos of tea, and I’ll go for another ride.