Growing up, my parents always strove to make each Christmas special and filled with wonderful traditions. Elizabeth's childhood had been similar, and when we started our own family we had both looked forward to making the same type of memories for Brendan. The picture at the top of the page is from the last Christmas that he and Liz shared together. The delight in Brendan's expression from playing with his new talking Elmo book is topped only by the joy on his mother's face as she takes in her son's smile.
As the first holiday after her death approached, I desperately wanted to do what I could to make up for her absence as Brendan awoke that Christmas morning. I was 29 at the time , and in hindsight, I was projecting my own feelings of loss somewhat onto my young son. Not that there is ever a good age to lose a parent, but a three-year old doesn't experience the same grief and comprehension of permanant loss as that of an older child. It still would be a little time before he would realize from talking with his new friends at preschool that he was the only one in class whose mommy lived in heaven.
I tried to compensate for our situation by going overboard with presents that year. When he walked down those steps on Christmas morning to see if Santa had come, I wanted him to be overwhelmed at the sight before him, in the misplaced hope that a room full of toys might make up for his mother not being there. To put the icing on the cake, I picked up one of those electric-powered cars that kids can sit in and drive with a working steering wheel and gas pedal (at a breakneck top speed of 2 mph.) As a kid, I had always wanted a go-cart for Christmas, and it was one of the few items in my annual letter to Santa that never was fulfilled. It was a little expensive, but I rationalized the purchase as a one-time indulgence to make up for this unusual holiday.
I woke Brendan up and went through the same routine that my father had gone through on Christmas morning when I was a child: "I think I heard hooves on the roof last night--do you think Santa really came?" Brendan smiled broadly in anticipation and I told him to wait at the top of the stairs while I went down to turn on the lights for the Christmas tree. "Oh my gosh," I exclaimed after the tree was plugged in, "he really did come--I don't believe all of this stuff! Come on down and see!!" Brendan bounded down the steps and was stopped short by the sight of all of the presents that awaited him. His eyes grew wide as he looked from wall to wall, and then got even wider when they settled on the electric car in the middle of the room. In a few moments however, I would be the one finding myself overwhelmed.
Brendan first ran up to sit in the car and turn the wheel from side to side. He then hopped out and began to go from present to present, some of them without any wrapping paper (as I had run out) but all of them with Christmas tags on them. He paused after taking a quick look at them all, and the excited smile was soon replaced by the beginnings of a frown. He checked a few more presents, and then walked over towards me with a look of concern on his face. I began to worry that my efforts to distract him with the sheer quantity of presents had failed, and asked, "What's the matter, buddy?" He reached up to hold my hand, and with his eyes brimming with tears said, "Daddy, Santa didn't bring you any presents..."
I was speechless for a moment and had to blink back tears myself. I knelt down to hug him, and assured him that Santa had brought my presents to Nana & Pop-Pop's house, which was my parents' house that we would be traveling to later in the day. I told him that Santa knew what an extra good boy he had been that year, and that he had wanted him to enjoy these special presents all for himself. The smile quickly returned to his face, and soon he dove back into the ocean of gifts and started tearing off wrapping paper to discover one new toy after another.
I sat back and was blown away by what had just happened. A lot of people feel that Christmas has become too commercialized, and that the true meaning of the holiday has been replaced by excess. I had played right into that stereotype, thinking that a room full of gifts might make up for a missing parent. But it took a child able to ignore all of the material things that surrounded him to focus on what was most important, putting compassion for another person ahead of his own feelings. Looking back on it now, I realize one other thing--Brendan and I were not alone that morning. Elizabeth was there as well, our angel watching over us from on top of the tree. She had already filled our hearts with a gift that we would be able to open in year after year: love.