Five AM. Awakened with a thought I can’t put down until I put it down here. The house is dark, quiet. Phones are dark, quiet. Light rain falling outside. Christmas lights still burning on the house across the street, colored streaks across wet pavement. Christmas lights…bright reminders that another year is shuffling offstage with yet another bouncing in the wings. The tree downstairs is dark, but we’ll light it up and gather around in just a few more days. I suppose the word breathless best describes the last few weeks’ run up to Christmas, and I’m left with unlikely Christmas images in the five AM darkness.
Five nights ago, waiting at a stoplight, I have a front row seat at the crosswalk.
Through the passenger window, I catch what must be father and daughter beginning their walk across the intersection. Moving very slowly. I wonder if they’ll get across in time. Both carry cardboard coffee cups in their right hands, but while his free arm swings with each step, I notice hers held stiffly bent against her side. She appears eleven or twelve years old as I collect details: left hand curled cruelly back at the wrist, left foot turned sharply inward and the limping shuffle it creates, thick glasses and puffy features…it dawns why they move so slowly across my glass screen.
Father matches her pace with practiced grace. Unhurried, vaguely protective, but not hovering either. They went to Starbucks. He bought her coffee or more likely hot chocolate amid all those lights and decorations in the store. I wondered how it all appeared to her through those thick glasses. How she must have smiled looking around, up at him, back around. I wondered how it all appeared to him…being forced to walk so slowly, to match that shuffling pace, endlessly responsible for eleven or twelve years—for the rest of her life. Or the rest of his.
Was it still a struggle? Or as his movement through the crosswalk suggested, had he moved slow enough, long enough to learn to see life as his daughter saw it, would always see it? When he realized he couldn’t change her, had she changed him?
How did he see it? The chance of a daughter like his? A tragedy? A great blessing? A blessing none of us would ever choose, but when chosen for us, immense, if eventually accepted without resistance? Or was all that long enough behind him that the only remaining reality was his daughter’s pace keeping time in the crosswalk—no other label applied or needed? The hot chocolate and the unhurried, unselfconscious walk in front of all those windshields implied so much about the absorption of the beloved into those who love long enough.
Christmas has a way of bringing vague, submerged feelings to the surface the way hook and line bring up fish. We find ourselves suddenly grasping squirming emotions that should have nothing to do with Christmas, with what we think Christmas is supposed to mean, what we remember it used to mean. You see, we imprint the meaning of Christmas through a child’s eyes, then subtly mourn its loss each year through adult eyes.
Christmas hasn’t changed; the possibility of Christmas returns every December. We have changed. We’ve lost the pace of childhood, the priorities of childhood, making meaning-as-remembered inaccessible. I’m thinking maybe Christmas-as-remembered happens exactly when we stop trying to make it happen. When we stop running faster and faster trying to catch the stored experience of Christmas—slow enough not to spill our hot chocolate—maybe meaning finally has a chance to catch up and catch us. Maybe the real blessed ones among us are the ones whose life hands them a child or a challenge or a challenged child that once accepted, resets pace and priority.
It’s light now. Gray and wet outside. Christmas lights still burn across the street, but muted, casting no reflections. My house will wake soon, the phone will ring. This quiet moment will pass—is passing—like the eye of a storm. I can’t choose the pace of life around me anymore than I can alter the course of a storm. But maybe I can choose my own pace within it. Maybe I can allow myself to shuffle slowly through the crosswalk with a warm cardboard cup in my hand and the sense of a patient father at my side.