The year is 1991. Mrs. Accountant and I had a foster child that year. On Christmas morning I was to take him to his mother for a day. We got up early and dressed for the chilly morn. I lived in town at the time. His mother lived in apartments near the Valley Fair Mall, the first mall in America.
The mall is gone now, replaced by a variety of shops, a gas station, and a movie theater. The apartments still stand. As I drove down Memorial Drive we rounded the curve toward the apartments. The road was dead quiet. No cars anywhere. It felt peaceful. A major highway completely empty. It only happens once per year on Christmas morning. I stopped the car in the middle of the road and watched a lone snowflake land on the glass and melt. I leaned forward and looked up at the early morning sky out the windshield. The hair on my skin rose with gooseflesh.
“Where is everyone,” asked my foster child, a huge young man from a family with more issues than I care to remember.
“They are sleeping,” I said in barely a whisper. “Resting. But not for long. They are exhausted from all the running and spending. Resting for a day. Tomorrow they will be back, crazed as ever, credit card in hand.” I turned to my foster child, “Never be like them.”
There is a tavern near my office, owned by a client. It is Christmas Eve. I finish a few details in the office before heading home to be with my family. The lights are on at the tavern I do tax work for. I stop. There is only one customer in the place, another client.
All the TVs are off save one. That television has a game of basketball playing. The announcer’s voice is the only sound in the room. As the customer’s glass nears the bottom, the bartender refills it without a word. The words of Billy Joel come to mind:
“Yes, they’re sharing a drink called “Loneliness”, but it’s better than drinking alone.”
I wish them “Merry Christmas”, shaking their hands with a wide smile. They smile back, but their eyes do not. I turn and go home to my wife and daughters.
The next year on Christmas Eve I decided to visit a client in the nearby nursing home. She doesn’t come in anymore; she doesn’t make enough and isn’t required to file. The hallways are empty and silent. I walk to her room. I can hear the sound of my footsteps on the carpet. The sound of a small low-quality television is coming from her room.
The door is slightly ajar. I tap. Nothing. I slowly push the door open. My client turns, smiling at recognizing a familiar face. She says nothing. Words are hard for her; she is 97. She hasn’t had a visitor in decades. Her husband died thirty years ago. Her parents and siblings are residents of the local cemetery. She never remarried or had children. I hold her hand as a 1950s sitcom plays in black and white on the TV. Her hand is cold, clammy. She places her other hand on the top of mine. The warmth of my hand warms hers. No words are spoken.
I stand to leave and say, “Merry Christmas”, giving her a hug and a kiss on the forehead. She has a pale smile. A solitary tear streams from her rheumy eyes.
Three days later she dies.
I live and work in a rural farming community. A client of many years with a drinking problem left the house one Christmas Eve. He walked to the barn, the pain of life too much to bear.
The next morning the children wondered where dad had gone. They find their father in the barn hanging from the end of a rope. It is early Christmas morning.
Fifteen years after our foster child went home for good with his mother he notices me at my new office location and stops. He introduces me to his girlfriend. I don’t know what to say. He explains he was hooked on drugs and his mother was the one who introduced him to the drugs. It ended his college and football career. He is a big boy. He could easily have made it in the big league if things were different.
We shook hands and he left. I never saw him again. That was ten years ago.
When the world was half a thousand years younger all events had much sharper outlines than now. The distance between sadness and joy, between good and bad fortune, seemed to be much greater than for us; every experience had that degree of directness and absoluteness that joy and sadness still have in the mind of a child. So begins Johan Huizinga’s The Autumn of the Middle Ages.
That gapping dichotomy of joy and sadness only exists around Christmas now.
The office is growing quiet as Christmas approaches. I stare out the window behind my desk and wonder which client I will see this year. The employees are joking and laughing across the way. All day clients came in dropping off gifts. I don’t give gifts. It doesn’t matter. There was a gift on my desk this morning from my Secret Santa. Chocolate. Dawn, of course.
It is nighttime now. Mrs. Accountant and my youngest daughter are in bed. My oldest daughter sits on the couch watching a movie on her computer. She can see something is wrong. I fill my water glass nearly to the top with Jack and take a deep draught.
I carry the whisky to the front window and look up at the clear winter sky. After a few minutes I put on a light jacket and walk outside. My oldest gets mom and her sister. They watch out the window, afraid I might walk toward the barn.
The sky is filled with diamonds of sparkling points. The crisp winter air causes me to shiver. I wonder if one of those stars has a planet and on that planet is an intelligent creature looking up from her night sky and wondering if anyone is looking back. I wonder.
I tip the cup and drink deeply, allowing the liquid to burn as it goes down. The stars are not crisp anymore. The alcohol is doing its job of killing the pain and blinding my sight. The whisky is reaching its conclusion. I take a deep breath and wonder if my client is at the bar again this Christmas Eve drinking alone.
I wonder. I wonder what happened to our foster children, if they ever had a chance at life. I wonder.
I wonder if the old woman is in heaven with her husband now. I wonder if she ever found peace.
Tomorrow is Christmas Day. Memorial Drive will be as silent as a horror movie the day after the world ends. I will not be there to witness the event.
Two girls look out the window at their dad, one woman at her husband. They can see I am weeping. They know I carry a heavy burden, a burden of years loving and caring for the people I serve. They also know there is a mental and emotional price to pay for caring so deeply for the people you serve.
The whisky is gone now, but the pain remains. Clouds begin to obscure the stars and a few fluffy flakes of snow gently travel to the ground. Mrs. Accountant and the girls are at my side and nudging me to return to the warmth of our home. I know why they are there. They are worried I might not find my way into the house and instead walk to the barn.
They take me by the elbow and guide me back inside as I bid farewell to another year and another