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  • Writer's pictureWhitney Pearl

Home for Christmas

The wrappings are strewn haphazardly at the base of our Christmas tree. A light is blinking brightly on one of the many hastily opened and soon forgotten toys. I can hear them laughing from the other room, as they huddle into a large cardboard box that they’ve cloaked in blankets, and transformed into the snuggliest Christmas cave. Cookie crumbs are scattered at the entrance, their trail of joy more apparent than the one left by Hansel and Gretal. I smile, and I feel it in my face, but also– in my heart. There is a soft ache somewhere deep in my chest; a mingling of elation and pain and wistful emptiness. Months of preparing and joyful, childish anticipation, all gone in less than an hour, scattered around my living room like so many discarded ribbons and bows.

“Mama, get out my pretty baby!” My two year old demands, chubby feet slapping heavily on the wood floor as she tetters over to me with her box in hand.

I look at her with slight reproach, but can’t keep the smile from showing in my eyes. She sees it, too.

She looks up at me under her lashes– only two, but she knows a thing or two about manipulation, “Pweeeeeease,” she croons.

I can’t say no to that, and I don’t want to, either. “Let me see.” I scoop her up, and she laughs. I nuzzle into her small neck and take a deep whiff of her quickly-fading baby smell. That ache hits in my chest again; happiness and melancholy mingling as I hold her in my lap and disentangle her baby doll from packaging that was surely designed for the sole purpose of driving parents to madness. At last, I conquer the packaging, and I feel harried and sweaty and exhausted, but I hand the doll over, and she clutches it to her chest.

“I love you, mommy,” she says as she slides out of my lap and runs off, disappearing with her baby doll into the folds of the Christmas fort. I take another sip of my coffee, ready to savor its warmth, only to be met with an icy chill. I sigh heavily, dramatically, and rise to my feet, clutching the cold cup.

“Hey, honey, do you want some more coffee?” I ask my husband.

He flinches like I’ve slapped him, “Oh— yeah. Definitely. I’m gonna need it,” he says, and hands me his cup with a smile that doesn’t touch his eyes.

“Long night?” I ask gently– carefully.

“Yeah,” his voice sounds old, really old. But he’s not old. His heart is just weary.

“Do you want to talk about it?” I want to know. Desperately– I need to know, so that I can help in the right way, but I don’t want to push too hard.

“Not in front of the kids…” he trails off and stares at the star on the top of our Christmas tree. I know that’s not what he’s looking at, though. He’s looking inward, and I can tell that whatever he is reliving is a nightmare.

“They’re in the other room,” I push, but only with a little bit of pressure, really. I can’t help if I don’t know, “You don’t have to say much, but can you just give me an idea?” I don’t know how to avoid triggering him if he won’t give me some idea, but in truth, he’s not allowed to say. So, we tow a very thin line with these conversations. Just enough information that I can support him, but not so much that he’s dishonoring his patients.

He’s still staring at the star when he replies in a not quite whisper, “suicide.”

One word, and I’ve conjured up an image so horrific that a small, soft gasp escapes me. I tamp down my exclamations, though, because I need a little more than that to support him right. “Were they successful?” I ask quietly.

“Yes,” he says, and he finally meets my eyes. There are tears that he won’t dare shed brimming in his green eyes. A small fissure gnaws open in my heart at the sight of them.

“Were you first on scene?”

“Right after law enforcement,” he says matter- of-factly, shutting down the emotional toll before it can sweep him away in an endless tide of despair.

“Did you still have to go in?” I feel a small nudge of guilt at asking him so many questions, but– I have to know. It matters if he had to go in. “I’m sorry– I just want to help.”

He looks at me with slight irritation before he speaks again, “I just really don’t want to talk about it…” he goes quiet, but I leave it. I wait this out, because I know he’ll eventually answer my question. Deep down he also knows that I’ll need to help him with this. He sighs and then looks to make sure the kids are still in the other room, “Yes. I had to go in...He still had a pulse when we got there…” He pauses, as if trying to figure out how much to say– what to say, “ was bad– there was nothing we could do.” He looks at me with a soft pleading in his eyes, but he won’t speak anymore, I can see that much.

“I am so sorry, honey.” I walk over and let him rest his head on my chest for a long minute. There is nothing else I can do, not really– not now. I try to imagine that I can suck some of the pain out of him with my lingering embrace– it makes me feel better, at least.

Finally, he sighs and pulls away from my grasp. He quirks a bitter grin, and it’s a little bit of a grimace, but at least some emotion shows in his eyes this time, “I’m sorry that I might be a little weird today.” He gazes unseeingly at the tree once more, and then a small tremor shakes him and he looks at me clear eyed– battered, but himself again, “weren’t you gonna get me coffee?” he teases softly.

I smile, but it feels heavy. I lean down and plant a soft kiss on his lips, “Definitely.” I turn and grab his mug, but before I can leave the room he stands up and wraps his arms around me, and crushes me awkwardly to his chest. The mugs in my hands clink behind his back and cold coffee sloshes onto the couch, but neither of us care. We’re both aware that we’re standing together in the eye of a storm. And somehow, it’s enough to know that we are there, together. “I love you,” I mumble into his chest and he squishes me harder still.

“I love you,” he says with sad desperation in his voice as we stand there too long. I pull away and he puts a hand on my cheek and smiles that melancholy smile that’s been hiding in my heart, “Merry Christmas.” he whispers. And my heart is full and broken and longing and bittersweet and heavy as a lead weight in my chest.

“Merry Christmas,” I reply. And I mean it. Merry Christmas, indeed.

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