Christmas makes me anxious. Not the crowds or malls. Not the potential snowfall on slick roads. Not the boatload of family time or the questions grandparents may ask about the direction your life is going. Not even having to balance a yoga teaching schedule when everyone else has time off. It’s the gift giving.
I do love Christmas presents. I’m no Scrooge. I loved helping my mom wrap Christmas presents as a kid — down in the basement with our hot chocolates, her teaching me how to fold perfectly over box corners and me picking out the pretty paper. These days I enjoy wrapping Christmas gifts for the people I love in the most eco-friendly and festive packaging possible. Christmas gifts are awesome. You get to open little surprises, things you had never thought to give yourself but things that someone else did. And sometimes, it is just as simple as getting what you wanted—a Jimmy Buffett blanket, a dog, that J. Crew robe, a red sweater, dark nail polish….
Then there was the Christmas of 2006 when my dad got me a Destiny’s Child CD. Worst gift ever. Terrible, and it has little to do with whether or not I like the band. We were in the thick of the years of compulsive Christmas lists. Before 1996, Christmases were just great. My mom, Dad, the Golden Retriever, and the cats all woke up early, had breakfast, and opened all the things we wanted before we shared the rest of Christmas day with our family and friends. Each Christmas after his brain injury, my father got progressively more difficult when it came to my mom and me helping him give the gifts he wanted to give. He got impatient. He got demanding. He got nasty. He got to the point that he stole a CD from Wal-Mart to give to his daughter for Christmas. By then, I was over Christmas gifts.
Yet, we are not a family to give up on Christmas, so my mom and I have built our strategies around his brain injury, which leave me with two Christmas lists. The first list comes from my father. It’s a long list of things he wants to “Get Claudia For Xmas,” like a stereo for the car, a diamond bracelet, this DVD, these five CDS, these four books, a necklace. His list is a nice cocktail of things I simply cannot afford and others my mother does not particularly want. None of that matters, because he’s determined to get every single one. He’s taken a credit card that’s not his, money from my mom’s purse, and tried to use my debit card. Keep in mind, my dad’s cash flow is low for his own good (a hot topic for another blog post). He’ll beg, borrow, or steal to fund his Christmas giving. The second list from my mother is titled: “Things your father can get me for Xmas.” She understands that my dad wants to give, so she sets us both up with a list of very specific items like: "a blue sweater from Coldwater Creek (should be on sale), the ring I picked out from the catalogue (your father knows) and consequently has picked out an entirely different bracelet from an entirely different catalogue, Clinique Elixir, a bit for Ex (I’ll show you), and a book, Nine Horses, by Billy Collins."
It’s when I have these two lists tucked into my wallet that the Christmas anxiety kicks in. How am going to make two parents happy? I can never figure out which of these options may work best. Option 1: Try to get my father to understand that his gift giving is sub par and really expensive but that he has a brain injury and that’s why and it’s okay. Or, option 2: Try to get myself to understand that my father has a brain injury, and that it’s okay that his gift-giving is sub par, and I’m probably making this a bigger deal than it is. I wonder how my family ended up in this crappy situation in the first place. How can I afford all of this? Why did I become a yoga-teacher-slash-writer again? Let’s give up gifting! And so begins the downward spiral into the deep, dark place of Christmas brain injury effects.
But why do we need gifts anyway? We have each other and delicious mimosas on Christmas morning and lots of time with family. We have all kinds of wonderful smelling pine, and some years there is fluffy white snow. We have all these traditions, so why buy twenty unnecessary things for my mother, which compete with the five things she actually wants?
It’s my dad’s family that is BIG on Christmas packages. We swap names and do a big exchange every year. The three of us load up the car (and the dog) and travel to my Aunt Biz’s house in Ohio where we are met with tons of food, more animals, and piles of packages. Everyone gets a seat in proximity to his or her pile. There are smoke breaks, snack breaks, and rules to follow. Good Lord, do not open out of turn! Every year it’s a production of giving and getting.
Last year, as we were sorting the packages, my mom pulled me aside. “I don’t see your dad’s pile,” she said. I shrugged. There were towers and piles everywhere, so I was sure his pile sat somewhere in the living room. “Where’s John’s pile?” She asked around.
“Hey, where’s your Uncle John’s pile?” I asked my cousin Carrie, the pile organizer of the year. It turns out, in 2013, there was a foul-up in the exchanging of names. Two people got Gram, and no one got John. My dad didn’t have a pile. He had no Christmas gifts. Who was going to tell him? Aunt Biz finally did. “Sorry, John we forgot you this year.” She tried to laugh, but it wasn’t funny. My mom and I couldn’t figure out if we were more angry or sad at this situation. He tries too hard to give, but then gets nothing. I sat down beside him.
“Dad, I’m really sorry. This is just crappy.”
“Noooo. It’s okay,” Dad said, squeezing his arm around my shoulders. “I have family. I’ll be okay. I have a great family. You all have gifts.”
He had one gift that day. Someone always breaks the rules by buying a present for someone whose name they didn’t have. Someone got him a book. He loves books. He read that book while other people opened their presents. He broke a major rule, but no one cared.