December 6 — On Saturday morning a truck backs into the driveway of the house next door. I go upstairs and look out the window. A heavy-set man wearing a stocking cap and parka pulls a red wagon with wooden side protectors up the ramp, through thick snowfall, into the van from Cowboy Moving & Storage. The wagon belongs to Isabella, a 3-year-old whose parents aren’t sure they belong together. I lower the shade, wipe the tears from my face.
Isabella loves to feed the fish who spend summers in the ceramic pot in our front garden. A few weeks ago, while her mother and I talk, the child rearranges the smooth stones in the wooden bowl on our table. I was the first neighbor on the block to hold her after she was born. She and her parents and baby sister are still in Denver, just not next door. Things change but that doesn’t mean I have to like it.
December 12 — “I want to adopt the kids.” Tony and I have finished a bowl of popcorn and gone to bed. He runs his fingers through my hair. “Tess and Pierce will be in my life forever. They have no relationship with Holly. I’m the mother they know, and they have become my children. I’d like to formalize things, to tighten the strings.”
“That’s very sweet.” There’s a pause. “Have you talked to them about the idea?”
No, I hadn’t, and ask him to talk to them first. If adoption is not what they want, I imagine them struggling through the conversation, afraid of disappointing, not knowing how to say no.
“Becky would like to adopt both of you.” The three of them are in the car, approaching home. Tony has them captive. He parks in the driveway. Pierce listens. Tess talks.
“But won’t Mommy’s feelings be hurt?” She’s crying. “I know we don’t have a relationship with her but what if, some day, what if she’s better and she wants to have a relationship with us? She won’t be able to because Becky will be our mother.”
She’s sobbing now. “Only I know she’ll never get better.” Her voice trails off. The car, with four locked doors, holds her grief. Father and brother sit with the pain, hers and theirs. A full minute passes.
“What about you?” Tony looks at Pierce. “How are you with the idea?”
The more wounded one meets his father’s eyes, shrugs his shoulders. “It’s not like we have a relationship with her now,” he says, then drops his gaze. Tony turns to Tess.
“How do you think Becky will feel if you say no?” He needs to close the circle.
“I know Becky loves me enough to forgive me. I don’t know if Mommy does.”
December 24 — I cook ribs and sauerkraut, a Christmas Eve tradition my mother started years ago. We attend a candlelight service at a presbyterian church, and come home to a fondue pot filled with melted dark, mint-flavored Ghirardelli chocolate. We poke carry-out chopsticks through marshmellows, fresh raspberries, strawberries and chunks of banana. One stick crosses another and sends a raspberry ricochetting across the room, splattering the red lamp shade with dripping chocolate. We each open one gift, then another, and finally see no point in waiting until morning. We open all of them.
Gourmet’s new cookbook, a cutting board from Williams-Sonoma, and a red Le Creuset pot tell the story: the family supports me as their cook. Tony hands me a little black box. When I’ve opened the earrings, he hands me another, slightly larger box containing the necklace.
“You’re the glue that holds this family together. Thanks for making Christmas special.”
I smile, wondering if he can read my mind. Sometimes I don’t want to be the glue. Sometimes I want nothing to stick—not one responsibility, not one expectation, from them or the tapes in my head or the society we live in. Some days I want to fly.
December 25 — I call my brother in Chicago. He tells me he just spent an hour on the phone with Peter Kinkade. Peter’s father, Doc Kinkade, delivered my brothers and me. He made house calls, stitched cut lips, nursed us through the measles and poison oak and mysterious viral infections. The Kinkade family lived next door. My brothers and I grew up with the five kids. Every year, on December 25th, Mary, the mother, would walk over with a loaf of her Christmas bread, dripping in icing, fresh from the oven.
“Peter’s wife, Annie, died last Saturday. Fifty-seven. From colon cancer.” This burst of sudden, unexpected loss slowly sinks in and connects with the death of our parents, the tragic death of Peter’s younger brother—Bryan’s best friend—almost 40 years ago, and the fragile Dr. Kinkade and his wife, now well into their 80’s.
This morning I read about impermanence. We all know we’re going to die. We know things are constantly changing but mostly we live like they aren’t. We detest uncertainty. We try our best to make life secure and safe. We prefer sleep-walking to the unpredictable state of groundlessness, afraid of what it may bring.
December 27 — Forty years ago, a sophomore in college, I am married in Grace Lutheran Church. Two 30-foot Christmas trees, covered in lights, and a few dozen poinsettias fill the sanctuary. I wear white velvet, with red roses woven through my long, straight, summer-blonde hair. At 19, I have no idea who I am, what I want or where I’m headed. I know myself only through the eyes of others. My parents are enthusiastic about the marriage. They regard him a super star. I only know how to make them happy. No one encourages us to wait. No one suggests we are too young, maybe not ready.
Who walks away from a natural leader, an athlete, a kind, great-looking, responsible eagle scout? Eleven years later, I break the perfect man’s heart and make my father cry. My brothers are confused and angry. My mother sees it coming. It is time to figure out who I am. About to turn 30, I intuit that there is work to be done. Things are changing and more change is on the way—the transformative kind I’m not brave enough to ask for—but sturdy wings have sprouted, wings more powerful than the guilt that lasts for years.
January 3 — If you believe Mary Oliver in her book Blue Pastures, I am not an artist. My writing does not come above all else. If it did, I imagine our children starving, the house imploding, and me, alone in a trailer court. A few weeks ago, in a private lesson, my yoga teacher asks me to name my top five values. Cooking does not make the list, nor do laundry or grocery shopping or chauffeuring teenagers. But connection is there—to spouse, children, family, friends—and right after connection—or was it before—comes freedom, followed by creativity. Is there room for all of them on the same list, in the same life?
On the third afternoon of the new year, I sit in a coffee shop at 12th and Clayton—one of my favorite places to write—and drink sweet, foamy chai from a fat cup. Thirty minutes and nothing but dribble. I resist the urge to pack up and leave. I make myself sit, willing fingers to move across keys…surely something deeper is just ahead. When the wave finally surfaces, I ride it till the end, knowing it won’t last, knowing it can’t. Two hours later I ride it home and up the stairs to my study. Tony makes dinner. I come down to eat and go back up, hanging on to the last ripple as the words find their way onto the shore.
Inscribed on a piece of folk art hanging in my study is a quote from Brian Andreas: Most people don’t know there are angels whose only job is to make sure you don’t get too comfortable, she said. They know how easy it is to fall asleep and miss your life.
May the New Year bring you many blessings, and find you awake to life.