From A Second Chicken Soup for the Woman's Soul

Our Christmas Boy

As an only child, Christmas was a quiet affair when I was growing up. I vowed that some day I’d marry and have six children, and at Christmas my house would vibrate with energy and love.

I found the man who shared my dream, but we had not reckoned on the possibility of infertility. Undaunted, we applied for adoption and, within a year, he arrived.

We called him our Christmas Boy because he came to us during that season of joy, when he was just six days old. Then nature surprised us again. In rapid succession, we added two biological children to the family—not as many as we had hoped for, but compared with my quiet childhood, three made an entirely satisfactory crowd.

As our Christmas Boy grew, hemade it clear that only he had the expertise to select and decorate the Christmas tree each year. He rushed the season, starting his gift list before we’d even finished the Thanksgiving turkey.He pressed us into singing carols, our frog-like voices contrasting with his musical gift of perfect pitch. Each holiday he stirred us up, leading us through a round of merry chaos.

Our friends were right about adopted children not being the same. Through his own unique heredity, our Christmas Boy brought color into our lives with his irrepressible good cheer, his bossy wit. He made us look and behave better than we were.

Then, on his twenty-sixth Christmas, he left us as unexpectedly as he had come. He was killed in a car accident on an icy Denver street, on his way home to his young wife and infant daughter. But first he had stopped by the family home to decorate our tree, a ritual he had never abandoned.

Grief-stricken, his father and I sold our home, where memories clung to every room. We moved to California, leaving behind our friends and church.

In the seventeen years that followed his death, his widow remarried; his daughter graduated from high school. His father and I grew old enough to retire, and in December 1986, we decided to return to Denver.

We slid into the city on the tail of a blizzard, through streets ablaze with lights. Looking away from the glow, I fixed my gaze on the distant Rockies, where our adopted son had loved to go in search of the perfect tree. Now in the foothills there was his grave—a grave I could not bear to visit.

We settled into a small, boxy house, so different from the family home where we had orchestrated our lives. It was quiet, like the house of my childhood. Our other son had married and begun his own Christmas traditions in another state. Our daughter, an artist, seemed fulfilled by her career.

While I stood staring toward the snowcapped mountains one day, I heard a car pull up, then the impatient peal of the doorbell. There stood our granddaughter, and in her gray-green eyes and impudent grin, I saw the reflection of our Christmas Boy.

Behind her, lugging a large pine tree, came her mother, stepfather and ten-year-old half-brother. They swept past us in a flurry of laughter; they uncorked wine and toasted our homecoming. They decorated the tree and piled gaily wrapped packages under the boughs.

“You’ll recognize the ornaments,” said my former daughter-in-law. “They were his. I saved them for you.”

When I murmured, in remembered pain, that we hadn’t had a tree for seventeen years, our cheeky granddaughter said, “Then it’s time to shape up.”

They left in a whirl, shoving one another out the door, but not before asking us to join them the next morning for church and for dinner at their home.

“Oh,” I began, “we just can’t.”

“You sure as heck can,” ordered our granddaughter, as bossy as her father had been. “I’m singing the solo, and I want to see you there.”

We had long ago given up the poignant Christmas services, but now, under pressure, we sat rigid in the front pew, fighting back tears.

Then it was solo time. Our granddaughter’s magnificent soprano voice soared, dear and true, in perfect pitch. She sang “O Holy Night,” which brought back bittersweet memories. In a rare emotional response, the congregation applauded in delight. How her father would have relished that moment.

We had been alerted that there would be a “whole mess of people” for dinner—but thirty-five! Assorted relatives filled every corner of the house; small children, noisy and exuberant, seemed to bounce off the walls. I could not sort out who belonged to whom, but it didn’t matter. They all belonged to one another. They took us in, enfolded us in joyous camaraderie. We sang carols in loud, off-key voices, saved only by that amazing soprano.

Sometime after dinner, before the winter sunset, it occurred to me that a true family is not always one’s own flesh and blood. It is a climate of the heart. Had it not been for our adopted son, we would not now be surrounded by caring strangers who would help us hear the music again.

Later, our granddaughter asked us to come along with her. “I’ll drive,” she said. “There’s a place I like to go.” She jumped behind the wheel of the car and, with the confidence of a newly licensed driver, zoomed off toward the foothills.

Alongside the headstone rested a small, heart-shaped rock, slightly cracked, painted by our artist daughter. On its weathered surface she had written, “To my brother, with love.” Across the crest of the grave lay a holly-bright Christmas wreath. Our number-two son, we learned, sent one every year.

As we stood by the headstone in the chilly but somehow comforting silence, we were not prepared for our unpredictable granddaughter’s next move. Once more that day her voice, so like her father’s, lifted in song, and the mountainside echoed the chorus of “Joy to theWorld,” on and on into infinity.

When the last pure note had faded, I felt, for the first time since our son’s death, a sense of peace, of the positive continuity of life, of renewed faith and hope. The real meaning of Christmas had been restored to us. Hallelujah!

Shirley Barksdale

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