“You have to go all the way back,” Bobby giggles, looking at my card. “Look, Dad, Mommy has to go back.”
Suddenly the crackling of the fire is loud in the room, as is Daniel’s indrawn breath.
“I mean Joy,” Bobby chirps happily, moving my man back.
Daniel looks at Bobby; his face is pale, his lips tight. I don’t know him well enough to read his expression. Is it fear that Bobby has come to love me too much? Or regret that some things longed for can’t be had? Or is it grief for the woman who should be at this game table on this night? I don’t know. All I know is that I wish he’d looked at me, if even just for an instant, and smiled. Instead, I see how he avoids looking at me in this moment where I’ve been called Mommy for the first time in my life.
“It’s your turn, Dad,” Bobby says, reaching for another card.
And the game goes on. I try to forget that Bobby called me Mommy and that Daniel looked so hurt by it, but I can’t. It makes me want—that single word and all that it implies.
I learn something about myself this cold winter’s night. Something I should have known, perhaps; had I known it, I never would have walked away from the crash site.
You can run away from your life and your past, but there’s no way to distance yourself from your own heart.
At eight o’clock, Daniel ends our perfect evening.
“I know a boy who needs to get ready for bed,” he says, standing up.
“Aw, Dad,” Bobby whines, making a face. He is getting up from his chair when he smiles. “But Joy and me hafta wrap your present.”
Daniel looks down at his son. “Now?”
“Tomorrow is Christmas Eve,” I say to Daniel. “All presents need to be under the tree.”
Daniel isn’t fooled. “You just want to stay up. Okay. I have a few presents of my own to wrap, but I want you upstairs by eight-thirty. Should I set the timer on the oven to remind you?”
“I’ll make sure he’s on time,” I say.
Daniel stands there a moment longer, looking at us. Bobby is right beside me now. He’s so excited his little body seems to be vibrating.
“Okay then,” Daniel finally says. “See you in half an hour.”
When he is gone, Bobby runs to the sofa and pulls his copy of Green Eggs and Ham out from under the cushion. “I need to practice one more time, okay?”
We settle into the comfortable cushions together and open the book.
“I . . . am . . . Sam. Sam . . . I . . . am.” Bobby has memorized this part of the book, so he runs through it quickly. By the time he gets to page sixteen, he has slowed down and begun to sound out the words. “I . . . w . . . ou . . . l . . . d would not like th . . . em them h . . . ere here or th . . . ere there.”
I tighten my hold on him.
By the time he finishes the book, his smile is so big it’s like a storm wave breaking over the beach. Uncontainable.
“This is the best present you could give your dad.”
“Arnie Holtzner won’t call me stupid now.” He twists around to look up at me. “Thanks.” He says it quietly, but it still hits me hard.
“You’re welcome.” I lean toward him and gently kiss his forehead. It should be a perfect moment, a memory to take away with me, but when I feel the velvet of his warm skin and breathe in the sweet citrus scent of his hair, all I can think about is how it will feel to say good-bye.
I ease back from him, trying to smile. “We’ve got a few more minutes before your dad is expecting you. Will you help me with something?”
“I need a piece of paper and something to write with.”
Bobby slides eel-like off the sofa and runs to the registration desk. He is back in mere moments, holding a yellow legal pad and a red crayon.
I can’t help smiling. I haven’t written with a crayon in years. “Okay. Let’s go to the card table.”
We clear the game and take our seats, side by side, tucking in close. I hand Bobby the crayon and position the pad in front of him. “You’re going to write a list out for me. It’s your dad’s Christmas present from me.”
“I can’t . . .”
“Yes, you can. It’s good practice. I’ll tell you the words and you sound them out and write them down. It’ll make my present extra special.”
He looks so scared I want to hug him. Instead, I don my best teacher’s face and say, “The first word is ideas. I . . . d . . . e . . . a . . . s.” I help him sound it out but let him spell it himself.
The crayon quivers in his hand. He holds it tightly, fisting it, and bends over the paper. “Go slow,” he says, frowning in concentration.
It takes almost fifteen minutes of working together, but in the end, we have a list that looks like this:
no crpt flr
“Wow,” Bobby says when we’re done. “My mom wanted to do some of these things. You think he’ll do it? I wish—”
“I know.” I don’t want him to say his hope out loud. Some things need to be simply planted in the soft dirt of possibility. “But you remember this, Bobby: What matters is you and your dad being together. You guys are a team now. A family.”
Bobby looks up at me. “You’ll come back someday, won’t you, Joy?”
“Wild horses couldn’t keep me away. Now, let’s wrap this present up and put it under the tree.”
I show Bobby how to roll the list into a cylinder and wrap it in the pretty red foil paper, then to coil ribbons on each end. When we’re finished, the clock reads 8:25. “Time for you to go.”
He grumbles in protest but heads dutifully for the stairs.
After he’s gone, I sit on the hearth, listening to the last strains of the fading fire.
I have one more gift to place beneath the tree for Christmas morning—if I can find what I am looking for.
I go to my room and retrieve the still damp sweater I wore to town. Shrugging into it, I head outside.
The night is quiet and cold. A slushy layer of newly fallen snow covers the ground. Already it is beginning to melt. The green lawn shows through in big, irregular patches. Water drips from the eaves and branches, makes tiny dark holes in the melting snow.
I walk down the uneven path toward the lake.
As if on cue, the cloud overhead drifts on, revealing a nearly full moon. Shimmery blue light falls on me, on the lake and the clock, and the dark ground. It is almost eerie, this light, vaguely impossible. A shiver runs through me. Although it can’t happen, I know it can’t, I hear a woman’s voice. It is quiet, barely above a whisper, but I hear it nonetheless, hear her say, “There.”
I look down. There, lying all alone on top of a bed of shiny black stones, is a bright white arrowhead. Moonlight hits it and reflects it back at me, turning it for a second into a fallen star.
I spin around, but there is no woman around me.
Of course there isn’t.
I bend down for the arrowhead. It fits perfectly in my palm, feels as smooth as silk and as cold as a snowflake. I tuck it into my pocket and walk back to the lodge, through a night that is both silvery light and jet black.
By the time I get to the door, I’ve told myself in no uncertain terms that nothing unusual happened by the lake. I merely went in search of an arrowhead and found one.
But as I step onto the deck, hear it creak beneath my feet, I say softly, “Thanks, Maggie.”
Then I go inside.
B y morning, the snow is almost gone. I stand at my window, staring out at the green, sunlit backyard. I can see a corner of one of the cabins. The roof shingles are furred with thick moss. Come spring, I imagine that tiny flowers will sprout up from the mossy patches.
I should have added power-wash roofs to my list. And advertising in more in-flight magazines. I’ll have to tell Daniel those things face-to-face.
Outside, on this Christmas Eve, the day is both sunlit and gray. A light rain is falling; the drops are so thin and tiny they’re almost imaginary, like tears.
And suddenly I am thinking of Stacey.
I remember that last night in Bakersfield when she asked me to come to her wedding. And showed me her pregnant stomach.
I’m sorry, she’d said.
I remember her on television, crying for me, believing in the miracle of my return, hoping for it.
And Thom. The man I vowed to love forever, who now loves my sister.
The thought makes me sad, but doesn’t ruin me anymore. I can actually think of them together without wincing.
If nothing else, this pause has given me that: a lens through which to view my previous life. It’s not forgiveness. Not even near that yet, but it is . . . acceptance, and that’s better than nothing.
I’m not sure how long I stand at my window, staring out, thinking about my life Before and what will happen tomorrow. Time is odd in this place, more fluid than I’m used to somehow. When I finally take my shower, get dressed in my borrowed skirt and sweater, and go out to the lobby, Bobby is by the tree, shaking presents. Daniel is behind him, laughing.
I pause at the corner, watching them. All it takes is a look at Bobby and Daniel, a moment in their presence, and the bitter aftertaste of my previous life is gone. A smile comes easily; I feel it deep inside, too, not just a curving of my lips, but a lifting of my spirit. In some small way, I have given them this moment. Without the tree, they wouldn’t have been able to slide back in time, to recapture one of those ordinary moments that becomes extraordinary from a distance. I only hope I can do the same for myself. Stacey and I need to see ourselves more clearly. Maybe then we can find our way back.
At the sound of my footsteps, Bobby looks up. “Joy!” He is shaking a present, but pauses long enough to say, “Are you gonna go see the old people with us?”
“What do you mean?”
“Tell ’er where we’re goin’, Dad.”
“The church serves brunch at the nursing home,” Daniel answers.
It’s what I do on my own holiday. It’s a tradition my mom started long ago. For all the years of my childhood, I spent Christmas Eve afternoon at the nursing home with Grandma Lund. In my adult years, I volunteered on holidays.
“You better hurry,” Daniel says to Bobby and me. I race down to my room, tame my riotous hair, brush my teeth, and make my bed. Then we all go out to the truck.
Between the Christmas lights and the remnants of an early morning rain, the town glistens with water and light. People fill the sidewalks; cars clog the streets.
Daniel pulls into a parking lot and stops. We are at the Rain Shadow Convalescent Center. It’s a lovely little brick building set well to the back of a deep lot. A few older trees, bare now, flank the sides, and giant rhododendrons and azaleas grow out front. Christmas lights outline the windows, and a fully lit menorah sits on the sill.
Inside, the center is a hive of activity. In the lobby, several white clad attendants are pushing people in wheelchairs toward a room marked “Christmas Eve Brunch.”
“I’ll go meet the guys and get breakfast ready. You can help get people to the tables, okay?” Daniel says to us.