The Silver Linings Playbook (Chapter 37)

This Square in My Hand

My father refuses to go with Mom, so I put on the new suit she bought me earlier this month and accompany her to the candlelit Mass at St. Joseph's. It is a crisp night, but we walk the few blocks required, and soon we are in the very sanctuary where I was confirmed so many years ago. Rows of red and white poinsettias are lined up on the altar, and antique wrought-iron lamps stand guard at the ends of the pews, just like every other Christmas Eve. The candlelight makes the stone building look even more antiquated – almost medieval. And sitting down in the pew again reminds me of when Jake and I were just boys. We'd come to Christmas Eve Mass so excited for the next day, ready to tear into all those presents. But tonight it's just Mom and me, as Jake and Caitlin are spending Christmas Eve in New York City with Caitlin's parents, and Dad is home drinking beer.

After some announcements and Christmas hymns, the priest talks about stars and angels and mangers and donkeys and miracles, and somewhere in the story, I start praying.

Dear God, I know it would take a miracle to get Nikki to show up tomorrow at the place where we were engaged, but lucky for me, You and I both believe in miracles. As I sit here thinking about this, I wonder if You actually believe in miracles, since You are all-powerful and can do anything. So technically, Your making Nikki show up tomorrow or putting Baby Jesus inside of the Virgin Mary is no more difficult for You than, say, watching an Eagles game – which has been pretty easy since backup QB Jeff Garcia has managed to win three straight. It's sort of funny when I think about it now. If You created the world in only a week, sending Your Son down to do a mission must have been no sweat for You. But I am still glad You took the time to send Jesus to teach us all about miracles, because the possibility of miracles happening keeps a lot of people moving forward down here. I don't have to tell You that I have been working pretty hard on bettering myself since apart time began. I actually want to thank You for disrupting my life, because I would never have taken the time to improve my character if I did not get sent to the bad place, nor would I have met Cliff, or even Tiffany for that matter, and I know this journey has been for a reason. I trust that there is a divine plan in effect, and that is why I believe You will make sure Nikki shows up tomorrow. I want to thank You in advance for helping me get my wife back. I am looking forward to the years ahead, when I can treat Nikki how a woman should be treated. Also, if it is not too much trouble, please allow the Eagles to win on Christmas Day, because a win over the Cowboys will put the Eagles in first place and then my dad might be in a good mood and maybe he will even talk to Mom and me. It's strange, even with the Birds in play-off contention, Dad has been a grinch this holiday season, and it has really made Mom sad. I've caught her crying several times, but You probably already know that since You are all-knowing. I love You, God.

I cross myself just as the priest finishes the homily, and then the candles are passed out and lighted while the people sing "Silent Night." Mom is sort of leaning against me, so I throw an arm around her shoulder and give her a little squeeze. She looks up at me and smiles. "My good boy," her lips mouth, bathed in candlelight, and then we both join in with the singing.

My father is in bed asleep when we return home. Mom pours some eggnog and plugs in the lights, and we sip in the glow of the Christmas tree. Mom talks about all the ornaments Jake and I made as little kids. She keeps pointing to painted pinecones, little Popsicle-stick picture frames with our grade school photos inside, and reindeers made from clothespins and pipe cleaners. "Remember when you made this in so-and-so's class?" she keeps saying, and I nod every time, even though I don't remember making any of the ornaments. It's funny how Mom remembers everything about Jake and me, and somehow I know that Nikki will never love me as much – no matter how much I improve my character – and that's what I really truly love about my mom.

Just when we are finishing the last sips of our eggnog, the doorbell rings. "Who could that be?" Mom asks in a dramatic way, suggesting she knows exactly who it could be.

I start to get excited because I think that it might be Nikki, that Mom has arranged the best Christmas present ever. But when I answer the door, it's only Ronnie, Veronica, Tiffany, and little Emily. They all but skip into the foyer and start singing, "We wish you a Merry Christmas. We wish you a Merry Christmas. We wish you a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year." At this point Tiffany stops singing, but Ronnie and Veronica continue to belt out the first verse, and my mother is all smiles as she listens to the good tidings they bring. Little Emily looks like an Eskimo, all bundled up, but her parents' singing makes her little round face look content. I can even see the Christmas tree lights reflected in her dark eyes. As they sing, Ronnie's family looks like a happy one, and I envy my friend.

Tiffany is looking at her feet, but she rejoins the singing when they get to the chorus again.

The song ends with Ronnie holding the last note too long, but my mother claps anyway, and then we are all seated around the Christmas tree drinking more eggnog.

"Maybe you want to give your friends their presents," Mom says.

Mom had taken me shopping many times in the past few weeks, and we picked out presents for the people who have helped me get better, because Mom says it's important to recognize the special people in your life around the holidays. Cliff loved his Eagles dartboard, and it turns out that Veronica and Tiffany both like the perfume we purchased – thank God, as I did sniff just about every bottle in the Cherry Hill Mall. Ronnie loves the official NFL leather football I picked out for him so that he can work on his throws, and little Emily hugs the stuffed eagle wearing an Eagles jersey that I picked out special for her, and she even begins to chew on the yellow beak just as soon as she finishes ripping off the paper.

For my mom's sake, I keep hoping my father might come downstairs and join the party, but he doesn't.

"And we have a present for you too," Ronnie tells me. "Come on, Em. Let's give Uncle Pat his present." He hands Emily a box, which is too heavy for her to carry, even though she is walking pretty well now, so he and Emily both carry the present over to me.

"For Pap!" Emily says, and then starts to rip off the wrapping paper.

"You want to help me?" I ask her, and she tears the rest of the paper off as everyone watches.

Once Emily finishes with the paper, I open the box and fish through the Styrofoam peanuts and find what feels like a plaque of some sort. I pull it out of the peanuts and can see it is a framed picture of Hank Baskett. He's in the end zone with a football in his hand.

"It was taken during the Dallas game," Ronnie says.

"Read what's written on the picture," says Veronica.

To Pat,

You're on the road to victory!

Hank Baskett #84

"This is the greatest present ever! How did you get Baskett to sign the picture?"

"Veronica's cousin's a barber," Ronnie explains, "and one of his customers works for the Eagles promotions department, so we were able to pull a few strings. Vinnie said that this was the first request his contact got for a Baskett autograph, and Baskett was actually pretty excited to get a specific request, since his autograph is not in such high demand."

"Thanks, Ronnie," I say, and then we give each other one-armed manly hugs.

"Merry Christmas," Ronnie says to me as he thumps my back.

"Well, I hate to break up the party, but we need to get Emily in bed before Santa comes down the chimney," Veronica says.

As they put on their coats, my mom is putting their presents into a holiday bag with fancy handles and thanking everyone for coming over, saying, "You don't know how much it means to Pat and me. You've been so good to us this year. You're good people.

All of you. Such great people." And then Mom is crying again, saying, "I'm sorry. Thanks. Merry Christmas. Don't mind me. God bless you."

Just before everyone leaves, Tiffany grabs my hand, kisses me on the cheek, and says, "Merry Christmas, Pat." When she pulls her palm away from mine, I have a square in my hand, but the look in Tiffany's eyes commands silence, so I stick the square in my pocket and say goodbye to Ronnie's family.

I help my mother clean up the wrapping paper and empty eggnog mugs, and then she catches me under the mistletoe in the hallway. She's pointing up and smiling, so I kiss her good night, and she reaches up to hug me. "I'm so glad I have you in my life right now, Pat," my mother says to me, flexing her arm muscles so hard, pulling my head down so that her shoulder juts up into my throat and it becomes a little harder to breathe.

In my room, by the light of the electric Christmas candle Mom has stuck in my window for the holiday season, I unfold the note Tiffany passed me.