Every year, just like I did as a child, I hope for a white Christmas. To me, snow has always meant possibility. When I was little, there was the prospect of reindeer tracks in the yard, sledding til our pants soaked through. Now, as a weary adult, to be graced by a blanket of white must certainly mean that renewal and peace are still a possibility. Like every culture’s variation on the late fall holiday, we tell ourselves that a white Christmas might help us better meet the darkness with light. That in its quiet might be found a few stolen moments of serenity, even amidst this harried and hyped festival, this tribute to a baby born outside in the cold.
It being December 19, and with the thermostat hovering between the high 40’s and low 50’s, it would appear that Christmas snow is not in the offing this year. Devan dons her winter coat every morning as she heads to kindergarten, but it often stays unzipped for the short ride to her school, the even shorter walk on which I accompany her to her classroom. Her mittens and hat are dutifully toted, at my insistence, but the air has yet to turn sharp or biting. We end the year in a tepid grey stew.
As I walk with her this week, my eyes connect with my fellow parents doing the same. There is not a parent in this country who needs to speak the words we carry behind weary eyes, in our sorrowed glances. “I know.” We linger extra long at drop-off, we take three or four last furtive looks over our shoulder, and then we head off into our days. But these are December days, and if we chance to see the sun at all, it will be at its lowest point over the horizon. Indeed, it will set just a short while after school lets out. It will be dark again before I see my children. But with the grace of a merciful God, I will see them.
Today I left work early. I had promised Devan an evening at Zoo Lights, the massive light display and makeshift mini-carnival that is the National Zoo’s homage to the holidays. She was waiting at our front door as I slogged through it with purse, workout bag, and binders of what I’d intended to accomplish at the office that day. With a quick clothing change, we were off.
To say the least, the evening turned into a comedy of errors. First, my plan to park nearest the carousel, tubing course and train ride was apparently shared by several thousand other citizens of the greater metropolitan area. By the time we made our way to a lot with a free space, we had nearly retraced our route back home. Devan minded this not a whit. She skipped onto the zoo grounds, holding my hand, reveling in a rare weeknight adventure that was sure to run beyond her 8:00 bedtime. But as we passed the first few vendors, I realized that I had no cash, and that to enjoy anything more than the bountiful light displays, wewould need to visit one of the two ATM machines hidden at inconvenient corners of the sprawling zoo campus. As we passed one fun game and treat after another, I assured Devan that just as soon as we had some money, we would most certainly take that mother/daughter picture at the winter sleigh photo booth; ride the gaudy festooned carousel at least 5 times; gorge on popcorn and hot cocoa, and generally live it up.
To traverse the National Zoo from the northernmost quadrant (cheetah – needs more space) to the southernmost (lions/food court/better parking) can feel like walking the entirety of the Appalachian Trail. We had schlepped a good 3/4 mile downhill, barely stopping to take in the lights, when we arrived at the Mane Restaurant, which thankfully had a functioning ATM. I was furiously punching the keypad when my phone rang.
It was Amit, telling me that my Aunt Pat and Uncle John had just arrived at our house, Christmas gifts in tow, on what was – of course – the appointed night of their visit. A visit long planned for this very Wednesday, and then promptly and firmly etched in my drained, overdrawn memory bank for ….Thursday.
I looked at Devan, who had already begun to dope out the turn of events, for she had heard my end of the conversation wtih Amit: “Huh?! What do you mean? Oh….s—! I blew it! I so blew it! Oh my god I blew it!!! OK, we’ll be right there.” And by “right there,” she knew I didn’t mean the carousel, or the giant snow globe with the dancing panda.
“Devan,” I said, “listen. Mommy really blew it. This was actually the night that Patty and John wanted to come see you and Kian. Mommy thought it was tomorrow, but I was wrong. They are at our house, and they have your Christmas gifts, and they traveled a long way to come see you. So we have to go. And we will take you to Zoo Lights another night.”
And then, in a season of miracles, I got one of my own.
I stared up the long, winding uphill path through the zoo, the same 3/4 mile we had just descended. I thought of my wonderful aunt and uncle arriving, only to be greeted by our befuddled nanny.
“Devan, I have a great idea. You ride on my back.”
She gladly obliged. I hoisted her body onto mine, adjusted her legs as a belt around my waist, and checked the time on my IPhone.
Then I started to run.
I ran past the rides, the families taking photos, the Panda concessions, the toasted chestnut stand, the popcorn we would have eaten. With each stride, Devan’s 39 pound body thwacked against mine. My heartbeat raced. Suddenly, for the first time in nearly a week, I started to laugh. I laughed at the chaos and disorder in my addled brain, at the fifty minutes it had taken us to park and walk to an ATM machine, only to head back to the car. At the glorious absurdity that I was running uphill through the National Zoo at 6:56 on a Wednesday, wearing my very own girl cub, sweat dripping down my back. In my peripheral vision blurred the dancing flower lights, the swinging monkeys, the blue elephants with their blinking trunks. In the tree canopy above us, white lights were streamed to look like falling rain.
Devan’s arms clung to my neck, at times a little too tight. If it were any other week, I might have asked her to loosen her grip a little.
We finally reached the car, paid the parking fee, and barreled toward home. Through the windows I could see Pat and John, smiling and enjoying one of Kian’s hijinks. We shared a few cookies and a little wine. Amit and John talked politics. Devan said not a word about missing out on the rides or the treats.
At bedtime, we did our nightly ritual in which we ask each other to name the best and worst parts of our day. Bests always go first. Mine, as it often is, was cuddling in the covers with both Devan and Kian that morning, wishing the day might wait just a bit longer. Then it was Devan’s turn. She grabbed my face and said, “Mommy, the best part of my day was still going to Zoo Lights with you. You didn’t blow it. It was great.”
And just like that, renewal. With not a snowflake in sight.
To be sure, darkness abounds in these last days of this particular year. It has proven impossible to simply move past a bottomless grief, which is not even our own, except that it is. I spend a bit of every day imagining that Amit and I are standing in that fire station, desperate, waiting, and then undone.
Then I resume my unimaginably graced life, which shines almost garishly: a sparkling tree, an impromptu family dance party, all of it lit from within by two small faces with living breath that fogs up our windows.
I don’t know how we will all make our way through the fear and pain and loss that is our due. But in all my days to come, I hope to remember this crazy night. May it remind me that it is rarely what we plan, or what goes off without a hitch, that brings what is wondrous – what might even be perfection. Just look to the stories. For I highly doubt Mary and Joseph’s birth plan involved a manger, or livestock, or a robed trio of visitors carrying impractical gifts like myrrh. And something tells me the Maccabees would have liked to find more than one day’s worth of oil in the Temple. But they lit what they had, and look how it all turned out.
This is likely my last post of the year, so with it I send both a wish and – yes, Amit – a prayer. I wish all of you grace amidst the unorchestrated, the unraveled, the unexpected. I wish us all the courage that led every people on this earth to cherish a story of hope amidst the winter darkness.
And I pray that in whatever hardship may come, that I will summon the joy of that run through the zoo, and that I will know and believe that I didn’t blow it. I pray that when I am very old, I will still feel those hands on my face, and see their eyes, and feel their warm and perfect bodies as we huddle before the sunrise. I pray that I may always find my way back to this light, for in it I am saved.
Please consider joining the Million Child March for gun control: http://www.kidsmarch.org/?recruiter_id=1993.