As things turned out, this year was a little different - for more than one reason. For beginners, my ex- wife has been unwell for the last two weeks, and I ended up trying to support and manage the youngster's emotional needs in the run up to the holiday. At this stage of their lives, it's far less clear cut than it used to be - 'it' being the determination of what they need, and just how much of 'it' is welcome. Those particular needs (worrying about your parent's health is, for most people, one of life's big things) hung around in the shadows like a surly teenager, kicking an empty coke can every now and then, and walking moodily after it. I wondered how it would all be on the day that we were so used to celebrating in a carefree (and let's be honest: a food-centric) manner.
Most of all, I wanted - as I always want - Christmas to feel special. I was always so incredibly excited to celebrate the festival when I was a kid, but these days, so much of what I consider luxury items (phones that do everything except cook the dinner and drive you to work, Televisions that connect with the International Space Station, and computing devices that fit inside the space between your eyeball and your eye socket) seem...well...normal, and not very special at all.
My lovely lady and I have for some time been buying gifts for one another (we don't do Christmas gifts for each other, but we give our love and gifts to one another throughout the year) in the form of experiences rather than material stuff. We have more than enough 'stuff', and these days we value memories a lot more - especially as we missed so many memory-making opportunities over the last thirty-something years (it's a long story). This year, we agreed that we would do something similar for the young 'uns.
Well, having carefully chosen two quite different 'experiences' for them and their respective partners, I commenced worrying. Was it enough? Had we got them enough/appropriate small gifts for under the Christmas tree? Would - horror of horrors - this Christmas be a bit of a flop? *Cue dramatic fanfare*
On the big morning, I was in a bit of an emotional befuddlement. My wife and I had a very nice walk in the snow with the dog, before we returned to our cozy little house, and two quietly (coolness reigns, man) teenagers. As I vibrated gently, the youngsters opened their presents, getting to the envelopes with their 'experiences' at the very last. By this stage I was steaming like a nuclear reactor in meltdown mode, and when they opened up their respective surprises, I held my breath to conceal the rising panic...
Of course, as always seems to happen, I was over-reacting. It was a slower burn than usual, but as they realized what each gift actually meant, they both warmed up to the ideas. Nevertheless, in the interval between frowns of puzzlement and smiles of appreciation, I think I probably took a year or two off my life expectancy. Like I said: disproportionate stress, and all self-induced...
The biggest, most impactive difference, however, was in what I received. Usually I am terrible at receiving gifts - even gifts of love - the reasons for which are old and deeply-rooted and, were I to subject myself to analysis and therapy, would doubtless keep a psychologist in recreational drugs for many a year. My wife and I have discussed this at length, and with her experience in the field, she assures me that I have constructed some truly marvelous mental mazes, from which escape is all but impossible. Anyway, the upshot of this silliness is that I am - at Christmas or at birthday time - always rather uncomfortable receiving and in particular opening gifts in front of other people.
This year, two things changed. Firstly, both of the kids (they're not kids any longer, but I'm too lazy to use another descriptor....although I might have saved myself this explanation if I had...dammit...) had bought my wife and I thoughtful gifts - things that we wanted/will use. Previously, their gift-buying has been a little...ummmm...last minute-ish, shall we say.
Secondly - and this is what I'm taking away from this festive season - both of them had made and written cards containing personal messages from the heart. They've done it before, because they know that I value thoughts over things, but this year, the quality of their words was quite a revelation.
Where would we be without words? I have always known that my kids love me, even if at times I have doubted my worthiness of that love. I have loved them ferociously, with a passion separate from every other emotion I have ever known, and will always do so. I have always striven to make them fully aware of the depth of my feeling for them, and I have done so believing that they may never feel quite the same way about their big, grumpy, forgetful, stubborn and prone-to-farting father.
Yesterday, that changed. Their words - so difficult for people of their age to use face to face - reached out to me from the page, embraced me and never let go.
I'm still wrapped in those words today - this morning I awoke cradled by them, and they are there in my mind, right at the front, smiling at me lovingly. It feels wonderful.
This Christmas was indeed a little different, but not in the way I was worrying about. I learned something about my world which brings me some peace. It seems that, despite all my fears (so many fears) to the contrary, I may just be doing a good job of being 'dad' to my kids...
I can't think of a more fulfilling discovery - and inside, my smile couldn't be wider.
My tears? They are tears of joy.