I had been dreaming. She was pretty and said all the right things and made all the right moves. But suddenly there was a screech from outside my dream and a weight crashed into my no longer sleeping chest.
“Daddy! Daddy! DADDY! Santa was here! Santa was here!” in two simultaneous voices, one directly over my head and one slightly to the left.
My eyes fluttered open to see Meghan, my 7-year-old, jumping up and down next to the bed, a huge smile on her face, and James, 5, with a similar smile hugging me.
James rolled off the bed and nearly onto his sister and they both grabbed my left hand which was outside the blankets, pulling hard.
“Come see!” they screeched in excited unison and I let myself be pulled out of the warm bed and into the early morning chill.
The kids alternately pulled my hand and ran ahead a few steps out the bedroom, down the hall, and into the living room. Under the small blue spruce decorated with a mixture of store-bought ornaments and pre-school/elementary art ornaments, was exactly what Meghan and James had asked Santa for – a gleaming red fire truck with flashing lights and a Molly Pitcher doll.
James immediately had to show me how the lights flashed as he pushed the truck across the floor toward the kitchen, making siren noises and terrifying the cat who was just trying to watch the festivities from a corner. Simultaneously Meghan was explaining how Molly was awake and ready to help “chase the Redcoats!”
I didn’t say anything; I didn’t have to. The two of them raced through their imaginary adventures, giving me a continuous, loud, and excited, minute by minute detail. I dutifully caught the eye of first one then the other and nodded and smiled as they raced through their events. A smile, much smaller than theirs, but with the wistful remembrances of Christmases long gone, played over my face.
Once the first burst of activity subsided both of them asked, hopefully, if they could open “just ONE more present?!”
The answer, as they knew it would be, was no, they had to wait, and wouldn’t they like some waffles?
After the obligatory, and momentary, vocalization of disappointment, both eagerly agreed to waffles. James raced into the kitchen first, yelling, “I’ll get the eggs!” while Meghan quickly pulled out the small stepstool while exclaiming, “I’ll get the mix!”
Moving more slowly, I cautioned James to be careful with the eggs and Meghan to be careful climbing and pulled the battered waffle maker from its perch high above the stove. It was a Christmas tradition, started with my first married Christmas, to have waffles before opening gifts. That memory, flashing through as I gripped the waffle iron, just me and Denise in our tiny first apartment, caused a hitch in my throat.
Almost before I noticed the catch in my throat my attention was drawn to the drama near the fridge as James struggled to pull the egg carton out without toppling the container of leftover rice that rested above. He, of course, despite his best effort, toppled the rice onto the floor. Fortunately the lid stayed tight and his grip on the eggs was true. Triumphantly he handed me the eggs and raced back out of the kitchen to snatch up the fire truck once again. I stooped to put the rice back in the fridge and close the door while Meghan jumped off the stool and showered me with a light dusting of waffle mix shaken from the box with her impact with the floor.
She carefully placed the box on the counter next to the waffle maker and followed her brother into the living room, to swoop Molly Pitcher up in her arms and carry her swiftly to meet “everybody” in her room.
Cancer had taken Denise physically from us, but I still saw her every day, in Meghan and James and the traditions we had made in the few years we had had together. A tear formed in my eye, as it did every year, and I turned to the task at hand, hearing the squeals of joy from the other rooms, sad for what I/we had lost yet overwhelmingly happy for what I had.