A Christmas Family

Damian and his dad Manuel trim the tree.

“I want you home for Thanksgiving and Christmas. I don’t care about Easter or the 4th of July – just be sure you’re home for Thanksgiving and Christmas, got it?” My mom’s voice was stern, but her eyes filled with tears of worry.

“It depends if I can afford it. I have enough money to last me a few months without work.” It was 2009. The housing market collapsed. Jobs were scarce, and I was 31. I’d lived in Kansas City all my life, but before real obligations of family or career cemented me to the city I loved, I felt like it was time to try something new. I was moving to Chicago.

Of all the apprehensions that could cause a mother unease in that situation, the holidays topped her list.

Mijo, just call. We’ll get you home,” my dad said.

“You’re my baby.” No matter how old I was, my mom always called me her baby. “The holidays are for family. Who would you be with in that new city? No one knows you. Are you sure you want to move?”

“I’m sure. I thought about it and I’m sure. And I’ll call if I can’t get home for Thanksgiving.”

“And Christmas,” my mom quickly interjected.

“And Christmas,” agreed my dad.

“Yes, and Christmas,” I said.

“Don’t lie, boy.” Last year I spent New Year’s Eve with my best friend and we watched movies. But to them, a holiday without family means you’re alone because family is the safeguard. Besides, my parents were more aware of my being an only child than I was. I was quite comfortable doing things by myself – going out to dinner, seeing movies, visiting museums. But, my independence didn’t offer solace for their anxieties. “Don’t lie. We’ll find a way to afford a ticket home – you let us worry about that.”

“Yes, Mom and Dad. I love you too.”

***

“What are you…doing for Christmas?” I’m hesitant. I never thought I would have to ask this question to my dad.

“My sister called. She invited me over for Christmas Eve dinner.” My dad’s strong baritone voice sounds excited over the phone. He’s never been shy about expressing his emotions, especially the happy ones. “And I think I’m going to my brother’s on Christmas Day.” My heart fills with joy. These invitations are a big deal; my dad and his family are reconciling years of conflict. Ever since my mom died, I’m fearful my dad will spend his holidays alone. “What about you, mijo? I don’t want you to be by yourself on Christmas.”

My first venture to Chicago had more cause for worry, considering I went without a job or knowing a single person, and only had a couple thousand dollars to my name. This time I’m in Chicago with a purpose. I’m a Jesuit. I’m studying philosophy. I know people. And still he worries about me being alone. I can hear my mom saying to me, “unless you’re a parent you’ll never understand why we worry.” I acknowledge this truth in my head and say to him, “We have a slew of events planned. I won’t be alone.”

“You sure? Don’t you lie, boy.”

“I’m not lying. I won’t be alone.”

“As long as you’re sure.”

“I’m sure.”

“But, if you are alone, call. I’ll get you a ticket home.”

“Yes, Dad. I love you too.”

***

As I write, I’m sitting in front of a Christmas tree. Two days ago, my community decorated it together. At one point, overwhelmed by love, laughter, and smells of cinnamon, eggnog, and pine, I stepped out of the room for a moment to cry. I was taken by the joy and peace I felt. There I was, and here I remain, surrounded by a new kind of family. They’re not blood relatives, but they’re brothers nonetheless. I’m recognizing how new memories are forming with new people. They are slowly filling in the empty spaces my mother’s death left within me.

I’m discovering that family members are those people who can look at you and know what’s going on without having to ask. They know your struggles and they stand firm with you. They know your weaknesses and they strengthen you. They know what annoys you and they accept you. They can hear about your joys and celebrate with you. Family doesn’t give up on you. They know the truth of who you are and why you are. They know how to tell you the truth. I’ve noticed more and more that this is what I desire in life –  people who will buy me a plane ticket so I’m not alone at Christmas.

I wish my mom were here for Christmas, but she’s not. I wish I could be with my dad for Christmas, but I can’t. What I find surprising, though, is how okay I feel. Every now and then I do get teary eyed, longing for those tender memories of cookie baking and tree decorating with my parents. But then I see God’s hand at work: my dad and his family reconciling their past differences by sharing a Christmas meal, an invitation for lunch to exchange presents with some close Jesuit friends, community members checking-in to see if I’m holding up. And I recall the words my mom said that day I told my parents I was moving to Chicago: “The holidays are for family.” Yes, Mom, holidays are for family. And this year I am with them. This year I’m home.

-//-

Cover image by the author’s mother, Sandra Botello. May she rest in peace.

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