I didn’t have a chance to write my letter to Santa the year that my dad died. All December long, I kept a running list in my head, and, just like my boys, added and subtracted things along the way. I never took pen to paper, partially because there was always something else to do. Decorating our tree, decorating mom’s tree, coordinating teacher presents, Christmas cards, my mom's Christmas cards, fixing the strands of lights that had gone out for a third time, baking, assembling, guessing which Star Wars Lego sets were really the ones the boys wanted.
And partially because I was mentally culling the list in my head, as I weighed the relative merits of, say, a laundry robot versus having UVA win the NCAA tournament. Like my boys, I understood the potential risk of committing myself to one wish too soon.
New curtains fell to the bottom of the list when the bottom of my kitchen drawers literally fell out. And after a particularly frustrating day of parenting, asking for self-cleaning dishes seemed less important than one day – just one – in which everyone in my house actually listened to every word I said.
But the reality is that all of those things are a little too... banal for Santa. Santa, after all, is where you turn when your parents have said no, when you’ve exhausted all of your earthly options, when you are running on the fumes of hope.
And the truth was, what I really wanted was something Santa couldn’t bring me: I wanted my dad back. But Santa, as far as I know, is still not in the resurrection business.
And so I never wrote my letter.
Late in the night on December 23rd, I finally went upstairs to begin the tedious task of wrapping everything. I was exhausted, overwhelmed, and frustrated that the season I love more than anything had passed me by. As I searched through my giant Tupperware bin of jumbled ribbons and bows looking for something to match my wrapping paper, I thought I had reached my breaking point when I reached down to the very bottom and pulled out this:
A gift tag to my mom with my father's handwriting. A ghost of Christmas past. A glimpse of Christmas future. A treasure of Christmas present.
I held that tag in my hands, running my fingers over my dad's loopy lettering as if I were touching him instead of a piece of paper, and sank to the floor as the tears, hot and salty, ran down my face. And as they did, all the self-imposed holiday stress melted away.
Turns out, I didn’t have to write that letter after all. Santa knew what I wanted all along.
I needed to be reminded that the best presents aren't things you can buy from a store. The truth is, I don't remember what presents I ever received at Christmas or whether my mother's mantel was picture-perfect. But I do remember snuggling up next to my dad — even as a grownup — as he read "The Night Before Christmas." I remember him singing "Mele Kalikimaka" off-key as he danced around the kitchen with my mom.
Mostly, I remember that love is bigger and brighter and bolder than anything. It is the only thing we take with us when we leave this world, and the only thing we leave behind.
There will be a day when my boys come to me and ask me whether Santa is real. And I will pull out this tag and tell them that I know with every fiber in my being that he is. That you are never too old to believe. You just need faith.
Faith, after all, is believing in something when common sense tells you not to...