I’ve been crying a lot lately. This is due, in part, to the passing of my maternal grandfather, Lawrence Isbell. A kind southern gentleman who lived a full 86 years, despite suffering a catastrophic and all-but-fatal heart attack in the early 1990s. His loss alone is enough to shed tears. But this year, there’s something else.
I’m 34 years old, and I became a father for the first time this spring. My son, Hayes Lawrence, was born on May 25, 2016, and like all parents, my wife and I are witnesses to the daily wonders of human growth.
It’s awe inspiring to watch your child discover new things. To see pathways in the brain created right before your eyes. These moments have moved me to tears countless times over the course of my son’s first six months on earth. The Christmas season brings with it a whole new element I hadn’t expected.
Since my wife first left her home in South Carolina to be on her own, she’s enjoyed a pre-lit artificial tree that stands about five feet tall. It’s portable and easy to put up and take down. In the first few years of our relationship, I was more than happy with that tree – first in our apartment, and then in the living room of our own home.
Now that we have a son, however, an artificial tree just won’t cut it.
I grew up in the Pacific Northwest, about an hour outside of Portland. If you don’t know anything about the area, I’ll let you in on a little secret. We have trees. Lots of them. It was Christmas tradition in my family to drive out to some quiet tree farm, cut down a beautiful 10 to 12 foot tree, bring it home, and proceed to spend the next several hours maneuvering it into the house and decorating it. The upper portion always required a ladder.
While my wife is content to continue using the-little-fake-tree-that-could, I feel compelled to carry on my family tradition. Lucky for us, there’s a wonderful little tree farm about a 10-minute drive from our home, just a block down the street from where my wife’s parents now reside.
We dressed Hayes in his little Santa Claus outfit and drove to the farm. My father-in-law and I scouted the territory and chose a six-foot Noble Fir that would fit perfectly in our modestly sized living room. We cut that bad boy down and, after a brief photo-op, brought it home.
There’s nothing quite like the smell of a freshly cut tree in the house. It immediately takes me back to the Christmases of my youth. Being reminded of warm family moments is reason enough to have a fresh tree in the house every December.
After situating the tree, we began the process of decorating it with the company of Bing Crosby’s Christmas album on the turntable and a hot cup of spiked cocoa to enhance the cheer.
When I was a kid, this was serious business. My mother put Christmas knick-knacks everywhere: a tree in every room, each with its own motif; a garland strung with lights that wound it’s way around the railing from the upstairs to the downstairs; a large collection of Snow Babies. To say my mother has a flair for decorating would be an understatement.
No decorating could be done without one of my mother’s many Christmas CDs playing on the stereo. We used to roll our eyes when she’d try to play them before Thanksgiving. She loved the season so much that she couldn’t wait. While I didn’t inherit her decorating abilities, I, too, am ready to play Christmas music as soon as the clock strikes 12 on Black Friday.
Earlier this week, we took Hayes to see Santa for the first time. It went about the way you expect these things to go – full of crying and confusion. But it was adorable. We payed for our overpriced photo package, happy to be kicking off our son’s brief, but magical belief in jolly old St. Nick.
I was devastated when I found out Santa wasn’t real. It happened during class one day when a bunch of kids who already knew the truth spoiled it for the rest of us who didn’t. I kept myself calm and composed, told the teacher I didn’t feel well, and my mom came and picked me up. When we got home, I calmly asked her if Santa was real.
When she told me the truth, I bawled my eyes out. But after a period of grieving, I got over it, and I had the privilege of helping my parents continue to perpetuate the magic for my younger sisters.
We had our first snow yesterday. It made this first Christmas even more complete. It snows just rarely enough here that it’s a big event. The flakes begin to fall and suddenly, I’m a child again, hoping it piles up enough to grab a sled and go flying down the street. Never mind that I have a job I need to do. It’s SNOWING!
My wife and I bundled Hayes up in his “A Christmas Story”-style marshmallow man outfit and took him outside. We only stayed out for a few minutes, but the pictures and memories of our son in the snow for the first time will last forever.
Last night, we finally started wrapping our Christmas gifts. It’s funny how as you get older, the less you care about receiving gifts, the more you enjoy giving them. This feeling only gets amplified as a parent. My wife and I wrapped gift after gift and shared a moment of disbelief as we wrote “From: Mom & Dad” on the labels because we can’t possibly be parents now, can we?
After placing the pile of presents under the tree, we had our annual viewing of Die Hard (it’s a Christmas movie, dammit!), and got ready for bed. Before unplugging the tree lights, I stood back and took in the scene.
I felt a little like Ebenezer Scrooge viewing Christmas’ past, present, and future. I could see my sisters and me tearing into our gifts with reckless abandon. I could see my wife and me in our old apartment, just the two of us exchanging a couple gifts set under our plastic tree. And now I could see my new, little family (and our dog, Wrigley, of course) opening presents in the warmth of our very own home.
The visions hit me like a ton of bricks, overwhelmed with gratitude for the life I’ve been lucky enough to live, and for the life that’s yet to come. So yeah, I’ve been crying a lot lately. But never have my tears been more joyful.
Taking one last look at the tree, I unplugged the lights, and went to bed.