Tiptoeing out of the extra bedroom where my boys were asleep, I quietly closed the door. As it clicked shut I heard the last chime of the grandfather clock. Eleven. I sighed and traced my hand along the wall then turned down the darkened hallway of my childhood home.
An hour earlier we had tumbled through the front door, dumping blankets, bags, and pillows in the entryway. My brother Dave had found sleeping bags for my girls, gathered their things up with strong hands, and without asking, put them to bed downstairs.
My five-year-old boys had bounced up and down on the bed, somersaulted across the floor, tussled, tickled, and tried my last bit of patience until eventually, they gave up and gave in to sleep.
I changed into my pajamas, brushed my teeth, turned down the covers in my old bedroom, but couldn’t sleep.
I padded into the living room and turned on the Christmas tree, set in its familiar spot. It gleamed gently in the northwest corner, tiny lights reflecting in the large window. Climbing into a red wing chair, I tucked my feet up onto the cushion and hugged my knees.
It was the day after Christmas. Earlier that evening the main sewer line to our street had backed up into our basement. It had come up out of the toilet and tub downstairs, contaminating a large section of carpet and tile, rendering all toilets, showers, and sinks unusable.
My husband called a disaster clean-up service and suggested we sleep at my parents’ house for the night while he stayed to meet the cleaning crew. Knowing we wouldn’t survive long without facilities, we had snatched up a few nighttime necessities and piled into the car.
I nestled deeper into the chair, trying to find a comfortable position for my back.
Somehow I had injured it a week earlier and the neural sensation I was experiencing made me suspect a disc tear.
I had muscled through Christmas but wasn’t moving like myself. Two months earlier, one week after my fortieth birthday, I landed in the ER with a kidney stone. There was still blood in my urine. Another visit that month led to an appointment at the women’s cancer center. Minor surgery pending. All that, in combination with general holiday exhaustion, and I was a mess.
Now the house was a mess too. It wasn’t just the sewer. It was the dishwasher flooding the kitchen floor a few days earlier. A cracked window the day after that. Wooden trim falling down from kitchen cupboards. And a vacuum cleaner that went kaput. All of this in one week?
The growing list of health concerns and house disasters had become comical. And yet I wasn’t laughing.
I was tired and in pain. I had forced a smile and pulled out my iPhone to snap photos. I mean, it was Christmas. But sometimes it’s the stuff behind the picture of five kiddos in Christmas PJs that has to be talked about. Because it gives context. It provides a story rather than a moment. And in this case, all the discomfort and disorder jumbled together made for circumstances in which I was about to feel something I hadn’t felt in a very long time.
As I sat there, huddled in the stillness, a vision opened before me. Memories from my childhood danced around the tree. Christmas after Christmas played out in my mind. Sparkling right in front of me, like an aura of candlelight pressed against quiet darkness.
I saw stockings stuffed to overflowing, the Sesame Street playground, the Cabbage Patch dolls, and the year we found two saddles and saddle blankets propped up on one side of the tree. I felt the fire blazing in the fireplace and could hear us singing on the stairs, my sisters hopping and twirling in anticipation until it was their turn to see if Santa had come.
I smelled orange rolls warm from the oven. I heard the sound of wrapping paper crackling. And I felt that feeling. That magic and wonder of Christmas as a girl.
In a rush of vision and emotion, I felt the total safety of being together with my siblings and parents as I grew up in this home. I looked out the window at the city lights and curled deeper into the red wing chair, overwhelmed with nostalgia. Then I felt something familiar, but old. Something forgotten. So startling I began to cry.
It was the feeling of being a child.
Day after day I had been caring for my children and family. You know how it goes—Mom holds everything together. Mom meets everyone else’s needs before her own. Mom makes sure things keep rolling, gifts are bought, school projects are finished, and all the moving parts…keep moving. Mom cleans, folds, cooks, Band-Aids, reads, sings, tucks in. She cares until she’s limp and then she cares some more.
But for a few minutes that evening, I wasn’t Mom. I was a child again.
My parents had let all six of us come banging into the house with our bags and blankets because we had nowhere else to go. My mother had put fresh sheets on my bed. My dad, who had just retired from 40 years of emergency medicine, sat down beside me to discuss my health concerns. Both had come to our aid, like parents do for small children who can’t care for themselves. And I felt like I’d been lifted out of our trouble and placed on mommy’s hip or daddy’s shoulders, where I could see from a better place and let someone else do the holding.
I forgot how heartening it is to be cared for. To have somewhere safe to go when you feel broken, lacking, and hurt. I forgot how it felt to go home.