Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Best Laid Plans

I had a plan for the holiday season.  Every year, I usually volunteer to work Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, if needed.  In return, I get to be off for that most sacred and holiest of all holidays:  New Year's Eve, where I plan to partake in the usual ceremonies consisting of going out, getting drunk with friends, and having a good time celebrating with strangers.  And the fireworks.  I love the fireworks and the countdown to the New Year.  And if I'm lucky, I make new friends and enjoy my own fireworks with new friendly strangers. 

I worked Christmas Eve and Christmas Day and the rest of the weekend to get New Year's Week off.  I was going to cash in my miles and had saved enough money to earn a week long stay at a tropical location by the beach.  I had been eyeing this last minute getaway for almost a month now and had until Christmas Eve to book it.  I had a carry on bag packed and waiting by the door.  My plan was to get home Monday morning, take a shower, get dressed, then take a cab and my carry on to the airport, where by that afternoon, I had envisioned myself laid out on the beach under a giant umbrella, with shades and sunscreen on, sipping a margarita while enjoying the view of the hot, nubile, nekkid women strutting and tanning themselves on the beach.

Yes, sir, I had a plan.  Unfortunately, as the saying goes: Of mice and men, even the best laid plans (or in my case, my best plans to get laid) often go awry.  So instead of sweating under the sun, I'm wearing a sweater indoors while my heater kicks on.  Instead of sunshine and blue skies, I see rain and cold gray days.  My new swimming shorts, never worn, still packed in the carry on; the carry on still by the door, a sombre reminder that my tropical trip is no more.  What happened you ask, where did it all go astray?  It started the week before Christmas, when I spoke to a friend of mine in a land far away.

I was talking to my friend, wishing him a happy holiday season and catching up with him.  He told me how he was doing fine and how grateful he was that he and his wife are glad to have made it through the year all right.  I had an inkling that it had been a tough year for both of them financially.  Well, it's been a tough year for most people all around.  But he was proud that he and his wife were able to save up enough money to get bikes for their son and daughter.  I figured, wow, bikes are great!  And I told my friend what an awesome gift a bike was.  I asked my friend if the kids know that they're getting bikes for Xmas.  My friend, sheepishly replied, "Well, they didn't really ask for anything this Christmas."

Wow, I thought, what wonderful children!  And I told my friend how wonderful his children were for not being so materialistic or worldly this holiday season.  My friend got quiet, then he told me the full story.  His hours had been cut back so he was making less money.  Still, his wife and he agreed to move their family to a safer neighborhood; so they made the move.  While the old place cost less and had more room, it was also located in a bad neighborhood and was far from work.  The new place, while smaller and costing more, is closer to the kids new school and my friend rides his bike to work, to save money.  His wife takes the bus.  When I asked how the kids are adjusting to the new place, my friend replied that they were doing great, and his son had told him that he was happy to have a room of his own.

They had to make the tough decision of transferring the kids to a new school, leaving behind their friends and starting over in a strange new place.  That's hard for any adult, much less a small child.  But they had sat down with their kids and explained their reasons for moving, and the kids adapted as well as they could.  My friend told me how he was able to get a small Xmas tree and some lights and how excited the kids were to help decorate the tree and put up other holiday decorations.  And I pictured them as a happy family, celebrating the holidays with love and joy, as it should be.

Then my friend's wife mentioned that she had all ready put some presents under the tree.  When I asked if it were the bikes, she laughed and said, no, the bikes were still hidden.  Instead, she had taken some new clothes for the children and wrapped them so the tree wouldn't look so empty without presents underneath.  What she told me next broke my heart.  The clothes she had bought were really those 3 or 5 T shirts in a pack kind of clothes.  She had found them in the clearance aisle; and she had taken them out of the packs and wrapped them individually so it would look like the kids had a lot of presents under the tree. 

Suddenly, I felt sad, thinking about what my friends had done to give their children a good life and a good Christmas.  I couldn't help but think, no kid likes to receive clothes on Christmas; I think every child would like to have toys instead.  As if sensing my thoughts, my friend's wife continued, well, they need new clothes anyway.

I didn't know how to reply.  So I asked her how the kids were doing in their new school.  She told me that they were doing fine.  And that they were both making new friends.  I wasn't surprised.  I always thought their kids were very friendly.  The last time I had seen them was five years ago when I visited their part of the world.  The son was only 4 then, his sister, 3.  Now he was 9 and his sister, 8.  Thinking about their ages, I couldn't help but wonder that maybe there was something that these kids wanted.  I know at that age, I had dreams and fantasies and wishes, too, even if I was too afraid or ashamed to say them out loud.

During the conversation about school work and projects, my friend let it slip that while he was going over his son's homework, he found a piece of paper wedge in the pages of a book.  It was a letter that the teacher had made them write to Santa.  In it, my friend's son had written a thank you and well wishes to Santa.  Then he asked, if it was possible, for him to get some Legos and a remote control car, and a Barbie doll for his sister.  The letters were supposed to be turned in, but for some reason, my friend's son decided to hold on to his and he tried to hide it from his parents.

My heart ached at the thought of a 9 year old boy, too ashamed to ask for a present, because he was aware of how hard things were for his family.  And I was deeply saddened and moved by the thought of this small boy, too afraid to say what he wanted, too embarrassed to ask for what he really wanted for Christmas, because he didn't want to cause his family any more hardship. 

Suddenly, I remembered that Christmas so long ago, after I lost my father, and things were very hard for us.  I was 8; my father had died suddenly; and now my mother was a single parent struggling to raise 3 young boys.  Things would be hard for the next few years.  But my mother, she found a way to get us through those rough times.  She found a way to make sure we were still children, who could still find some happiness, even after our whole world had been torn apart.

I remember that first Christmas after my dad passed away, and how I was afraid to ask for things, because I knew that they cost money, and we didn't have a lot of that.  I remember the many Christmases after that, where I still felt that sense of shame, every time I saw something new and shiny and wanting it, only to realize that it cost too much and I didn't really need it.  Once a child learns the difference between need and want, it signals the end of childhood and innocence.  It's the end of bliss and imagination, and the beginning of the realization that the world can be a harsh and rough place.

No child should have to be worried about things like having money or a home or food on the table.  But it happens and it happens a lot.  And if we're lucky, there's someone who can lend a helping hand or show a bit of kindness, even for just a little while; it can make a world of difference and restore some hope and let the child dream just a little bit longer.  All children eventually learn that life is not easy and the world can be a cruel and terrible place.  But children should also learn that sometimes, the world can be a wonderful place and that so long as you have hope and love, you can overcome anything; you can find a way to survive and thrive and move on to better things.

After I hung up with my friend, I felt a heaviness in my heart.  My eyes welled up at the thought of this 9 year old boy forced to grow up too fast, learning the harsh lessons of life too soon.  I felt a deep sorrow at the thought of this little boy, who I remembered being so full of laughter and joy when he was younger, now starting to realize that life was hard for him and his family; and he felt too embarrassed to ask for what he wanted this Christmas, and he felt too ashamed to share his wishes with his family, because he knew that what he wanted was just out of reach.

I felt a kinship to this boy, as I recalled my own sense of helpless and sadness and wanting so much and being ashamed for wanting anything at all.  I remember thinking that I shouldn't want so much; that I should be grateful just to be alive: that I should not want anything more, because everything more comes at a cost.  And that's a sad way for a child to think.  That's a sad way for anyone to think.

Suddenly I think of my mother, and how she always found a way to make things better, even in the worst of times.  And I realized, I wasn't a child anymore; and I know things now that I didn't know before.  And I realized that I could do more; and I could do what my mother had done and find a way to make things just a little bit better.

Today, I received a phone call from my friend and his family.  His kids were excited and laughing and thanking me profusely.  My friend spoke softly and thanked me.  His wife did most of the talking, because my friend was on the verge of crying.  She thanked me for the package they received.  She almost cried too when she said how surprised they were to get the package and just how amazing it was to see her kids eyes light up when they opened the package and started unwrapping the presents inside.  She couldn't believe that I had done this, but  I told her I wanted to do this, because that's what friends do, they take care of each other.  And I wanted to reward her son, because he was a very good kid.  Both her kids were good children and they deserved a little happiness and joy this holiday season.

And there went my travel funds.  I spent it on legos and radio controlled cars and Barbie dolls; on model airplanes and Hot Wheels and a cupcake maker; on chocolate candy, sweets, treats, hot chocolate mix, and candy canes; cake mixes and muffin mixes and frosting; stocking stuffers; action figures and dolls; helicopters and trucks and trains and boats; bubbles to blow, stickers and coloring books and glow in the dark stars; children's books and new clothes, because, really, kids do need new clothes, and a little something for my friends to enjoy for this holiday season and the year to come. 

So, I'm not basking in the sunlight, sipping mixed umbrella drinks on beautiful sandy beach while the breeze caresses my body.  But that's okay.  It's much better to hear laughter and joy from a grateful child you've given a gift, too.  It's much more important to know that for today, a small family is feeling happy and have hope, and know that they are not alone and that the world can be wonderful, amazing place.

No, this is not the plan I had in mind for this New Year.  But that's okay.  Even the best laid plans go astray, and sometimes, it's for the best.  In next hour, I'm heading out to meet some friends for dinner before we head out to celebrate and enjoy the countdown and fireworks, making new friends and partying with the old.  So I'm not carousing on a nude beach surrounded by a bevy of a beautiful sunbathing ladies; that's okay.  For the rest of the week, I shall turn up the heat in my home, put on my shades and some beach music, mix up some drinks and lay on the beach towel covered lawn chair and pretend I'm at a tropical beach paradise. 

Whatever your plans are for the New Year, I hope you find peace and joy; I hope you find hope and happiness;  I hope you find that the world can be a better place and I hope you are safe, warm, and find yourself among friends and loved ones.

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