It was a brief tradition of my family’s to sleep in my parents’ room on Christmas Eve; between my brother, my sister, and I, one of us would curl up on the floral couch while the other two sprawled out in sleeping bags wherever there was room on the floor. I would wake up first at some unimaginable hour, before daylight pressed against the blinds, and lay in wait while everyone else finished sleeping. That moment could extend for a long time—hours—with me breathless and wide-eyed throughout. If snow had built up on the sill overnight you could always tell. The light was silver. I liked laying there in the quiet, listening to the breaths of my family, resting in warm feelings, wondering about all the things waiting out in the living room. Eventually someone else would stir. A yawn. A rustle.
“Can we get up now?” I’d whisper.
“Yeah,” they’d whisper back, “Wake mom and dad.”
Every breath on Christmas morning was full and excited, like the air itself was red and green, and I could breath it all in. Today, certain smells will take me back to that feeling. I’ll be hiking along a trail deep in some Cascade woods, maneuvering around a fallen tree, and I’ll catch a strong smell of sap and pine that sends tingles through my chest. Suddenly my thoughts are full of flannel robes, slippers, eyes puffy with sleep, mugs of coffee, ornaments, wrapping paper, a belly full of Yorkshire pudding, fields of snow outside, the chatter and laughter of my family all around, and my old dog, Tucker, walking the perimeter and making sure everyone is behaving.
The feeling is brief, startling, and bittersweet. Christmas morning hasn’t felt like that in years.
This year I’ll sleep in a guest room, maybe on an air mattress—one that will inevitably deflate in the middle of the night, leaving my head and feet propped up with my hips flat on the floor. It will be a normal night of sleep. I won’t be waiting for the rumble of the Polar Express, watching for its headlight to flood the walls of my room in a gold glow. I won’t listen for hooves on the roof, or sneak peaks out of my window hoping to see Rudolph’s red nose floating through the sky. Instead, sleep will muddy my thoughts, and I’ll dream the usual dreams. I’m tired of growing older.
When I wake up I won’t be the first one. I’ll walk into the kitchen, grab a cup of coffee already prepared by my dad, and sit in the glow of the Christmas tree while everyone gathers themselves. My brother won’t be there. He’ll be in a different state with his wife and children, celebrating with her family. My sister and her husband will be tending to my nephew. He’s learned to walk and talk while I’ve been gone. Soon, Christmases will flood his chest with that old-fashioned magic, and he’ll barely be able to sleep at night with all the enchantment in his heart. He will wake up first and bounce on his parents’ bed. He is creating the memories I miss so much now.
To him, I’ll be the uncle he rarely sees, visiting from out of state for a brief time before running off again. He’ll look back on pictures of this time someday, years in the future, marveling at how young Uncle Will looked then. I just want to live near enough to look at the pictures with him.
Sometimes I look back at words I wrote about last Christmas:
…I try to force feelings of contentment and togetherness, so I can be with my family just for a moment before I fly back to Seattle. And I can’t.
I’m excited to come home. I’ve been listening to Christmas music constantly to prepare, picking up scents of nostalgia along the way. I can’t wait to spend late nights with my parents, candles flickering, sipping on hot chocolate while that sweet, sleepy feeling takes over, looking into the eyes of the people I love most. I can’t wait to see my nephew open presents. I can’t wait to giggle and cuddle with him, hugging that little warm body. But I’m haunted by that old line. I can’t ignore it.
Last Christmas, I remember plopping down on the couch next to my sister, my eyes watery. All the presents hadn’t even been opened yet. “I’m still thinking about her,” I said quietly. “Oh, William,” she muttered, and squeezed my hand. My younger self would never have imagined that I would feel that way on Christmas day. I’ve come a long way since then, but I know the patterns of my heart. My odd heart.
Adulthood comes with so many little losses, gathering slowly like snow on the ground. They gather and gather, gently covering life’s beauty beneath. A part of my growing older has meant learning how to search for the beauty even then—realizing that there is nothing quite like a grey-skied morning full of snow, that there is peace in every season. I suppose I’m still searching for it in this one. I would still like to be a kid on Christmas morning, lying on the floor of my parents’ room and listening to the sleep sounds of my family.
Christmas morning will come. I will breathe in a normal breath. My chest might tingle for a moment, and then it will settle. My prayer, always, is that it won’t. Life is too brief, startling, and bittersweet.