Christmas had always been important in my family. Even when we first arrived in the United States and times were lean, my parents always managed to make Christmas special. We always got together with our cousins and the the celebrations were loud and boisterous. I had always wanted to host a jubilant Christmas, but law school loans had put off home purchasing until well into my thirties and our family was too big for our apartments. One of the criteria I considered when we were looking at homes was whether the layout would work well to host our Christmases. Even after we bought a house, Christmases were celebrated at my sister’s house. She had a large accommodating space, and it had sort of become tradition by default.
When it was finally our rotation to host, I planned a home cooked feast. I laid awake in bed thinking of the entrees and sides, down to the minute details of how to sequence my cooking so they could all come out hot at the same time. Meals are at the heart of our family and food is how we express our love. There would need to be a lot of food because what we lacked in numbers we made up for in voraciousness.
We only had one child at the time, but he had many cousins. The thing I looked forward to the most was seeing how happy my dad would get watching all the children run amuck. He loved kids more than anything, and he loved them most of all during Christmas time. I still remember the first time I was old enough that I asked for something other than a toy for Christmas. He got teary eyed because I had grown out of my whimsical stage. Now that he had grand children he savored all those little moments watching the children open toys and play with them together.
The night went as I had planned. We all gorged ourselves to the edge of regurgitation, and the kids screamed and chased each other around. There was the obligatory crying spell when one of them got shot in the face with a nerf gun, but dad smiled all night. When he wasn’t smiling he was looking over everything contently. He had his moments holding court too. When he was younger, every event centered around him telling jokes and everyone laughing. He had this way of twisting his head back and forth and smiling to accentuate a point, and he told his share of jokes on that Christmas.
A few years before that Christmas, he had undergone eye surgery. Due to diabetes-related complications, his eyes never quite healed properly. For a few years before that Christmas his vision had been quite poor and it had taken its toll on him. He was not as active as he used to be, and his age started to show. Most of his favorite activities (putting models together or cooking) all required eyesight. Some gatherings he had appeared sunken, or at least fatigued. But, that was not how he was this Christmas. This Christmas, he was vintage Lolo.
At the end of the night, after family had helped put away dishes and everyone was sleepy to the point of cranky, we said our goodbyes. I was taller than my dad at that point, but he stood one step higher than me on our threshold so he could look me in the eyes. He told me he was proud of me, and that he loved me. He hugged me for what seemed like forever, and twice during that hug he tightened his grip as if he was fighting off the notion that he ever had to let go. My dad always gave the best hugs. His hugs had a way of letting you know exactly how he felt. This one felt like more than just “I love you.”
It would be a few more years after that Christmas before he passed away. He would suffer a broken hip, and later a series of strokes. For the last few years, he still had occasional flashes of jubilation, but he was mostly solemn and quiet at family gatherings. But, for that one night, he was how I always remembered him. Looking back, I think he had already sensed that a part of himself had begun slipping. I think he enjoyed that night because it was filled with life from both his family and himself. I think he did not want to let go because he felt this was probably his last Christmas with me. The last Christmas that I would have with the REAL version of him.
I would have thought more about it at the time except when he let me go he gave me that same smile that always comforted me. We said our goodbyes and I went to bed content with the occasion.
We spent a few more Christmases together after that, but I have always considered that our last Christmas. The perfect one. I still think about his hug often, mostly when I hold my kids. I hope they always remember me full of boisterous, jovial love the way I remember him.