“We haven’t written our letters to Santa yet,” Alex said on the way to school.
“We’ll do them sometime soon.”
“We have to. There’s only fifteen days until Christmas, you know. Santa is waiting to hear from us. He needs to know what we want. We can’t forget to write to Santa.”
“We won’t forget.”
When we arrived at his school, he turned and asked, “You’re going to school, right? Like Mom said?”
“No worries, buddy. I’m going. I’ll see you after.”
I could have easily bailed and headed back home, but instead I pushed myself up the mountain to my school. I went to my first class. I sat down, opened my notebook, and realized that I only finished half of my homework. The old me would have probably started hyperventilating.
Mr. Barry made his way around the room, stopping at everyone’s desk and glancing at their work. I looked at my half-finished homework. It’s something - more than what I have most days, I thought.
To my surprise, when he approached me, he took a seat in the empty desk next to me, grinning.
“Why did you skip my class on Monday?”
Everyone became quiet and looked at me in disbelief.
I looked hard at him, but didn’t say anything.
“Well?” he asked, still looking amused.
I felt my face growing hot with anger.
When it was clear I wasn’t going to say anything, he moved on. I stared down at my notes, not wanting to make eye contact with anyone for the rest of the class.
Knowing that Mom was at work, I left school and walked back home. I went upstairs, but instead of heading to my room, I went into Dad’s study. I sat at his desk, and opened the scrapbook I made for him before he died. There were close to a hundred pictures in here: pictures of us at the beach in the summer, building sandcastles; pictures of past birthdays and parties; pictures of us on vacation; and then, pictures of him when he started to get sick. Those pictures were the hardest for me to look at. He never wanted me to take those photos, but I told him I needed to. I wanted to capture his life in its entirety, even the not-so-pretty aspects, so I could always remember him. So Alex and Mom and I could remember him forever. I don’t think I could ever forget him, but time can be cruel, I hear.
I turned to the first photo in the scrapbook, the one of Mom and Dad holding me after I was born. Mom looked exhausted. She was pale and had dark rings under her eyes. But Dad was beaming. I flipped ahead and studied Dad’s smile in other photos, and couldn’t help but notice that his wide grin grew fainter over time. Maybe that’s what life does to people, I thought. I didn’t like looking at the last few pages, but I turned to them. Dad was barely smiling here but he still had that light in his eyes. In photos with me and Alex, he was glowing. People might have wondered: How could someone who’s been told he has terminal cancer keep that light in his life? But it’s because he loved us so much.
I looked at each of the pictures, studying Dad’s features and remembering all of the adventures, games, and laughter. I flipped to the page with photos of one of my favorite memories—the time Dad taught me how to play music. Dad had just bought a new acoustic guitar from a music shop. Captivated by his melodious strumming, I joined him in the back porch to watch him play. He put the guitar on my lap and taught me a few simple chords. Mom came in and took a photo of us.
I stared at the photo, at Dad’s brown hair that was swept back and still damp from the pool. His skin was tan from spending the summer outside with me, and he wore his bright orange shirt that he only sported on the weekends. He held on to me as if he thought he was training the next world-class guitarist.
The flashing blue digits on the alarm clock brought me back to reality. I needed to pick up Alex from school. I closed Dad’s scrapbook and left it out on the desk.
The wind burned my cheeks as I walked to Alex’s school, where I saw him standing outside, swinging his lunch box and spinning in circles.
“Alex! Let’s go!”
As we walked toward our back porch, Mrs. White, our old next-door neighbor, startled us.
“Oh there you two are! I’ve been knocking for the past couple of minutes, wondering why no one was answering. Your mother told me to come on by. She won’t be home until later tonight.”
“I forgot I needed a babysitter,” I mumbled, as I unlocked the door. Even though I was thirteen, Mom still treated me like a baby.
Alex rushed into the living room. He grabbed an armful of markers, crayons, and colored pencils. “Mrs. White, we’re going to write to Santa!”
“That’s a wonderful idea,” Mrs. White said, wrapping her arms around herself as she sat down.
“C’mon Melanie, you said we would.” Alex took a stack of colored paper from the drawer.
“You’re grabbing way too much paper. How many letters do you think we’re writing here?” I said to him.
Alex pulled out all of the sheets that were yellow—his favorite color.
“Everyone gets yellow paper,” he said, putting a sheet on the table for each of us, including Mrs. White, who laughed as she saw how serious he was about this project.
As Alex practiced his penmanship I thought about what to write. What did I want to say? What did I want for Christmas? I was clearly over-thinking this. There was no Santa to read this anyway.
All I want for Christmas this year is to have my Dad here, even for just one day. I don’t really need any flashy items. I just want Dad back.
I folded my letter, and put it in the envelope.
Alex penned his letters carefully. He wanted to ensure that Santa knew that he didn’t want just any Minion doll. He wanted a jumbo-sized one, the four-foot Minion doll he saw at the toy store the other week.
When he finished writing, I proofread it for him, and we wrote the address to the North Pole on our envelopes.
“I can take them with me to the mailbox when I leave tonight,” Mrs. White offered.
“Yeah! Santa is going to get them very soon.” Alex said, admiring his envelope.
“I should get started on my homework,” I said, getting up from the chair.
“That’s a good plan. Alex – would you like to color?” Mrs. White asked. Alex jumped up and down, and pulled out all of his coloring books.
I went upstairs, but instead of going to my room, I went back to Dad’s study. The scrapbook was right where I left it, of course. I turned to the pages where I put all of the Christmas photos. I knew exactly what page they started on.
Christmas was Dad’s favorite time of the year. When I was younger, he would dress up as Santa. I don’t remember it because I was only three or four. But Mom took pictures and I put them in here. In every photo of me sitting on Santa’s lap in the mall, I looked terrified. But with Dad dressed as Santa, I looked happy and calm – as if I knew it was really him and not some stranger in a costume.
Before Alex and I were born, Mom and Dad always had a fake Christmas tree. Mom didn’t like the mess of having a real one. When I was eight, I remember asking Dad if we could get a real one. “Just this one year,” I pleaded with Dad. Mom had a fit over it. But Dad said to me, “Don’t worry. We’ll convince her.” I don’t think he ever did convince her, but he made it happen. For me.
That year we went to cut down one of our very own. Dad let me choose. I picked one of the largest ones there, but Dad said it wouldn’t fit in the house. We found one that we both liked. One that would fit in the living room. When we took it home even Mom seemed pleased. We decorated it together, with Jingle Bell Rock playing in the background, and Dad singing along.
The next year Dad asked me jokingly, “Should we get our own Christmas tree again or stick with the old fake one?” As if he really needed to ask. Since then, we always got our own Christmas tree. Dad and I would go together. And last year, Alex was finally old enough to go with us.
I turned a page to look at the Christmas tree photo from last year. Dad had just heaved the six-foot tree on top of the car himself. Relieved and excited, we snuggled in close for a group photo by the car. I looked at Dad in the photo, with his fluffy wool hat covering his ears, his cheeks just as red from the cold as ours. Who would have known he would be diagnosed with cancer a month later?
When my eyes no longer felt like they could stay open, I closed the scrapbook for the night, and left Dad’s study. I went into my room and plopped down in bed.
As I heard my bedroom door open, I looked up and saw Mom. “What are you doing in bed this early?”
“I’m tired. Leave me alone.”
“I hope you finished your homework. The school counselor and teachers already know about Dad, but they can’t continue to cut you slack. It’s been almost two months now.”
My thoughts turned to Mr. Barry, and how he humiliated me in front of the class.
“I don’t care about school,” I said, and I pulled the covers over my head.
The next morning was yet another struggle, with Mom yelling for me to get out of bed and my body not wanting to cooperate. Despite getting ten hours of sleep, I felt as if I needed more. To appease Mom, I got up and feigned getting ready for school. Thankfully, she was taking Alex to school, so I didn’t have to do it. As soon as they left, I returned to my bedroom.
Later that evening, I recognized that Christmas was inching closer and we didn’t have our tree yet. When Mom was settled in from work, I went downstairs to talk to her.
“When are we going to pick up the tree? Christmas is almost here,” I said, in case she needed a reminder.
“We won’t be getting a real tree this year.”
“What? But Dad…”
“Is gone,” Mom said.
I couldn’t believe she said that.
“But we always get a real tree,” I said. “We can’t just not get one this year. Dad would’ve wanted us to get one. It was our tradition.”
Mom looked up at me. “And Dad would have wanted you to do your school work. When was the last time you’ve done your homework? I got a call from the school saying that you skipped again today. How many times are you going to keep doing this?”
Alex ran upstairs. He knew better than to be around when Mom and I fought.
“You don’t get it,” I said, as tears rolled down my face.
“Dad isn’t here anymore and that’s just something that you have to accept. That we all have to accept.”
Mom didn’t care about the tree. She didn’t care that it was special to me and Alex.
I went back to my room, and lay in bed for the rest of the night. Through the whistling of the wind, I thought I overheard Mom crying in her room.
Mom didn’t need to pull me out of bed the next morning. I was up before anyone in the house. I threw on the same clothes that I wore the day before, and grabbed something to eat. I went to school without showering or having done my homework.
I actually went to all of my classes too. But when the final bell rang, I was relieved to be able to go back home and get away from the world again.
As usual, I took in the mail and quickly shuffled through the envelopes. Just mail for Mom. But there was a small red envelope. Addressed to me. I studied the writing on the front. Who would be writing to me? I tore it open and unfolded the letter.
I know you are missing your Dad very much. But even I, with all of the magic on Christmas, cannot bring him back to you – as much as I wish to. Don’t cry – Dad would only want to see you smile. When you look at your beautifully decorated tree and think of him, know that he is looking down on you, and admiring your strength.
I looked at the front of the envelope. No return address. I looked again at the other envelopes, thinking that Santa would also write to Alex. But there was no letter addressed to him.
Without pausing to think, I ran outside and tracked down the mail truck. I tapped on his window. With a look of curiosity, he came out to see me.
“Can I help?”
“Yeah,” I said. I pulled out the envelope and handed it to him. “Who’s this from?”
He glanced at it. “There’s no return address. So, I don’t know. Sorry, kid.”
“Is there another way you can track it or something? To see where it came from?”
“No can do,” he said, shaking his head.
As the mailman drove off, I stood there, looking down at the mysterious letter in my hand. I tucked it back in my coat.
I went up to Dad’s study and opened the scrapbook. I turned to the pages with photos of our previous Christmas trees. It would be the first year without Dad, and the first year without a Christmas.
I pulled out the letter and re-read it. Even though it wasn’t really Santa, someone responded to my letter. My heart felt lighter at the thought of that. I wasn’t strong, but that letter made me feel stronger.
I avoided Mom that night, and she seemed to be avoiding me too. Alex came up to my bedroom and said, “The kids at school said they’re decorating their tree. When are we going to decorate our tree?”
“I don’t think we’re getting a Christmas tree,” I told him.
“Go ask Mom.”
Sadness and confusion swept across his face, and he ran out of my room.
The next day Mr. Barry handed us back our papers. I threw it in my backpack without so much as looking at the grade.
On my way into the house, I grabbed the mail and tossed it on the counter. Thirsty from the walk home, I opened the fridge to get some orange juice. When I turned around to grab the glass on the counter, a sparkle of red caught my attention. A small red envelope lay among the other mail.
Again, it was addressed to me. In the same neat handwriting. I went up to Dad’s study before opening it.
You are brave and strong. Keep that fire alive even after Christmas is gone. Keep it alive. Always.
Whoever was responsible for writing back to the kids who write to Santa clearly didn’t know what he was talking about. I folded the letter and tucked it back in its envelope. I put it with the other letter, in the back of Dad’s scrapbook.
A small knock on the door startled me. “Alex?”
The door opened, and there stood Alex. He walked in, his eyes widening at the sight of Dad’s old stuff, as if he was seeing it all for the first time.
“You’re always in here,” he said, as he came closer to me.
“I think about Dad a lot.” I looked at the acoustic guitar propped up in the corner, and the shelves of history and travel books that Dad loved to read.
“I think of him too,” he said.
I showed Alex the scrapbook. I pointed out the photo from last year – when Alex came with us for the first time to pick out our tree. Alex smiled when he saw pictures of Dad holding us.
“Santa” had it all wrong. I wasn’t strong or brave. Alex was the resilient one.
“It’s snowing,” Alex said, pointing out Dad’s window. Snowflakes were falling at a steady pace.
He pulled at my arm. “Let’s go outside.”
We went in the backyard, and I watched him as he wildly ran around catching snowflakes.
My hands numb from the cold, I told Alex we should go back inside. He didn’t want to, but I bribed him with the promise of hot chocolate and lots of marshmallows. In the kitchen, I realized that we were out of hot chocolate. Thinking that Mom might have holiday-themed hot chocolate lying around in her room, I went upstairs and searched her dresser. Mom sure had an odd mixture of stuff hanging around. I stopped when I saw something familiar: Christmas scroll stationary paper. The same paper Santa used to write his letters to me.
Mom had written those letters.
I felt crushed. Anger and embarrassment flooded through me. I left her room and went to Dad’s study. I took the two letters out from the back of the scrapbook, and examined the front of the envelopes. Mom changed her handwriting so she could fool me into believing that it was really Santa, so she could fool me into thinking that these letters were something special.
I took them out of their envelopes. The stationary paper Santa had used was the same as the paper Mom had in her bedroom. I looked at the letters and thought of how many times I re-read them. The letters inspired me to keep going, to keep fighting even though Dad was gone and would be forever.
I ripped them up into tiny pieces. With each tear, I grew angrier at Mom. And when I finished, I threw the shredded pieces on the carpet in her room.
I went downstairs, and told Alex that we didn’t have any hot chocolate left. He was sad, but I couldn’t comfort him when I was seething with anger over Mom. I told him that instead of the hot chocolate and marshmallows I promised, I could give him as many chocolate chip cookies as he wanted. He was content with that.
When Mom came home, it took her a while before she finally moved upstairs to her bedroom. But when she did, she yelled, “What is this mess!”
Then was my opportunity. My heart pounding, I left my room and confronted her.
“They’re the letters you wrote to me,” I told her. “Pretending to be Santa.”
Mom looked at me in disbelief. “What are you talking about? Clean up this mess!”
“You wrote those letters pretending to be Santa. Don’t act like you don’t know what I’m talking about. I saw the same paper on your dresser.”
Mom was busted. She couldn’t fool me any longer.
She didn’t say anything. There was nothing left for her to say. She picked up the pieces of paper, threw them into her small trash can, and tossed it to me.
“I didn’t write those letters,” she said. “Dad did.”
And she closed her bedroom door on me.
I stood there, frozen, unable to fully take in the reality of what just happened. For the past couple of days, I managed to avoid breaking down completely, but then, at that moment, I couldn’t stop the tears from coming.
I went back to Dad’s study, with the trash can with me. I turned on the lights as it was dark outside, and noticed that it had stopped snowing. I dumped the contents of the trash on the floor and searched frantically for every piece of Dad’s letters, my hands shaking. I felt like I was losing Dad all over again.
I couldn’t find all of the pieces, but what I could find, I attempted to piece back together. It was like piecing together a jigsaw puzzle, only that this one needed to be complete. When I realized I wouldn’t be able to salvage the second letter, I taped the first letter to a standard piece of white paper.
I sat there, on the cold hardwood floor, leaning up against a dresser with the letter in hand. I re-read it over and over. They were Dad’s words, his thoughts. It was his handwriting. How did I not recognize it?
Dad wanted me to smile, but I was too far away to see the sun. I wondered if he was looking down at me, and feeling disappointed that I really wasn’t as strong as he thought.
Hours seemed to have passed when I heard a knock on the door, a distinct knock. It wasn’t Alex.
“Come to my room, when you’re ready. There’s something I need to show you.”
I wiped my face with my sleeve and got up. Before I left, I put the letter safely in the back of the scrapbook.
I moved to Mom’s room, curious about what she had to show me.
Her door was open. “Come in,” she said.
I looked around but didn’t see anything unusual or different.
“What is it?” I asked.
Mom sat on the edge of the bed, and for the first time since Dad died, I noticed how vulnerable she really was. Looking at her face, it was clear that she was crying too.
She had a box on her lap.
“Your Dad left me with these,” she began. She opened the cover to reveal a number of letters inside.
“Attached to each of them are sticky notes,” she said. She showed me the sticky note that Dad left on the two letters I received. It read: For Christmas the first year – when Melanie needs it the most.
“He told me not to give it to you directly but to put it in the mail,” Mom said. “Now I know why,” she added, with a smile, while looking down at the letters.
“Are all of those letters for Christmas?” I asked.
“No,” Mom said. “They’re to be given to you and Alex when special occasions arise.”
I saw one that read: To be given to Melanie when she gets accepted to college.
“When did Dad write all of these?”
Mom smiled softly. “He spent a lot of time writing them when he was in the hospital.”
“Why didn’t Alex get one, like I did?” I had so many questions.
Mom shrugged. “He probably thought he wasn’t old enough yet.”
I pictured Dad writing all of the letters and the sadness he must have felt when realizing he wouldn’t be there for me and Alex through life, as we reached all of those important milestones.
I wondered if Dad had left letters for Mom too, but I didn’t ask.
I went back to Dad’s study and looked at the scrapbook. Just as I created this to remember him by forever, Dad too wanted to ensure that his presence would be felt.
I pulled out the letter and read it one last time. And smiled. No, we wouldn’t have a real Christmas tree this year, and Dad wouldn’t be here with us—at least physically. But that didn’t mean Dad wouldn’t be thinking of us or that we wouldn’t be thinking of him.
I put the letter back, and closed the scrapbook one final time. Instead of looking behind me, I realized, I needed to be moving forward. And I realized that moving forward didn’t have to entail forgetting about or letting go of the memory of Dad.
I put Dad’s scrapbook in the drawer and left his study.
The next evening, Alex and I went on a hunt to find Mom and Dad’s old fake tree in the basement. We climbed over mountains of old toys and games. A brown box lay on the floor in the corner, and sure enough, the old tree was inside. Mom and I moved it upstairs.
Alex and I untangled the lights and looked through the variety of ornaments that Mom and Dad collected over the years. Together we decorated the tree. When we finished, I told Alex to shut off the living room lights. We gathered around the tree and I flipped the switch for the Christmas lights. Alex, Mom, and I stood in awe at the dazzling tree.