Updated: Jan 29, 2022
It’s Christmas Eve. I am 12 Years old.
I have been a good boy this year.
I am kneeling on the iron heating register and praying for my father to die. It’s not the sort of Christmas gift one would expect a young boy to pray for but it’s what I want. It’s cold upstairs and everyone is sleeping. Only one register vent heats the upstairs. I believe by kneeling on it, adding some suffering to my prayer, God will answer me.
I wake up Christmas morning and my dad is not dead, just hung over. All eight of us children have been downstairs, huddled around the tree, waiting to open our presents for over an hour. My dad finally comes out of the downstairs bedroom and immediately lights a cigarette. He is wearing the same old smoke-stained yellowed t-shirt that he was wearing the night before when he got into a fight with my mother and beat my sister. Nothing unusual, with the exception of the shattered window, now covered with cardboard, from the liquor bottle my mom threw at my dad. Otherwise, just another family moment. I know the scene and the drill.
The evening before, my older sister and I hustled our siblings upstairs and told them to be quiet and stay put. She remained with them and I went downstairs to intervene. I am no longer afraid of being hit by my dad. I have learned to go numb; he really can’t hurt me anymore. This numbness will plague me all my life. My sister is cowering on the floor and my dad is standing over her with his belt. I run between them and shout at him to stop. He raises his belt, then looks at me and becomes embarrassingly remorseful and stops. This is a sign that the storm has passed. He will now go into the bedroom and pray for forgiveness. He won’t remember anything tomorrow.
We must wait until dad finishes his cigarette and has his cup of coffee before we are allowed to open presents. Finally, after torturous minutes, he reads aloud a gift tag and hands a present to my older sister and tells her she can open it. She tears open the package and then is instructed to hold it up for all of us to see. It’s a plastic toy fort set complete with Cowboys and Indians; I am immediately jealous. I am next. My dad picks up a present and again reads the tag, “To: Philip. From: Santa.” He looks around as if he can’t see me and says, “Is Philip here? Has he been a good boy? Oh, there you are.” He hands me the gift. I am still so upset about my sister’s gift that I don’t acknowledge the stupid Wham-O Super Ball that I get. Then, descending by age from oldest to youngest, we each get to open one present. The youngest are physically sick with anticipation.
My mom sits quietly to the side. She is very tired, having stayed up almost all-night baking and wrapping presents. She smiles at each of us as we open our present. After everyone has opened a single present, she looks at my dad and simply says, “Let them open all the presents”. It’s not a command or a request insomuch as it’s a simple declarative that my father abides as she has pushed his remorseful button with the carefully registered tone of her voice. We tear into the packages like all children on Christmas morning and the feelings of sadness and anxiety evaporate. It’s Christmas!
I had gone out of my way to buy each of my siblings a gift. It’s not much, as I have only the money from my paper route, but there’s a junk shop up the street with a miscellany of items including toys and other “treasures”. I carefully look through the inventory to find something for each of them but spend most of the time looking for a gift for my mother as she is a saint to me and the only person in the world who can save us. I always buy my father a carton of cigarettes; Camels, no filter. He’s a heavy smoker and Joe, at the corner store, will sell them to me. The gift is, perhaps unknowingly, part of my death prayer.
Later, my aunts, uncles, and cousins from my father’s side of the family will come over for a big Christmas dinner. We rarely go out to visit relatives as there are too many of us and my aunts and uncles on my mother’s side of the family, don’t want us to visit. My father will get drunk, and we kids will tear apart their pretty homes. I am glad not to go as I hate being embarrassed by my dad.
Dinner is fantastic as we are always hungry and on Christmas day all the stops are pulled out. There is ample food to go around and even enough for seconds! Especially before Christmas, my brother and I play a game where we sit side-by-side in a chair with Good Housekeeping or some other magazine. As we page through the magazine, he pretends to eat the food on the right and I pretend to eat what is on the left. The worst is when there is only a picture of food on one side and one of us doesn’t get to pretend eat. After paging through one magazine, we look for another until our eyes, but not our stomachs, are full. To this day, I enjoy looking at pictures of food.
It was a hard life for a kid, but the concept of a hard life is only realized by means of contrast. With no contrast, you normalize almost anything. That’s why I particularly hated going to the homes of my mother’s family. They had nice clean houses, food in the fridge, and even candy on the table!
It’s Christmas Day. I am now 23 years old.
I am sitting in the coldest place on earth, a Go-Go bar on Christmas Day. I am one of three patrons and the dancer is sitting at the bar with us. Even though the jukebox is playing Christmas music, there is nothing like “jolly” in the air. The only gift we exchange is the lack of conversation. Face down, we stare at our drinks with occasional glances at our woeful reflection in the mirror behind the bar. Merry Christmas it is not.
My young wife is at home with our two boys, ages one and two. I am more hopeless now than I was at age 12. This Christmas, I could be praying that I would die but I have given up praying for anything. It didn’t work when I was 12 and it hasn’t done a thing for me since. I have been married for less than three years and it’s not going well. Money is tight. Our apartment was robbed two months earlier and they stole the stereo and what little jewelry my wife had. She is afraid of the neighborhood as am I. The boys are a lot to handle. I am working, going to night school, and drinking like a fool. To keep me moving, I have discovered speed (methamphetamine) and that too is beginning to take its toll. Father’s little helper.
I endure nine years of this madness, this descent into a hell of my own making. We divorce, my wife moves to Canada with the boys, and I move to New Jersey. I will, perhaps someday, tell the story of the sadness, depression, and hopelessness of those nine years although it’s really nothing more than a single story repeated every day. It’s yet a collection of disjointed vignettes: dim barrooms, leftover Chinese food, broken glass, screaming voices, police encounters, failed sad affairs, and a darkness that became more impenetrable with each passing day.
It’s Christmas Eve. I am now 72 years old.
I am kneeling by my bed and praying for life, for mine and those I love. I pray to forgive myself for not knowing what I could not have known. It’s a strange prayer. I didn’t know that my father was ill, that he didn’t want to be the way he was. I didn’t know the guilt and shame that drove my father to despair and back to the bottle, until I felt it myself. I didn’t know that despite it all, I would travel down that same road.
It seems our fate is to go as we are compelled until we know what we could not have possibly known sooner. We awaken to grace at the timing of the spirit and that timing is, I believe, influenced by the energy of prayer. The prayers of a young boy or an old man. The prayers of mothers and children.
Energy is neither created nor destroyed, only transmuted, moving from one state to another. We are immersed in the energy of a merciful grace like the air that surrounds us. The energy of my youthful prayers hung in the air waiting for that transformative moment when I realized the presence of grace. I was changed in that singular moment.
I believe that we inherit a spiritual encoding, just as we inherit a genetic makeup. We begin our spiritual journey at the point our ancestors and parents got to and we are called to move the story along. We are tasked with the evolution of both body and soul. The end of a brightly colored ribbon is handed to us and we are to follow where it leads. We don’t build the cross that we are called on to bear; we inherit it.
There is a Biblical concept that the sins of the father are passed down to the children, to seven generations. This brings with it a profound responsibility to live the very best life I can, not only for me, but for my ancestors and also my progeny. Our lives echo both ways, and what we do, how we live, has an effect.
I continue to strive to live “a good life”, oftentimes still thinking that by such effort, I can change the course of the world and the lives of those around me. But the course of the world, others’ lives, and my life each have their own momentum and now my prayers are largely for the awareness and strength to go where grace leads.
Every Christmas, I am happy to report, I have been a bit better than the year before. I have learned to love my father, my childhood, and strange Christmas memories. It pays to be good, Santa notices, and the story moves forward.