In a year of relentless negativity and and awful political developments and terrible suffering in places like Afghanistan and Syria, a celebratory holiday season feels like a non sequitor. Look at all that’s gone wrong this year — an ugly divisiveness that permeates our culture, wars and strife and growing xenophobia around the world, the rise in a foul noise of white nationalist racism, the ascendancy of a madman to the presidency despite his firm rejection by a majority of voters, my daughter’s own terrible struggles with physical and mental health issues, my husband’s miserable year of gout attacks, months of ongoing sickness in our house since August, my mom falling and breaking her leg just a couple weeks ago.
What’s there to celebrate?
Still, I can’t help but see gifts all around me this time of year, because I’m looking for them. We are a family that celebrates a secular Christmas, regaling our children with shamelessly excessive Christmas lighting and decorations and shamelessly abundant gift-giving and shameless overeating. But we all know that the greatest gifts aren’t the money in our pockets or the trinkets lining our walls; they’re the little things that stick in our craws.
* * * * *
A classmate joins Jesse for school lunch regularly, even though she still eats separately in a quiet room in the school offices. I’m pretty sure he’d often rather be in the cafeteria with other friends, but he eats with Jesse day after day with few exceptions. I don’t know why he does it, friendship or love or kindness or decency; but I know it’s a lifeline for Jesse.
Then another classmate unexpectedly joined Jesse for lunch last week. I asked Jesse how that came to pass. She replied that this little girl had asked to eat lunch with Jesse, “because her mom told her I might be lonely so she should do that.” As Jesse told me this, a smile burst onto her face and she skipped around the room joyfully for a few seconds. It almost ripped a sob out of me.
(I controlled myself then but now I can’t, so give me a minute here while I deal with this dirt in my eye.)
* * * * *
There’s a smallish group of parents I share time with on the elementary school playground now and then, after school lets out. It began as just an easygoing collection of parents who share a simple value — kids should have time to play — and it has evolved into what I believe are true friendships among the parents as well as the kids.
This year, I had a lot of need for child care. Nick needed a place to go as I carted Jesse around to doctor’s appointments and intensive outpatient treatment at the mental health hospital. My merry band of after-school friends stepped in. There was always a safe place for Nick, someplace where he knew he matters as much as Jesse. There still is.
And sometimes folks will even let me have their kids over. Bonus.
* * * * *
We went to a new psychiatrist this fall for Jesse, a doctor who has a very intense interest in whether auto-immune conditions are the root causes of mental illness. I went along with her suggestion that we do a ton of bloodwork to explore these issues, though I have tremendous skepticism. The science is still out.
I’m sure this doctor gets a heavy dose of grief from the medical community for her intensity, but she just keeps soldiering on and learning as much as she can. That bloodwork she ordered may or may not have exposed some ongoing auto-immune issues, but it did identify Lyme disease. And I have to say, since Jesse was treated for that, stuff has been getting better. A lot better. Maybe Jesse has had untreated Lyme disease for a really, really long time. Out of all the doctors and experts we’ve seen in all the gin joints in the greater Milwaukee area, this one psychiatrist’s fishing expedition found a really important treatable problem in Jesse.
* * * * *
A couple weekends ago, we went to a colleague’s party in the evening, kids in tow. There was plenty of food, but almost nothing for Jesse because of her egg allergy. The cookies all contained eggs. There were deviled eggs. There were dips with unknown ingredients. There was a giant chocolate cake and she couldn’t have one bite of it. Jesse handled it as graciously as she could, but it was a pretty pitiful little girl who walked out of that house at the end of the evening.
Last week a playground dad told me he wanted to make egg-free holiday cookies for us. I thought that was really nice, and it passed through my mind that this would be a good antidote to the party. I told Jesse he would be making egg-free cookies for us, and once again she skipped around a bit as a happy grin exploded onto her face. Then she stopped suddenly and stared at me, a puzzled look on her face. “Why?”
I didn’t know quite how to answer that. Because love and friendship and kindness and inclusion? I don’t know what motivates people. When I got the dish of cookies, I was startled to see that this friend had made four different types of egg-free cookies. Anthony and I shook our heads and picked dust out of our eyes. That’s a whole lot of love and friendship and kindness and inclusion. (Also, the cookies were delicious. Bonus.)
* * * * *
Jesse has been having some really great days at school. On one of the first of these days, about a month ago, her teacher gave her a little pendant. It’s a little piece of rough-beaten metal, and engraved on it is this: “brave is beautiful.”
Jesse told me that she almost cried when her teacher gave it to her, and she didn’t know why. I think I know why, but I didn’t say anything as I brushed those bits of dirt out of my eyes.
* * * * *
In this down year, I have been picked up and dusted off again and again by friend and family and stranger and colleague. I can’t tell all the stories without being a bore. As I rifle through the memories, I can only reach one conclusion: people don’t suck as bad as I think they do. If we could just keep giving each other simple gifts, maybe together we can hold onto enough humanity to keep going, and we can build that humanity into a wall of courage, and we can take that wall and push it up against all the ugliness that’s trying to rip our world apart.