Not Christmas Lights

By Robin Rhyner

The girl saw the look of pity and puzzlement in the man’s glance as he tore their tickets, handed back the stubs. Dull shame turned her heart. She wanted to speak. To tell him they were loved, actually. But the girl and the boy remained quiet. Their words stolen by shared embarassment. It wouldn’t have been so bad if the baby wasn’t with them.

At home there were presents under the tree. There were sugar cookies made by them with their mother–the shapes of angels, stars, snowmen, and wreaths–iced with powdered-sugar frosting and decorated with sprinkles. There were stockings hung on the mantel and ingredients for a Christmas dinner in the kitchen. They were loved.

But abandoned. Alone at a movie theater on Christmas Day. The girl of eleven, the boy of eight, the baby three-years-old. Dropped off by the father who bought tickets, gave them money for snacks, asked the man what time the movie ended, then drove away.

The girl wished that the father loved them. She wished that he wanted to make a special day for them. Maybe the father could take them for a walk in the snowy winter woods, the path a few steps from their back door. Maybe the father could make hot chocolate and put in the candy canes. Maybe the father could read them a story, build a fire, make snow angels, pull them on the sled, teach them a game, sing some songs, wrap their presents, talk to them. But the father was at home smoking cigarettes in the quiet house.

He brought them here. There were three people in the theater. The girl, the boy, and the baby. The boy kept his eyes down. Looked at his shoes. He did not talk. The girl bought the snacks at the concession stand. She held the baby’s hand. She chose the good seats. She hoped the baby thought that this was an adventure.

The mother worked at the hospital. Nurses took care of patients, even on Christmas. The family would have Christmas tomorrow. The mother would cook. The mother would smile. The girl, the boy, and the baby would be happy. The father would watch the Christmas. He would see them open presents. He would take the pictures. He knew how Christmas was supposed to be.

But he preferred quiet. Empty rooms. His own thoughts. The father turned on the television without the sound. He sat in his chair. He did not think of the girl or the boy or the baby sitting in the dark theater watching the movie.

The mother worked. She took care of the dying man. She gave him the medicine, watched the machines, wrote notes in the chart, tucked in his blanket, touched his arm. The man did not speak. His family cried. The mother thought of her own family. Of her own children. Of her own dying man.

Light flickered on the faces of the girl, the boy, and the baby; not Christmas lights.

3 Responses to Not Christmas Lights

  1. Tamara Hunter says:

    Wow Robin – there’s such a powerful sense of sadness and bewilderment in this piece…I’m searching for redemption, and the clue, I guess, is in ‘her own dying man’, and I wonder whether he’s dying physically, or just emotionally/psychologically. It makes me pray that the balance of the mother’s love is enough for these children. It reads very personally.

    • Robin Rhyner says:

      Thanks for your comment Tamara. I actually just saw it today.

      It is a story right out of my childhood, slightly disguised through artistic rendering, of course.

      My Dad was someone who maybe shouldn’t have had children. I think it was the unpredictability and the noise that were so difficult for him. But he also suffered from Alzheimer’s Disease that became obvious in my late teen years. Once there is a diagnosis, you start looking backwards to see where that shadow may have fallen without your knowledge in the preceding years. In Dad’s case, it was difficult to distinguish the differences, and where the “overlap” occurred.

      I know that my mother and father both loved us. I think it just comes down to people’s capacities in life, and how they give and receive love. When I was in my early twenties, I had the experience of being my father’s caregiver for several months. It has informed every moment of my existence since then. My dad died when I was 26. And I still occasionally have dreams where I can talk to him as my 40 year old self and ask all the questions I would have asked him if he were still alive. Through some miracle he can speak as if he is well. Thank God for dreams, right?

  2. Liz says:

    wow, Robyn – this is an amazing piece…I just read it (July 20) and am blown away. And I had no idea about your family; thank you for sharing that with us. There’s a lot of pain in what you shared with us, but a lot of forgiveness and grace, too. I think your story conveys, that, too, even through the angst of abandonment. It is personal, but universal.

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