Dear Santa,

I have tried to be good this year. I know I blew it many times. I figure this is part of why I haven’t seen you in many years – on the whole, I’m not doing that great on my own. No hard feelings, I know you have to have your standards. I’m hoping that I did better this year.

Just in case, I’m putting in a wish. This year, what I really want for Christmas is a family. Tall order, I know, but you’re Santa! I know you can do it.

Love,
Me

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

So these are the kinds of things I fantasize about when I’m staring into the dark (don’t worry, this is one that’s safe for public consumption). Names have been changed to protect the innocent, since they’re real people and all.

I gently drift back and forth on the swing, leaning against the chain on one side, staring at the Christmas lights on the surrounding homes. Tears keep leaking down my cheeks, though I’m too worn out for any more dramatic emotion. I hear voices off to my left, and look to see 3 couples walking together. They’re wrapped up against the cold, talking and laughing – clearly family out to walk off the feast and enjoy the neighborhood lights. I feel a stab of longing so sharp it’s physically painful. Almost as though sensing it, the woman at the back of the group raises her head and looks around. I drop my gaze, not wanting to stare and appear rude, but I know she’s looking right at me. Voices murmer, and when I glance up again, she is coming my way while the rest of the group walks on. She has looked familiar from the moment I saw them, and as she passes under a streetlight and I see her red curls, my suspicions are confirmed. I’m in a pool of shadow, so it’s not until she’s quite close that she recognizes me – though I’m sure she had her own suspicions. After 3 years in her ballet and jazz classes, I’m sure she’s as familiar with my body and postures as I am with hers. She settles onto the swing next to mine and looks closely at my face.

“Hey there, miss Pip. Are you okay? What are you doing way out here?”

I’m trying to blink back my tears, but to no avail. “Michelle? Fancy meeting you here. Yeah, I’m fine. I just… Christmas is especially hard, you know? I just suddenly couldn’t stand sitting in my apartment, staring at my Ramen noodles and feeling sorry for myself, hearing all the families in the nearby units, smelling the turkeys and everything. I just had to get out. I picked a direction and started walking. Killed the battery on my iPod a while ago. I don’t even really know where I am at this point, though I think I’m fairly near my friend Leslie’s house. I’m exhausted, and my feet are killing me – I think I took some skin off with all the walking – so when I saw the swings, I figured I’d rest a bit. Once I get some energy back, I figured I’d follow the traffic noise until I came to a larger street, then call Leslie and see if I could get a ride home. It’s way too far to walk back tonight.”

She thinks a minute, taking in my clothing. “So when did you leave for this walk?”

“Around 11, I think. Maybe quarter past. Somewhere in there.”

She blinks. “It’s after 8 now. You’ve been walking for the past 9 hours? And you haven’t eaten since 11 am?”

That makes me pause. “Actually, I didn’t think to eat before I left either.”

She stares at me.

“I often don’t eat until late afternoon, maybe even into the evening if I don’t have to be at the studio. I know, it’s awful, I just don’t think about it, then I get lazy…” I shrug. You know how it is, my body language says.

Michelle shakes her head and stands up. “Come on.”

I take a deep breath and push myself to my painful feet. Michelle frowns when she sees how much I’m limping and puts an arm around me. I gratefully lean into her wiry strength, also enjoying the warmth of her nearness.

“Next time you decide to go for an extended stroll in the dead of winter, maybe you should think about a coat,” she remarks to me.

“Yeah, well, I wasn’t planning on being out for more than an hour. Two at the absolute outside. And it was sunny when I left. None of this was exactly intended. Just figured I’d walk until I felt better.” I catch my swollen, painful foot on some uneven pavement and struggle to suppress my cry of pain. Her arm tightens around my waist.

“We’re almost there, it’s just the next house down,” she reassures me. I bite my lip and limp on, trying to keep my strides short to minimize the rubbing of my feet against my shoes. This is easier said than done since Michelle is so tall. She is trying to match her stride to mine, though, for which I am deeply grateful. I figure she’s planning to drive me home, and I’m entertaining fantasies of hot baths and hot apple cider – my jeans and sweatshirt were barely adequate when I was walking in the midday sun, now the sun has been down for hours and I’m frozen solid. I stopped shivering an hour or so ago, which I know is not a good sign. As lonely as I’ve been, though, I am enjoying this moment of closeness with Michelle. Despite the pain in my feet, the cold, and my crashing blood sugar, I don’t really want to arrive. However, as she said, we’re almost there, and in a moment we’re walking up to the front door. Even in my bedraggled state, I admire the lights on the eaves and front bushes. I’ve always loved Christmas lights. We step into the front hall and I am enveloped in warmth and light, the smell of the Christmas tree, the smell of the dinner, the sound of voices deeper in the house… The stab of longing is back, stronger than before, and after one longing look at the tree, I close my eyes tightly and bite my lip, firmly squashing the new upwelling of tears. I wrap my arms around myself as Michelle steps away, determined to make the most of this glimpse of holiday cheer while she goes to grab her keys and whatnot. Instead, I hear her coat unzipping. I open my eyes again to see her shedding her outer layers. A moment later, she places her hand on my shoulder and draws me forward.

“Hey guys, look what I found!” she calls. The others I saw earlier come into the room. “You remember my guy, Michael? I’m sure met my sons, Jason and Thomas,” each of them nodding as their names are listed. “I know you know Sarah, Jason’s wife. Have you met Tom’s girlfriend, Colleen?”

I’m a little overwhelmed by all the faces, but I’ve met all of these people at least once, and taken a handful of Zumba classes from Sarah, so I’m fairly well able to get faces and names sorted out. “Colleen? I met her briefly once at the studio, but we’ve never really interacted.” I extend my hand. “It’s nice to actually meet you.” I start to move forward into the room, drawn like a moth to the warmth of the fire crackling in the fireplace, but I land wrong on my painful foot and nearly fall, wincing and crying out. Michelle’s strong arms are there, supporting me, and she leads me to the couch.

I start pulling off my shoes, so I can tuck my feet up on the couch with me. I am surprised to see my socks have red patches – I didn’t realize it was to the point that I was bleeding! Michelle sees the blood and turns to Colleen. “Hey sweetie, you’re a doctor – can you take a peek at this?” I’m embarrassed to be the center of attention, but the concern feels nice. At least the guys have wandered off – I hear dishes rattling, and I figure they’re cleaning up the remains of the meal. Colleen moves to help me ease my socks off and takes a look at my poor feet. “Michelle, do you have anything she can soak her feet in, and any kind of bandage materials?”

Michelle nods. “Of course, come with me,” and the two of them bustle off. I ease my feet down on top of my shoes – it hurts, but I don’t want to get blood on the carpet or the couch.

Sarah sits next to me and gives me an enthusiastic hug. “Merry Christmas, Pip! How fun to have you join us! Holy cow, girl, you are FREEZING! Jason, would you grab her some hot cider?” Her energy and enthusiasm are contagious, as always – Sarah can always make me smile.

“I had no idea I was in Michelle’s neighborhood, and I wouldn’t have dreamed of intruding on your holiday, but it is so nice to be here with you guys.” By now my tears are fairly well buried and I’m able to return Sarah’s infectious grin.

Michelle comes back with a large folded blanket, and I hear water running. “Colleen is heating water to soak your feet, Pip. In the meantime, I thought this might help.” With that, she unfolds the blanket in her arms, and I recognize it. It’s the one I knitted for her for Christmas 3 years ago. It’s huge, worked with two strands of chunky yarn – warm and heavy and comforting. She drapes it over me and I gratefully tuck myself up. I’m so cold that I don’t know that a blanket will help, I feel like it will just insulate the cold, but the choice of it touches my heart deeply. A few minutes later, Colleen comes in with a large dishpan full of warm water and with some kind of herbs floating in it. They look familiar, and it smells good. She sets it on the floor near my feet, then moves my shoes aside as I lift my feet and slides the bath under them.

“I threw some comfrey and calendula in there. They’re both good for inflammation and promote healing,” she explains, carefully arranging the blanket to stay out of the water as I gingerly lower my feet. It feels hot and I suck in a breath through my teeth. She looks sharply up at my face. “I didn’t make it all that hot, but you’re pretty well frozen, so it may feel hotter than it really is.” I nod and keep my feet in place, even though it feels too hot. I trust that soon enough I will enjoy the warmth on my frozen feet. Jason comes in and passes me a steaming mug. I take it as Sarah gets up to give him a hug, eagerly wrapping my cold hands around it and inhaling the wonderful scent. This isn’t the powdered stuff – this is real apple juice, simmered with spices, and it smells heavenly. Michelle comes back a moment later – I didn’t even see her leave, but she has a plate piled high with holiday feast for me. I’m starting to shake, both from finally warming up a bit and from lack of blood sugar, and she gently rescues the mug before I can spill the cider, which is too hot for me to drink just yet, setting it on the coffee table and settling the food on my lap. The guys have come back by now, and everybody settles down – Michelle taking the spot next to me on the couch, with Michael beyond her. They start talking – places and people I don’t know, but it’s fine since I’m tucking into my food anyway. I’m making a conscious effort not to just inhale it – I don’t want them thinking I have no manners, plus I know that slamming my stomach full after not eating all day will have unpleasant results. So I slowly work my way through the food, bathing in the physical warmth of the room and the emotional warmth of the people in it.

By the time I finish eating, the shakes from low blood sugar are gone – but now I’m trembling hard from the cold. I carefully set my plate and silverware on the coffee table, retrieve my cider (now cool enough to drink), and lean myself against Michelle’s shoulder. She gives me a concerned glance. “How come you’re shaking so hard now when you weren’t before?”

I shrug. “It has to do with your body trying to conserve energy. There comes a point where you’re so cold that you are using up more energy with the shaking than you are generating in heat, and then your body stops shivering. It’s a bad sign, when you’re so cold that you stop shivering. So it’s good, really, means that my core temp is getting to a safer level.” She puts an arm around my shoulders and starts rubbing my arm as I snuggle closer, enjoying her warmth. As I lean, the water sloshes in the foot bath, and Colleen gets up.

“You’ve probably soaked long enough, and that water is probably getting cold by now – let me see about those poor feet of yours.” She settles on the floor by my feet with a towel, and for the first time I notice a pile of bandage materials and a small jar of salve on the table. I do a double-take at the salve – I made that too, and shared some with Michelle ages ago. Apparently she still has some left. Michelle looks to Colleen. “Do you want some Neosporin too? I have some someplace.”

Colleen seems to be considering it, but I speak up. “I put some Usnea and Oregon Grape root in there, along with plantain and some other antibacterial herbs. Shouldn’t need anything stronger – and it’s got some good soothing herbs in it too, so it’s definitely going to help my feet feel better.”

Colleen nods. “Those are some good herbs, and these are shallow abrasions. Fairly wide, and probably painful, but shouldn’t have too great a risk of infection.” As she speaks, she gently dries my feet and begins salving and bandaging the wounds. It hurts, but I’ve got a high pain tolerance, and I know that it’s going to feel a lot better once she’s done and the salve has had a chance to take effect. She finishes with the bandaging and gently slides some slippers over my battered feet. I hadn’t seen them either, but they’d been warming at the hearth and felt divine. With my feet free again, I tucked them up between myself and the arm of the sofa, leaning into Michelle’s embrace. She pulled at the blanket, tugging it out from between us and over herself as well. I’m glad of that – it’s more than big enough to share, and now her warmth is much more accessible to me. I slip my arm around her waist, with my head on her shoulder, feeling my body shivering harder than ever. She holds me closely and speaks over my head. “Colleen? Should we be worried about how hard she’s shivering?”

Colleen shakes her head, as she’s cleaning up the bandaging materials. “No, as she said, the fact that she’s shivering now is actually a good sign. I saw no signs of frostbite when I was working on her feet. A hot bath might warm her up faster, but being tucked up with another warm body is the next best thing. She’ll be sore and exhausted when it passes, but she’s fine.” I can feel Michelle nod, and I am pleased. It gives me a legitimate reason to snuggle up with her for a while – as with everyone, I’m far more touchy-feely than she is, and I am enjoying being held. Colleen has returned to her chair, and she gives me a concerned look. “Not like it’s my business, but how did you wind up hypothermic with your feet torn up on Christmas?”

I close my eyes against the new upwelling of tears, while my mind races – lie? Tell the truth? How much truth? I take a deep breath, squelch the tears, and go for truth, though without the full round of self-pity. “Christmas is hard for me. I don’t have a family, most of my friends don’t celebrate, and sometimes I just get sick of being alone. I went out for a walk and wasn’t paying attention, guess I was out longer than I planned to be.” I toss out a “no big deal” kind of smile. Everyone goes quiet for a minute – not really any good response to that comment.

Sarah breaks the silence. “Well I’m glad that Michelle found you! Clearly you need a little Christmas; we can help with that. Who’s ready for pie? We’ve got pumpkin and cherry!” She gets counts of who wants what, with or without whipped cream, and she and Jason go to serve it up. Thomas gets up and starts “setting the mood” – dims the lights, puts on some holiday music, makes sure the tree lights are on, lights some candles… Before I know it, the room looks absolutely magical. My shivering is finally starting to subside, leaving me exhausted. I’m full and warm and safe, curled in my dear friend’s arms, in a room that is made of Christmas magic, and for a fleeting moment I feel that elusive sense of belonging. My Christmas wish just got answered.

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