Twas The Night
DECEMBER 24, 2019
'Twas the night before Christmas and all through the house, not a creature was stirring… except me (and Santa soaring somewhere high above). I paged through the same tattered Little Golden Book from 1949 that my grandmother read to my father as a young boy, beside the three candles of the Hanukkah menorah and brightly decorated Christmas tree, all lights proudly reflected in our windows.
Tonight begins my favorite day of the year — when my family gathers at my grandma’s home for the holiday. While I haven’t been able to decorate as much as in the past, thanks to the good graces of my cousins, the house looks festive as ever. Typically, it is sheer bliss from start to finish, but as with everything of late, this year is different. Twelve people came to our house tonight, and dozens more descend upon us tomorrow. Yes, this is my treasured, trusted family, but I have not been around more than three people at once since returning home after my accident, and even that was only one occurrence. Late this afternoon, I showered, put a fresh bandage on my face, brushed my hair partially over my forehead and eyes, moisturized my cracked raw skin without a stitch of makeup, and hid my weak body under an oversized Christmas sweater over leggings, the only pants that fit me anymore. I sat calmly with a glass of water in hand, as our family arrived, each gently hugging me, though soon began to grow anxious. I felt myself edging toward a state of panic, my eyes avoiding contact, my mind jumping to the worst places, my body growing clammy and extremities going cold. Despite knowing I was in the most loving and supportive environment, I did not feel safe, wish to engage with anyone, want to be there or know how to maintain composure. So without warning or explanation, I rose slowly, worried I would stumble because of dizziness, and walked directly to my room, closing the door behind me and praying no one would follow. I began to weep and shake, compounded by the shame that I was feeling any such emotions on Christmas Eve with my family — my happiest of times in my happiest of places. I called my mother who, even from the other side of the country, showed up fully to help me try to quell my nerves and stave off a panic attack. I took medication and sat on the edge of my bed, listening to the sound of her soothing voice and focusing on my breath and other helpful tools I have gained for challenging moments. This very holiday gathering is why I made the arduous cross-country trip, what I have been waiting for all year, never more than in these past three months when it has been the sole light remaining on the horizon of an otherwise dark, difficult, disappointing, drawn-out recovery journey. Maybe it was too much, but there I was — and the only way out is through. “I love this,” I repeated to a body and brain clearly in need of a cogent reminder. “I love these people and I love this night.” I wiped tears from my pained swollen face, thanked my gift of a mother, inhaled deeply, exhaled slowly and walked back out into the warm home I know so well, toward the sea of familiar voices and dreamy scent of pizza in the oven.
Dinner never requires much effort to prepare, as our family has a beloved decades-long tradition of… pizza on Christmas Eve. Every year, I call our pizzeria of choice on the morning of December 24th, hoping they haven’t decided to change holiday hours or close — and for the first time today, I placed the order for delivery because, although it is right around the corner, I still cannot drive. “This is the best pizza you will ever have,” the delivery man said with the biggest, most genuine smile on his face when he dropped it off during the latest possible afternoon time-slot. I cannot confirm, but my cousins have long sang the praises of their thin crust margarita, black olive and veggie pies. I typically make my own gluten-free vegan pizzas, but as I still cannot bite into anything, opted to prepare polenta “pizza” this time around — melted shreds of Miyoko’s mozzarella atop a baked cornmeal crust with a sauce of teeny tiny diced and sautéed cherry tomatoes, caramelized onions and red peppers, topped with olive tapenade, fresh basil, dried herbs, chili flakes and olive oil. All was bubbling away under the watchful eye of my cousin this year, who took over the job of pizza master that I inherited from my great great aunt over a decade ago. When I reentered the kitchen, my grandmother noticed a change in my energy and came to check up on me, simply putting her hand atop mine on the counter, apologizing for anything she may have done to contribute, and reminding me just how much she loved having me with her; we cried, hugged and then took our seats among family. I felt safe sandwiched between a cousin and great aunt around our old-school holly berry table cloth, painstakingly mashing my “pizza” with a fork and then slowly feeding myself small spoons of not-half-bad polenta mush. I was only partway through my plate when everyone else had finished their third round of pizza and salad, but they sat patiently, continuing to discuss the brilliance that is the new surge of award-winning television. And for once, it was a discussion in which I could participate. After being raised without a TV and never watching any series, I have powered through show after show on Netflix, Hulu, HBO, Amazon Prime, even Disney+ since my accident. It was odd to not set the table, serve people, refill drinks, clear the table and load the dishwasher myself, but I had no choice but to take my cousins up on their kind offers to help — and it all worked rather beautifully. Our signature lemon blossom desserts were thoroughly enjoyed, my family nibbling happily on the bright mini-cupcake-like pastries I always make, whilst I spooned myself a bit of the leftover glaze tucked away in the kitchen, relishing the sweet tangy combination of powdered sugar, lemon juice and lemon zest.
There were no hilarious games of Apples to Apples, raucous rounds of Cards Against Humanity or even long-adored bouts of Taboo this year, as a different energy filled the room. While my family continued what sounded like a rich conversation to close out the evening, I retreated to the living room with only my two-year-old cousin, sitting on the floor and coloring, away from the hubbub where I did not need to force my pained jaw to speak or stress my already traumatized brain with further social interactions. She and I mumbled to one another in a language we somehow both understood, pointing outwards toward the sky where Santa has taken flight and marveling at these very reflections of holiday lights, of the festive season, of family memories, of a life well-lived.