It’s December 23rd, 1989. It’s a late night. Much later than I’m normally allowed to stay up. I’m spending the last half of December at my Grandma’s house. The American one, not the Filipino one. The house is bustling with activity; it’s the place everyone in the family visits on Christmas Day, so we’ve got to get ready. My Grandpa and uncle hauled in a real, 10-foot tree a couple of days ago, and it’s still not completely decorated. The angel on top is beautiful, like a big hazy star that’s somehow floated into the room. Some of the ornaments higher up – the ones made of metal and glass – shine and sparkle against the flickering lights. Grandpa lit up the fireplace a few hours ago, and the heat feels wonderful. I could watch the flames dance for hours, but I’ve been tasked with an important duty: dusting.
They said I didn’t have to do it all in one day, but I want to do my part. Besides, there’s only this living room left. But there’s so much to see! All the old paintings from someone’s previous adventures, the relics of family members long past, the treasure trove of books lining a wall, the new crack near the ceiling from the earthquake, the huge garland they somehow managed to string from one end of the room to the other…and the stockings. There are so many stockings, each with their own design and hanger. Mine is fuzzy penguin with a winter cap and red earmuffs. It’s hanging from the hook of a tiny, smiling Eskimo. The stockings are empty and flat; no one touches them until Christmas morning. The grownups keep telling me that filling the stockings is Santa’s job, but I don’t believe them. How’s Santa supposed to get down the chimney if a fire is going? Won’t that burn him and all the presents? It doesn’t make any sense. The smell of freshly-baked cookies wafts in from the kitchen, and I run off in hopes of a dessert.
The dust rag is forgotten.
It’s December 23rd, 1994. Late night. I probably should be in bed, but I’ve got too much energy. I’m back at Grandma’s again. As usual, it’s really busy. My grandma and a couple of aunts are working feverishly in the kitchen, bringing forth tray after tray of cookies. I’ve stopped try to keep count. A couple of hours ago, I helped clear off the dining table and put the huge green table cloth over it. It looks so different with all the fancy dishes on it, and I’m proud of how it looks. I set the table all the time at home, and I finally got the chance to show off my skills. If I stand on a chair, I can almost reach the upper part of the tree. The top is still beyond me. It’s okay, at least they let me handle decorating all by myself. I’m granted access to half a dozen large boxes crammed full old ornaments. Each trinket has a story, and I ask about everything that looks interesting. A crystal sailboat from Carmel. Aluminum stars from the 1870s. An old watch my great-great grandmother found while traveling through Southeast Asia. A garland of what resembles dried Froot Loops. Now that I have glasses, the angel at the top actually looks like an angel instead of a star.
I wonder if I’m asking too many questions, but the grownups don’t seem to mind. Everyone’s been nice to me since my sister left a few months ago. I’ve been tasked with putting wrapped presents on display, and most of them are already done. I’ve been told not to touch mine – I know the sound of shaking LEGOs – but I can guess based on the size of the boxes. One of them is the size of a Super Nintendo cart. It’s probably Donkey Kong Country. I’m also holding out for some Pogs. I just hope I don’t have to wear that nasty sweater Mom gave me early; it’s this red, white, and black wool monstrosity that makes me itch and sweat. Someone turns on the cassette player in the next room, and a soothing voice starts singing about chestnuts roasting on an open fire. I’ve run out of decorating room on the tree. I eagerly hop off the chair and run to the kitchen, hoping to show someone what I’ve done.
It’s December 23rd, 1995. It’s getting late. The work has stopped for the night. We’ve already got the majority of the chores finished. The cooking and presents are done. The process seems more subdued. Everyone is tired, and I know why. It’s Grandpa. He’s been sick for months. He’s in a big bed installed a couple of rooms over. They say there’s something called a tumor growing in his brain that’s making him sleep more and more, so much that he barely stirs when you talk to him. It’s so quiet and somber in the house now; the tree lights have been turned off early, and no one bothered to put on music. I’m already in my Charlie Chaplin pajamas, but I don’t want to go to bed yet. I’m watching an I Love Lucy rerun on Nick At Nite, the one with the chocolate factory. Grandma appears in the doorway, and something’s wrong. I can see it on her face.
“It’s Grandpa. We think…he’s dying.”
Her voice breaks on that last word, and it occurs to me that I’ve never seen Grandma cry before. I numbly get up and walk the twenty feet over to Grandpa’s bed. I peer at his face – there’s only one dull overhead light in this room – to see for myself. No movement, as I’ve come to expect. But now he’s not breathing. There’s no sound in the room except for my Grandma sobbing in a chair in the corner. I mumble some kind of prayer in hopes that I’ll see him again someday. I’m then ushered back to the bedroom. I’m put under the covers and told to go to sleep. No one else does. I can see light from the next room pouring in the doorway, and the sounds of what can only be paramedics. I don’t think I’ll ever sleep again, but I do eventually.
It’s December 23rd, 2000. It’s getting late again. Everything’s down to the wire this year; even with my help, all the preparations are just going to be done on time. I’ve just finished putting up the stockings – I’m the only one with a memory good enough to know which belong to whom – and I’m taking a moment to enjoy my handiwork. Everything is centered, with an equal number on each side. Good. Even though I and the rest of my cousins are all teenagers now, we never got rid of our old stockings. My penguin is where it normally is, first stocking on the right side of the mantel. None of them are filled yet, but that’s okay. Everyone’s too busy to show up at the same time on Christmas Day, so we’ve got a few hours of leeway. It’s so cold in here. The fireplace has been empty for years, mainly because no one knows how to properly maintain it. It’s okay, we don’t need it.
My uncle pulls up in the driveway, and I go out to help him bring in gifts. He asks about my father, who suddenly had enough of America, packed up, and left for Malaysia earlier in the year. No, he’s not going to be here for Christmas this year. Or any Christmas. I don’t know if he’s ever coming back. It’s okay. In the deep, secret part of my heart, I don’t miss him. I take a moment to look at the sky. It’s a clear, crisp night, and I can see stars for the first time in weeks. I quietly walk to the side of the house and turn on the outdoor Christmas lights. Three floors lined in shiny white, a simple but elegant attempt to celebrate like our neighbors. Besides, it’s 2000; we had to do something special this time. There’s a vague notion that something is changing, but I don’t know what it is.
It’s December 23rd, 2011. I’m so tired. My head is aching. It’s been a long, exhausting week at work. I stagger in the door and shuffle off my coat, forgoing dinner for at least a few minutes. The recession has hit my family hard, and I’m one of the few that still has a job at this point. There’s no tree this time. No one’s interested in buying gifts. Nor does anyone want to visit for Christmas; why spend the time coming to an old house like this when they can stay home? All of us kids have grown up and made their own families – except for me, of course – so they’ve got their own plans. Everyone’s health problems have flared up, too; my aunt’s been and out of the hospital a couple of times just this past year. Grandma’s got it worst, though. Diabetes, lymphoma, cataracts, and breast cancer. It’s like dominoes. She had surgery earlier this month, leaving her practically bedridden. She’s had an infection and fever since yesterday, and no one knows if she’s going to live through the weekend. She could die in that bed, 20 feet from where her husband died long ago.
I quietly fix a plate of leftovers and take out my passport. It’s about to expire, and Mom said she would pay for its replacement as my gift. I flip through the pages of faded stamps and symbols before settling on the ID page itself. I stare at the picture and come to a terrible realization: I don’t recognize the person the picture. What happened to me? When did I become like this? How have things changed so much? Why doesn’t anything seem magical anymore? How much worse is this going to get? What am I doing here? I stand up and wash my dishes, but everything seems to be going much slower than it should. My hands are shaking, and for some reason I’m breathing hard. A chill creeps through me like a winter breeze, and it takes me a minute to calm down. I turn off the kitchen light, head to my room, and put on a movie.
Christmas has been canceled.