We knew my father was really sick when he asked to buy a pre-chopped tree from Home Depot.

Before Dad’s illness, each stage of the tree-chopping process: the selecting, the sawing, the dragging, the erecting and the decorating, had been its own celebrated event. He wanted our tree to rival Rockefeller Center’s, for the lights to twinkle a Christmas Spectacular, for the star to reach high enough to be among its peers. The tree was coddled and esteemed like a fourth child.

The entire family corralled into our Chrysler minivan with a seat left open, reserved for the heap of bungee cords required to strap the King of the Forest onto our roof. Because we could be searching in the frigid temperatures for hours, my brothers and I were layered for subzero winds and rolled and squished into our seats.

Before we left, my mother researched which farm was offering the most responsibly priced trees, although as she said, “There is nothing reasonable about paying for something that grows in any old forest. It’s like buying bottled water.”

We called my mother the Christmas Grinch. Which was ironic for somebody who loved Jesus for as long and as hard as she had. She read the Bible daily. She consulted Jesus before making decisions. She wrote Letters to the Editor denouncing the inclusion of Evolution in science curriculums. She was a longtime subscriber of Creation Magazine.

It’s not that she had a twisted malice for The Most Wonderful Time of the Year. There was no naughty Santa in her past. She wasn’t once whipped by Christmas lights. She just hated hauling the decorations out of the attic and had long ago run out of closet space for the unwanted velour sweat suits her mother in-law bought her every year. But for Faith Dillon, the ultimate ugliness was the absence of Christ in Christmas, and more than once she has had to restrain herself from attacking the good-intentioned cashier who chose to wish her “Happy Holidays” instead of a “Merry Christmas.”

As a consequence of her annoyance, she attempted to take Christmas out of the picture every November, but always to no avail. Because if my mother was the Christmas Grinch, my father was Cindy Lu-Who.

A popular holiday hostility was over my father’s beloved Neil Diamond Christmas Album.

“Please, don’t torture us with your Neil Diamond,” my mother would plead.

I loved that album; the way Neil’s throaty tenor laced around the tree, our stockings and the nutcrackers, pulling them all together in a joyous bundle. He was the highlight of my December soundtrack. My brothers and I suspected that my mother secretly liked Neil as well, but enjoyed the battle with my father more.

“How many years can we survive those same songs?” she’d ask. “And the man isn’t even Christian! He’s Jewish! Just out to make a buck, like the rest of the world.”

Once at the tree farm, we weaved in and out of the rows; examining the shapes, sizes and feel of the needles between our fingers.
“How about that one?” my mother suggested, carelessly.

“It has holes in the belly,” my father said.

“What about that one?”

“That Charlie Brown Christmas bush? I don’t think so. I’m not getting any wimpy tree. My tree has to kick all the other tree’s asses.”

“I think it’s cute. You know, most people’s trees don’t fill their house. Some people’s don’t even touch the ceiling,” my mother said.

“Our tree has to touch the ceiling. How else can we fit all the ornaments on it?” my father said.

We strolled the farm for over an hour, until my father finally pointed and declared, “She’s the one.”

He always said it like he’d found his soul mate.

* * * * *

My father’s sickness began at his hands—the hands accustomed to gripping dumbbells, chopping wood, dealing cards. The hands that dribbled in his basketball league and swung bats in his softball league. The hands that caught his kids’ gloved punches as he play-boxed my brothers and I, three against one, on his knees in our basement.

His fingers buckled and bowed with psoriatic and osteoarthritis, a condition his rheumatologist had never seen on a man his age.

“Just me and 80-year-old women,” my father joked.

I forced a smile, because dressing up sadness was easier, safer, than letting it walk unmasked.

The pain increased; I could see it on his face. Even when he wasn’t wincing or clenching his teeth, the pain carved lines into his forehead. When it became intolerable, the doctor fused his thumb. My father would have fused each finger of each hand if the doctor approved it. At least freezing his fingers into position would stop the pain. He already felt handicapped, unable to button his pants or lift furniture. My mother told me that at a ball game, my father couldn’t open a bag of peanuts because of the searing heat in his joints but, too embarrassed to ask my brother for help, he brought the peanuts home. She cried when she told me that—and my mother doesn’t cry. She sits quietly. She fixes. She changes the subject. She jokes. She doesn’t cry.

The arthritis conceived a black eel below his skin. It swam, slithered, groaned through his body, feasting on healthy joints, leaving decrepitude in its wake. But the eel wasn’t satisfied. He continued his feast. Soon, he had arthritis in every single joint in his body.
At first, my mother tried to lighten the mood by laughing. She teased as he writhed on the kitchen floor with kidney stones. She mocked his sensitive stomach when he threw up all night. For her, for us, it beat crying. But then there was more.

Four More Rounds Of Kidney Stones. Acid Reflux. Five Years Of One Headache, fluctuating in severity but never disappearing. Back Pain. Foot Pain. Knee Pain. Chronic Exhaustion. Flu Symptoms. Weakness. Memory Loss. Ear Pain. Eye Pain. All Encompassing, Deafening Pain. Like playing Bingo with the Devil, ailments were called out. Patterns piled until the whole card was covered; a blackout game. If (God forbid!) wind collapsed our house, killing my brothers and me, my father would have undeniably been the second coming of Job.

Soon, my mother wasn’t laughing. When my father slept through days, she called him shnookies. She rubbed his feet.

He bounced from doctor to doctor, clinic to clinic, specialist to specialist. He took tests. He swallowed medication. He had surgeries. Fifteen of them. We swelled with every diagnosis. Chronic Lyme Disease! Hyperparathyroidism! Addison’s Disease! Ankylosing Spondylitis! How strange to wish an illness on my dad, but putting a name to it was better than floating in limbo, better than friends of the family wondering if it was all in his head. Any label carried more esteem than Hypochondria.

I ached for the diagnosis. I wanted to meet the reason my father screamed in pain when we played volleyball. Then when he bent over. Then when he, simply, walked. I wanted to interrogate it on the stand. Is it true that before you came along, he called his biceps “The Pythons”? Is it true you turned an athlete into a patient? I wanted revenge.

Our faces brightened with the light of new treatments. There were even periods when we thought something was working. But the eel was only sleeping, and ultimately, my father’s condition was incurable.

There were bad days and worse days. He bore a tense smile through the bad and slept through the worse. And he prayed. And we prayed.

Six years and counting.

* * * * *

My father bought his Christmas presents in August. Sometimes they were odd, usually they were over the top, and very frequently, they featured Neil Diamond. It’s surprising the variety of merchandise carrying that man’s face.

Dad purchased his gifts off charity auction websites. The year before he got sick, he surprised my mother with a family painting from Bradford Renaissance Portraits. After reviewing the brochure, my mother rolled her eyes and said, “Good grief. Well if nothing else we can consider it a charitable donation.”

The studio requested we wear ballroom attire for the initial photograph. Since we weren’t an upper class family of the seventeenth century, we didn’t own ballroom attire. We wore black instead.

We entered the studio with trepidation. Inside ornate frames stood little boys in tuxedos playing the violin, teenage girls wearing equestrian gear, and parents with close-mouthed smiles, slightly cocked heads and hands on the shoulders of their children.

“Creepy,” Ryan, my younger brother, said.

“Check out the Addams Family,” I said, pointing to a wall size painting of a very grim looking group. “Is that what we’re going to look like?”
“I think they look nice. Very formal,” my father said, defending his gift.

“Maybe we can make goofy faces in ours. You know, to customize it,” I said.

Bradford floated in to greet us. After giving my father a delicate cold-fish handshake, he escorted my family into a room with nothing but two stools, a camera-bearing tripod and decorative molding, cooing about his flight from California to New York to take our photograph.
“Please, no open-mouthed smiles. Just smile with your eyes,” he said as he arranged my brothers and me around my parents. He placed my hand on my mother’s shoulder and cocked my head.

“Well,” my father began, nervously, “maybe you should take a couple with teeth. Just in case.”

Two weeks later, we were back in the studio to select which photograph would be painted into a portrait. The shots were projected onto the wall before us.

“I look awful in every one, so how can I have a preference?” My mother sat in the back of the room with her arms crossed over her chest, her face twisted like a child being force-fed strained peas.

“Well, if you hate yourself equally in all twenty shots,” my father said, frustration leaking through his forced smile, “is there one in which you hate the rest of us less?”

My mother flicked her wrist, a queen-like gesture indicating she had nothing more to say.

“You know, if there is something in particular with which you have issue,” the elderly assistant in pearls and poise said, “I can make note of it for Bradford to smudge out when painting.”

“Take your pick,” my mother said. “There’s my dark under-eye circles, crow’s feet, or this recent development.” She pinched the excess skin under her chin, pulling it out like a turkey gobble. The assistant smiled politely and tried to look busy with other tasks.

I wondered if my mother intentionally didn’t mention her biggest insecurity, her stomach: the reason she did sit ups, spent $700 on a Ski Machine, and strapped on a belt designed to shoot electric shocks that contracted her abdominals. She complained about how she didn’t need any of those things when she was a one-hundred pound twenty-something wearing itty-bitty jeans that zipped from the crotch all the way up her butt crack. She never threw those pants out, and more than once demonstrated to me how they zipped in half. No matter how I sucked, tucked or squeezed, I never fit into those jeans.

“My ass looked good in those pants,” my mother said once. “Your father loved them. Now my ass doesn’t look good in anything. And I have to wear jeans with some give so my stomach doesn’t flab over the edge.”

“All right,” my father addressed my brothers and me as we studied the photographs. “Do you three have any to veto?”

We set out directing the assistant as she clicked through the selection. When we found one where Greg didn’t look so bald, my lazy eyelid wasn’t so profound, and my father appeared less bulky (Ryan thought he looked great in every shot), we filed out of the studio.

“Good thing we had Bradford take a few with teeth, huh?” my father said as we pulled out of the parking lot, trying to poke through my mother’s silence. “The Mona Lisa look just wasn’t natural on us.”

I gave my mother time to respond, but in her silence I said, “I don’t think it looked natural on any of those families on the wall.”

A restless quiet blanketed the car for the next fifteen exits until it was disrupted by soft, discreet sniffs from the passenger’s seat. From behind, I watched my mother turn toward the window, making quick reaches to her face.

“Faith,” my father glanced at her, “are you crying?” She didn’t respond. “What’s wrong?”

“I used to be pretty. Now I’m just old,” my mother whispered.

“You looked nice, Faith,” my father said, softly.

“It’s depressing. It’s all so depressing. No matter how beautiful you are, how vivacious, everything will wrinkle and sag. And then it doesn’t matter how hard you try—how many walks you take or miles you bike—you blimp out like a toad. I don’t blame those women who get plastic surgery. I really don’t. How can you come to terms with such a loss?”

I stared out the window, watching trees speed by. I thought of my father’s computer wallpaper: a twenty-three-year-old Faith on the beach in Bermuda. Her arms were outstretched, as if embracing the camera, or the world. Her face radiated the awe and elation of a child. Prancing the shoreline in her first bikini, did she know she would one day mourn that elastic skin?

I wondered if my mother resented that it was a woman she no longer recognized that my father admired between business deals. Although he never commented on her aged body, maybe the intolerable truth lies behind the unspoken. Like when I complained about men catcalling me and my mother said, “You know what’s worse than that? When they stop.”

I caught my mother’s reflection in the side mirror. I examined her tear-stained face: smile lines from my father’s jokes, crow’s feet from squinting at our school plays. When I pressed my forehead into the window, my own face emerged behind hers. Drier, but equally sad.

“You are still beautiful,” I said. “I love that I look like you.” But tears were falling harder now, and her mourning muffled my words.

When we got home, a funeral march carried her to her bedroom, head bent as if in prayer. She spent the rest of the night laying in the dark.

Six months later, I got a phone call. “It’s here,” my father said.

With one brother in Brazil and the other at college across the country, I was the only child to witness the uncovering of the dreaded portrait.

My mother and I stood over my father as he unwrapped the protective bubble paper.

My family was centered in the eye of a tornado; spotlighted while the rest of the canvas was shrouded in darkness. Our heads tilted in arbitrary, unnatural directions, as if rocking to the beat of our own songs.

With my mother standing beside me, my eyes darted to Portrait Mom, sure that I’d need to prepare multiple compliments and reassurances. But the woman looking back at me was flawless. Flawless to a fault. Not one wrinkle, not one blemish. Her skin was even-toned and smooth. She was superhuman, a mannequin sitting amongst mortals.

“I like it!” my mother announced, cheerfully.

“You do?” I asked.

“Yeah! It looks like I’ve been botoxed.” She glowed almost as warmly as her likeness.

“And that’s a good thing?” my father asked.

“Well if I’m not going to get it done in real life, at least I look good on the wall. You know, I have just the frame for this! We can hang it over the couch in the family room. Right where everyone can see it.”

“What happened to hiding it in the darkest corner of the house?” my father teased. His face was relaxed, content.

“Who knew it would come out so good?”

“Merry Christmas,” my father smiled.

* * * * *

The next Christmas, my father’s sickness roared, quelling my mother’s annual complaints. Holiday greeting cards were ordered, silence replacing the usual commentary of, “Why do I have to inform the world that I’m getting fatter and fatter every year?”

Together, my mother and I carried down the “Christmas Crap” while my father slept through the afternoon. We switched out decorative brass pots on the fireplace mantle for a stuffed Rudolph on a platform who, at the touch of a button, sang “Have a Holly, Jolly Christmas” and swung his hips.

“Another headache?” I said.

“Another? It’s the same one,” she said.

A ceramic nativity scene was placed on the television, the graduation portraits of my brothers and I stashed away until the New Year.
“Why can’t anybody figure this out?” I asked.

Most years, my mother, like Santa, carried a list of names. The year my father practically hibernated through the season, my mother shopped, never breathing a lament, only pausing to rest her forehead against the cool steel of the racks.

But the most drastic change was the abandonment of the tree-chopping tradition.

When my father issued his request to get a drive-thru tree, my mother’s shoulders sagged. She said, “Oh shnookies, you really are sick,” and fell into his chest.

And there it was—the truth—stripped of jokes and stiff smiles. Naked. Vulgar. Obscene. I wanted to cover it back up, drape it with laughter, but we were out. It had been six years. My dad was sick.

With my brothers still away, my parents and I tossed the bungee cords into the back of the car and set off to Home Depot.

It wasn’t the same. The highway drive was less festive than the country back roads. Instead of hot apple cider stands, there were gumball machines. And the smell of plywood was a sorry exchange for pine needles on crisp winter air.

There was something almost vulgar about the way the trees were stacked. Customers lifted a tree by the neck, quickly scanned for characterizing features, and either identified it as theirs or moved on to the next limp body.

Instead of the trees standing proudly in their species’ plots—Douglas Fir, White Pine, Blue Spruce, Balsam Fir—they were categorized in rows sorted by footage. Owners of seven foot ceilings headed directly to the seven foot tree row. Optimal, sterile, apathetic efficiency. The only shred of seasonal warmth was the Home Depot employee, outfitted in an elf costume, shaking a bell periodically, grumbling, “Happy Holidays.”

“So what do you say, Kevvy? Should we get an eight-foot tree? Nine-foot?” my mother asked, linking her wrist inside his elbow. In past years, she rooted for something under five feet.

“Whichever is fine.” My father smiled weakly. It was one of his worse days. He wanted to be sleeping. He was especially uncomfortable because of the IV in his arm—a new experimental treatment. The IV had to be inserted for two months, and with it he carried a drip bag slung over his shoulder. I forget what it was for. I’ve lost track. We all have.

“Oh come on,” she said, encouraging. “Let’s take a look.” She guided him to the nine-foot tree row. I knew the height ambition was an attempt to spur his spirits. As they walked, she glanced over her shoulder and looked at me desperately. But I didn’t know what to do.

My father, six foot something and sturdy, looked like he just emerged from a three day trek through the desert. His body was hunched in exhaustion and his face was pale, save for his nose and cheeks nipped rose from the chill. He watched my mother comb through the selection, nodding when asked for an opinion, clasping his temples when she wasn’t looking.

This was a man who threw us, his children, into the pool long after we exceeded 100 pounds.

I busied myself next to my mother, lifting the fallen heroes, trying to be as critical as my father used to be, would have been.

Because Dad wasn’t well enough to choose a tree himself, it was even more important that we find the tree of his dreams. A puny plant would reinforce the change, and we couldn’t have a reminder of his compromised state standing in our living room, dressed in our memories and lights.

And so, like every other year, the trees were too short, too thin, too sparse, until finally, just right. The One.

“It’s probably a bit tall for the ceiling, but we could always just trim it at home,” my mother said brightly.

My mother and I slipped our hands through the tree’s thick coat and lugged it towards the car. My father, who wasn’t allowed to lift anything over two pounds with the IV, followed us in embarrassment, like a punished dog. We tried not to show struggle when harnessing the tree to the roof of our van. We shooed my father away when he insisted on lifting and winced in pain. Once the tree was secured, we climbed into the car breathless and sweaty despite the cold. My father looked out the window and apologized for his uselessness. We drove home in silence.

“Should we put it up now?” my mother asked when we pulled into the driveway.

“Let’s do it in the morning. I’m beat,” my father answered.

The next morning, I floated down the stairs on a groggy cloud. As I reached the living room, I looked through my haze at my mother standing on a step stool, fussing over an unwieldy shrub. There was an arm’s length of room between the top of the plant and the ceiling.

“Laney, what am I going to do?” my mother cried. Calling me Laney was the first red flag. “He’ll be so disappointed.”

I squinted. “Is that what I think it is?” I asked. My mother nodded bleakly. My pre-coffee fog dissipated. My father’s tree had been chopped at the waist.

My mother began her defense. “I wanted to put the tree up before he came down so that he wouldn’t have the chance to tear his IV. And I was just trying to make it a little smaller. The thing was enormous. It was going to take up our entire living room. I don’t know how I got the measurements wrong. Maybe I read the living room height in centimeters and cut the tree in inches? I don’t understand it, but look at the thing. Your father can’t see it like this!” she said.

“So what are you doing?” I asked. She was encircled by a carpet of branches. In one hand she clasped a scissors; the other clutched a handful of rubber bands.

“I’m constructing a hat.” Stress lines etched her face, and behind them I saw fear. Fear of losing our Christmas Dad, relaxing on the couch with a glass of Crown Royal, humming to “The First Noel” and admiring his gallant tree. This year, more than any other, we needed that image.

“A hat for the tree?”

“I figured if I could secure a toupee to the top, your father wouldn’t know the difference. I’m rubber-banding branches to the trunk and building up. How does it look?”

“You’ve started already?”

“The top four branches are artificial.”

“I couldn’t tell.”

“Good.” She paused to admire her progress. “Well don’t just stand there. Grab a kitchen chair and help me. He could be coming down any minute.”

We threaded and banded, laced and fastened. I handed her the excess branches she requested. She held the branches in place while I wound the bands around on the trunk below it. Soon enough, our Franken-tree kissed the ceiling.

We had to hang the ornaments before my father had the chance to investigate our handiwork, and we did so with the caution and unfaltering nerves of a soldier disabling a bomb. And, as my mother’s hands extended to top the tree with our angel, we held our breath. But with Gabriel perched in his place, our unorthodox construction proved steadfast.

By the time my father’s footsteps plodded down the stairs, my mother and I were sipping coffee on the couch, admiring our creation.

“You put the tree up without me?” my father asked.

“We thought you should save your energy. You know, relax,” my mother said. And then to distract him, “Can I make you some bacon and eggs?”

He nodded.

My father never figured out our fir-facelift. Our structure stood strong.

During Christmas Eve service that year, instead of griping about the family who stole our pew or wondering where the large attendance was the rest of the year, my mother sang along to “O Holy Night”. Tears streamed down her cheeks.

 

 

 

•••

© Alena Dillon