My Turn: The Christmas our friend died

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Published: 12/30/2020 7:22:12 AM

On Dec. 25, 1987, my daughter Ali was at her dad’s house for the holiday. There would be big boot prints across the floor and nibbled bits of cookies on a plate, proving that Santa had come. I would never be a part of that again, and the coffee I drank that morning tasted bitter.

Roy, the man I’d been living with, made it worse when he failed to say Merry Christmas. Okay, he’s Jewish, so Christmas meant nothing to him, neither did Chanukah. His family wasn’t into rituals or celebrations, but I yearned for at least some part of a tradition I’d known all my life. At 5 I’d been a lamb in the church Christmas pageant, at 10 a shepherd, at 15 I got to be Mary.

By the time I turned 20, I’d stopped going to church. I knew that a blue-eyed or blonde-haired Mary was unlikely and baby Jesus, who was Jewish, certainly did not resemble the baby doll we’d once used in the fake manger. I’d also learned that there were no Christmas trees in Bethlehem. But none of that stopped me from putting up a tree and maintaining the Santa myth for my daughter. Even after our sad divorce, my ex-husband always called or sent an email to wish me a Merry Christmas.

So, that morning I decided that Roy and I were doomed. His failure to offer a simple holiday greeting caused me to recall every single thing he’d ever done wrong in the two years we’d been together. Crying at the kitchen table, I told him it was over. “But you don’t even believe in the Christmas story,” he said. “If you don’t understand, I can’t explain,” I answered.

We were both crying when the phone rang and our neighbor told us that our friend, Toby had been the victim of a hit and run accident. For years Toby had been riding his bike to work, safely, but that night he’d been hit and left by the side of the road. He was found by a driver who noticed his twisted bike. He was in intensive care and not expected to live. Relatives were flying in. Could some stay at our house? Of course.

The morning light was harsh, my throat dry, my stomach cramped. Life seemed filled with near misses, like the moment when you pass a wreck on the highway and realize how close you came to being in the middle of it. Toby might have been just minutes or seconds away from avoiding the car that hit him. Roy and I were close to losing each other. A few more mean words from me would have done it.

I took his hand and told him I was sorry. Then I said, we should get married. I waited. We had never talked about marriage. He finished his coffee and refilled his cup and mine. For once in my life I kept quiet, fearing I’d ruined everything.

After what felt like a long time, he said, when? And we chose May.

On that morning I didn’t know that I’d soon give up Christmas in favor of a Solstice Celebration.

I could not imagine the tears Roy and I would shed each time one of our dogs died, nor the love of opera we’d develop together.

I could not have known that someday we’d be cooped up together all day every day for months during a pandemic, and we’d be fine. It’s easy to love a quiet man who enjoys searching for online stores that deliver.

I could not imagine us growing old.

I knew almost nothing.

Since then we have celebrated the Solstice (this year outdoors, masked and distanced), at first with Ali, then with Ali and her wife ,and now with Ali, Jeannette and our two grandchildren. There are gifts, great food, and a special track of sunshine songs. We gather at the end of the day and light candles while naming things we are grateful for, and we run out of candles before we run out of things to say, even in this challenging year.

But we do not ignore Christmas altogether. Each year Roy and I celebrate the anniversary of that day 33 years ago when we decided to get married, and we remember Toby and all he has missed, and those who miss him. The two events will always be combined; they are sweet and sour like some foods and good wine.

Lee Uttmark Wicks lives in Montague. She has recently published a memoir, “Muriel and the Grocers Daughter” with Off the Common Press in Amherst. It is the publishing division of Collective Copies where Toby once worked.

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