Rarely Perfect Christmas
‘Tis the season of major meltdowns. At least, as special needs parents, that’s often what the holidays can mean to us. All of the excitement, commotion, stimulation, and changes in schedule can make our kids more susceptible to tantrums. We become well-versed in their triggers of Christmas because nothing creates a world of anxiety in our special kids quite like this time of year. We know this about our children. But, what about the adult meltdowns that are provoked by the holidays? Can we talk about that for a sec? I’ll start.
As the parent of a child who is prone to challenging behaviors and emotional outbursts, I have a mantra when it comes to setting up expectations for family outings. It goes something like this: “I don’t just have low expectations, I have no expectations. Whatever will be, will be.” I’ve learned this after years of being disappointed in the way events unfolded because they didn’t turn out the way I had hoped they would. What I wanted to happen and what actually happened were usually two very different stories, and it would sometimes take me days to recover from the discouragement.
But now, I have managed to become very disciplined with this mantra. I enter every family event or outing together with zero expectations. That way, the worst could happen, and I have not set myself up for massive failure. Or, I can be pleasantly surprised by a positive outcome. Either way, I can accept the result.
There is one exception. For some reason, I have a lot of trouble applying this mantra to Christmas.
I have so many beautiful images of what Christmas should look like based on both my own childhood memories and, of course, my favorite holiday movies. For me, Christmas means cozy family time, snuggles on the couch, watching It’s a Wonderful Life together, decorating our big, beautiful tree as a family with carols playing in the background, attending local Christmas-y events to get us in the spirit, driving around the neighborhoods admiring the lights, and just being simultaneously in awe of the magic of the season. I have such fond childhood memories of Christmas, and all I want to do is recreate them for my children. I want them to know and feel the magic, too.
There is no question that the tree is the centerpiece of Christmas. I don’t care what anyone says, the only way to do Christmas is with a real tree. We used to go as a family to pick out the tree, but we discovered quickly that we would choose sub-par trees when our attention needed to be on keeping track of the kids’ whereabouts. So, last year, we decided to change it up and Dan took on the task of finding a tree alone. He has a good eye for trees, and, unsurprisingly, he brought home a gorgeously green, full, tall tree.
We took our time decorating it and making it look amazing. Nothing brings out my OCD like hanging the lights on the tree. I could literally spend hours on this task alone. I need them to be evenly distributed with no wires showing. This takes a ton of patience, not a strong quality of mine. But, the effort is well worth it because it always looks beautiful once it’s lit up and ornamented. This tree was no exception. It was magnificent.
About two weeks before Christmas, we noticed that the tree wasn’t drinking the water and the needles were losing their bright green color. Then, one week before Christmas, we realized the tree was definitely looking brown. The needles appeared crunchy and just a light tap on a branch sent a cascade of them to their eternal demise on my living room floor. I was feeling defeated. And panicked. I have no childhood memories of opening up presents around a dead tree. We weren’t going to start that tradition now.
So, three days before Christmas Eve, I made plans to take our little family of five to see How The Grinch Stole Christmas at the local theatre. I was agitated about my dead tree, but this show seemed like the ideal way to get us all in the spirit of Christmas. When I purchased the tickets, I had visions in my head of us all wearing matching green and red outfits and sipping hot cocoa while watching the performance and soaking up the holidays and each other. I must have completely blacked out when I planned this event and I definitely had forgotten to recite my mantra. I have a daughter with special needs who has a history of walking out of the movie theater as soon as her popcorn is gone and an 18 month old with the attention span of, you know, an 18 month old. Nonetheless, I did not allow these factors to cloud my idea of what our perfect Christmas family time should look like. This special outing to the theater was going to be amazing, and I was going to make sure of it.
So, we arrived at the theater, purchased our cocoa and popcorn and settled into our seats. I could see the kids’ looks of anticipation as the curtains opened and the performance began. They were excited. I was feeling warm and fuzzy and blessed. WE WERE PERFECT. For about 30 minutes. When Sienna got to the bottom of the cardboard popcorn tub, she began asking loudly, and repeatedly, to use the bathroom because she had to go “super, super bad.” This is always her signal that she’s done with whatever we are doing. Crap, I thought. Here we go.
After failing to convince her to wait just a little longer, Dan finally stood up and walked her out of the theater. I clung to the hope that he would find a way to persuade her to come back so that we could continue watching the show as a family. But, at the very least, I had my two boys with me and they seemed content. Until about five minutes later when, Ben, my toddler, screamed for more popcorn. The people sitting next to us shot me evil glares. Ben neither noticed nor cared that we were ruining their Christmas experience. He continued screeching. I finally conceded and gave Sean the option to stay and watch, but let him know that I would have to take Ben out before the other attendees had us ejected. Then, Sean confessed that he wasn’t even enjoying himself. He wanted to go home and play video games.
So, there we were, all five of us in the lobby, less than 45 minutes after the show opener, our three kids complaining and begging to go home. I was livid.
We marched silently to the car. As SOON as the minivan doors slid shut, I lost it.
I lectured and screamed and made sure they all understood that I was never ever EVER doing anything nice for them again. EVER. We rode home in complete silence, except for the sound of Sienna’s iPad playing the same Kinder Surprise Egg YouTube video over and over again. Everyone was terrified of me. Including Dan.
When we pulled into our driveway, I announced to the family that I was leaving to pick up a new tree ― ALONE. Maybe I couldn’t control my unmanageable kids who don’t appreciate special family time, but dammit, I could control whether or not we had a dead tree on Christmas Day. “Control the controllables,” – another one of my important mantras.
I pulled into Home Depot in full-blown meltdown mode – broken, angry and determined. It was three days before Christmas. Of course, there were like four trees on the lot. And not one of them was glorious. I was the only customer there, so I had the worker’s undivided attention. He opened up each of them, and, after careful examination, I confidently selected the least offensive one.
“This one!” I exclaimed with desperate pride as I pointed to a tree that was about my height and missing chunks of branches. It didn’t matter. It was alive.
“This one?” he asked, hesitantly. “I guess if you angle it on this side it looks okay,” he reassured me. And he handed me the ticket I needed to take inside to the returns department. He explained to me that if I let the cashier know that my first tree was dead, then I should be allowed to make an exchange. As I waited in the eternal line from hell for the cashier, I became increasingly aggravated. I just did not have the patience for such a long line. I sighed heavily so that everyone could hear how annoyed I was. I felt the frustration of the events of the day bubbling up. When I’m having a tantrum, all of my thoughts tend to be negative, tragic, and also very childish. Christmas is going to SUCK, I thought to myself.
When I finally reached the cashier and told her that I was exchanging my dead tree for one that was living, she asked me where the dead tree was. She explained that I had to bring it back if I wanted to make an exchange. My heart sunk. Bring the dead tree back?? What was this lady talking about? And then I felt it. My chest tightened, my throat closed up, and the tears welled up in my eyes. I didn’t want to cry there at Home Depot in front of all those people, but it was too late. I had lost control. I could barely speak, but as I sobbed, I revealed to her that my Christmas had been ruined and this was my last chance for any shred of a happy holiday. I NEEDED a tree that was ALIVE. I would pay anything for that crappy tree but I refused to walk out of there without it. “Do you understand?” I asked. She and another cashier standing next to her both stared at me with pity and horror. They wanted nothing to do with this meltdown.
“Take it,” she said sympathetically. “Just…. take the tree.” The other cashier nodded in agreement, as if to say, yes, please get this crazy lady out of here.
I felt grateful and ecstatic for my Home Depot angel. I called home to tell Dan and the kids that they needed to remove all the lights and ornaments from the dead one because I had found our tree. The tree that was saving my Christmas.
By the time I walked through my front door, I was much calmer. My mania had been pacified by the satisfaction of fixing something that I thought was broken. We set up the tree, restrung the lights, maybe with a little less meticulousness this time, and rehung the ornaments.
As we stepped back to admire our work, Dan tried to show his support. “It looks very nice, Honey,” he said with a smile. Sean handed me a homemade card he drew while I was gone on which he wrote, “I love you, Mommy and I am sorry.”
Meanwhile, Sienna had been napping since I left for the store. When I got to her room to get her up, I told her that we had a new tree. She ran out of her room excitedly and without a moment’s hesitation and her mouth agape in total awe, she declared, “OH. MY. GOSH. IT’S SOOOO TINY!!” I can always count on her to tell it like it is. All was well in the world again.
I look back on that day with humble gratitude. For the longest time, I thought this was a story about how I saved our Christmas by replacing a dead tree. My ego wanted Christmas to wrap itself up in pretty paper and a shiny bow. But, it was actually not about that at all. This is a story about a mighty thing called Grace. Sweet grace is when you are given what you need, not what you deserve.
On that day, when I threw my tantrum and steamrolled over my family to get what I wanted, I got what I needed instead. And it was prettier and shinier than any tree could have been. Grace came wrapped in the arms and hearts of the people I encountered. I received grace through the Home Depot cashier’s compassion, Dan’s patience and understanding, Sean’s act of love, and Sienna’s hilarious candor.
Grace is the light that seeps in through the cracks of a broken day. As parents of children with special needs, we are unusually called upon to hand out extra doses of grace. When day to day tasks are harder than they should be, when we battle with the schools to make sure our children’s needs are being met, when we notice another child being unkind to our child, when the reality of what our family holiday looks like doesn’t come close to matching up to our fantasy, and when our kids throw tantrums, especially around the holidays when everything is supposed to feel peaceful and festive, we learn how to give grace during some of the most challenging situations. But, grace is not always easy to give. Often, we are tempted to exchange grace for unforgiveness, resentment, bitterness or anger. We could succumb to the temptation of throwing our own adult meltdowns when our family outing is not successful, when we get frustrated at the store and when the people in our lives fall short of our expectations of them. Or, we could remember the grace we’ve been given when we didn’t deserve it. My Christmas tree will forever be a symbol to me of my own imperfections, the grace I receive every day and the call I’ve been given to offer it freely to those who also don’t deserve it, but who need it just the same.