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Christmas alone and not alone

The feeling started shortly after I went out to meet a friend on Saturday, an itching in the bronchi. By Saturday night, I had a cough. Sunday morning, I was really feeling fatigued and slow. Monday came and I was in the full throes of the flu. My head pounded and joints ached. Fever kept me putting on and taking off sweaters and hoodies.

I had enough presence of mind to get out of bed on Christmas and install myself in my armchair next to the tree. Once my Uncle Phil and daughter Sydney arrived, we commenced our labors. Virginia gave everyone their Christmas stocking, laden with chocolates, oranges, and trinkets that she so thoughtfully assembled. After digging through our socks, we distributed gifts and went around the room, each opening one in their turn.

Virginia put on an elaborate breakfast, which I had no desire to eat. I enjoyed more watching everyone else with their new presents—a small drone that came without instructions, a new lap desk, various versions of holiday boxers and sock-slippers. The tree shone in blue and white light. The day, dreary and dull (my favorite), cast filmy light through the windows. We were all warm, and except for my shivering from fever, everyone was healthy.

I snuck off to bed about 11 a.m. to toss in a haze. I really didn’t sleep but daydreamed in that hazy delusion of fever. I thought of pulling trout out of mountain streams. I imagined again the trout I caught many years before just after the ice had started to thaw off the creeks and beaver ponds in Wyoming’s Snowy Mountain Range. They weren’t much, all head and mouth with winter-starved shrunken bodies. But it was the day, the quiet, the yawning gaps wisped with soft clouds that made trout fishing worth the while.

I’d rather have been trout fishing than rolling around in that bed. My thoughts took me to a little creek I knew east of and not far from Laramie. Crow Creek spread out in beaver ponds and wetlands down from the Vedauwoo Rocks, those clumps of rounded granite the color of rough hickory. It spilled through gaps in the rocks and down into the Laramie River.

There, little brookies swam in the tangles of willows and what small trees the beavers could harvest of the rocky plain. The fish fought and I spent at least as much of my time unraveling flies from the sagebrush and willow as casting for fish. The most important thing was that I was alone. I’d fish from late-afternoon past dusk and return to the car as night fell. Often, I’d climb the outcroppings and see the light bubbles from Laramie to the west and Cheyenne to the east. The sky would soon come alight with the Milky Way.

My thoughts turned to times when I spend Christmases alone. When I lived in Germany, I knew no one that would take me in. I spent Christmas day walking all around Trier, from Olewig near the Roman amphitheater to the vineyards in Avelertal where I worked. I made my way down empty streets and past houses whose windows glowed warm in the dim, cold day. From the Mosel River to the train station and back again toward home, I made a circuit of the city. Arriving back at my room in the sixth-floor attic of the winery apprentices’ school, I felt tired and good. I opened my window and listened to the church bells chime until they stroked midnight. Turning off the lamp, I listened to the quiet street and fell fast asleep.

I spent many Christmases alone. I might visit grandparents—my parents moved out of town when I was 20—or take in some time with one or the other of my uncles. But for years I made it a point to come home by 8 p.m. There, I’d take up a bottle of vodka or whiskey and head out the door into the empty night. Again, glowing windows took my attention and I wondered about people and what they might be doing. I’d walk down from South Hyde Park to the Plaza and into the neighborhood where my mom and uncles grew up. Every now and then, I gulp whiskey until I felt warm and good. With new heat in my veins, I walked faster, longer. Circling back through Westport, I peered through bar window at people who, like me, lacked family to visit or already had their family time. As voyeur, I made up stories about them, their marriages, their families.

Sooner or later, the whiskey made my head float and I stumbled back toward Gillham Park and end the day good and sodden, satisfied, and meditative. Someday, I thought, I’d make something of my life. For now, it was good to sit in streetlight spilling through my apartment window and listen to the quiet.

It’s been many years since I spent a holiday alone. Being sick, I’ve been sleeping odd hours. I woke about 4 a.m. this morning and walked out to the living room. The light of the tree filled the room. Everyone else slept. Clocks ticked. Back in the bedroom, one of the dogs moaned in its sleep, the sound filtering through the house, trailing off as it reached the front room.

I sat for a long time, just absorbing the light and imagining the room full again with family. My thoughts turned to my German friends and I broke out the computer to send a holiday greeting. Only a few lines in, my eyes drooped again and I saved the message to finish this morning.

Before I headed toward bed again, I thought of trout and bar windows with lonely people behind them, the streets of Trier and store displays. I ran routes of my Christmas evening through Kansas City walks in my head. The day played through my mind again, the family opening presents by the tree and the periods of sleep and daydreaming. My head pulsed a little in the back and my sinus felt stuffed with sand.

So, yeah, I was still sick, very sick. I stood up and looked around my house. While I miss those holidays alone, there was no place I rather would have been other than standing next to that Christmas tree.

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