The Perfect Christmas Memory of Her Late Father

A heaven-sent dream comforted her on the first Christmas without her dad.

Posted in , Oct 26, 2020

Illustration by Dàlia Adillon

Mom and I pulled our artificial Christmas tree out of the box together, the silver pine branches bending into shape—a popular look back in 1970. “I hope the lights all work,” Mom said. As if the tree itself wasn’t shiny enough.

I shrugged. The truth was I didn’t care if we even had a tree when I woke up tomorrow. It was our first Christmas without my father. My heart was too heavy to enjoy anything.

“Hang some of those icicles,” Mom said, pointing to the open box.

I hooked a glittering ornament and reached for a branch. The movement made my head, which had been aching since dinner, feel worse. How I wished I was decorating the tree we had the year before, when I was 13. The one Dad and I had picked out together. That tree had been perfect, like everything about that Christmas.

Throughout my childhood, my father was in and out of the hospital with leukemia. My grown-up brother and sisters had memories of him when he was younger and energetic. The Dad I adored was almost always exhausted.

Until suddenly, like a miracle, his illness went into remission. Dad didn’t take any of it for granted and made the most of every good day he had. What a blessing that it had happened just in time for Christmas.

“Are you thinking about the tree that we had last year?” Mom said.

I blinked, realizing I’d been standing by the silver tree, not hanging any ornaments, just remembering. “Yes,” I admitted.

The tree had been Dad’s idea. A real tree, not our artificial one. Dad and I drove to the Christmas tree farm to get it. On the way there, he told me about Christmases when he was a boy. “My brothers and I used to go to the woods to cut down our tree,” he said. “In fact, we got our ornaments from the woods as well.”

“You found Christmas ornaments in the woods?”

“Money was too scarce to be spent on store-bought ornaments,” he told me. “We decorated our tree with acorns, pine cones and holly berries. And strung popcorn. One year we did have enough cash left over from the sale of our tobacco crop to buy lights from the Sears catalog. Now that was something special.”

When Dad and I got home with our fresh-cut tree, I asked him if we could decorate it as he had when he was a boy.

“Sure we can!” Dad said, fitting the tree securely into its stand. “But remember, it won’t be fancy like our silver tree.”

I thought about it. “I want to do it.”

“Me too,” Dad said. “You know, sometimes simplicity is good. It helps us to look beneath the surface.”

With the tree secure in its stand, Dad and I hiked into the woods behind our house. Every acorn, pine cone and holly berry we found went into our bucket. Back home we popped a big bowl of corn. Mom cut out white cardboard angels to place on the branches, and Dad folded a silver star tree topper from aluminum foil.

When we finished I gazed at the tree, so humble, so beautiful. And then on Christmas Eve, a blizzard knocked out our electricity. My brother and sisters weren’t able to make the trip on Christmas Day. That left Dad and me to play endless games of checkers by candlelight, with Mom keeping score.

I rubbed my throbbing head. No Christmas will ever be so cozy, I thought, hanging the last of the ornaments on our silver tree. Nothing will ever be the same without Dad.

“Patricia,” Mom said gently. “Take some aspirin and get some sleep. We’ll get up early tomorrow and go to Grandma’s.”

I fell asleep thinking of that last, perfect Christmas. And I dreamed.

I was falling into a spiral, the sound of wings flapping in the distance. I felt warm hands on my shoulders and turned my face to see Dad. He was in a long white robe, an angel on either side of him. We stood on a white marble platform, a soft white-and-rose light above us. Far beneath us cars sped by on the street, people talked and laughed on the sidewalks. Dad and I were standing between heaven and earth. He looked younger than I had ever seen him, as he did in the pictures I’d seen of him and Mom when they were first married. I hugged him tight. “I miss you so much.”

“I’m still with you,” he said. “I just have a different address. I’m in a wonderful place.”

But I wanted Dad to stay with me.

“We’ll see each other again,” he promised. “And one more thing,” he said as he faded from my vision. “Take your time through life and keep it simple.”

I opened my eyes. It was Christmas morning. My headache was gone. So was the ache in my heart. My dream had helped me look beneath the surface and see the simple truth: I would see Dad again in that softly glowing heaven. Until then I had the memory of a perfect Christmas to hold onto. A memory as shiny and bright as the tree that greeted Mom and me that morning.

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