The Christmas Hope

Donna VanLiere

St. Martin's Press

 
ONE
One Year Earlier
If you lose hope, somehow you lose the vitality that keeps life moving, you lose that courage to be, that quality that helps you go on in spite of it all. And so today I still have a dream.
—Martin Luther King Jr.
I jolted awake when I heard the snowplow outside my bedroom window. It snowed on December 17 and four days later it still hadn’t taken a break. City workers were getting lots of overtime trying to get the roads passable for each workday. I looked at my clock: three-thirty. I’d probably never get back to sleep now. For years I could always sleep through the night but it had been close to four years since I had a full night’s rest; if I awakened at three or four in the morning I was up for the rest of the day.
I threw my arm over my head and concentrated on falling back to sleep. I heard my husband, Mark, turn the shower on in the bathroom down the hall. He’d leave the house at four-thirty and be gone for the rest of the day. Our dog, Girl, pressed her nose to the bottom of the door; she wanted to be out with Mark but I was too tired to get up and open the door. After watching the closed door for several minutes she walked across the room and lay down on her pillow. At 4:00 A.M. I heard Mark walk down the stairs into the kitchen. He grabbed a bagel and poured a cup of coffee into an insulated mug before leaving the house. He didn’t open the bedroom door to see if I might be awake or leave a note; he never did. I knew his schedule; he’d be home tomorrow morning after his flight. He’d had the same overnight flight for years. When I got up at four-thirty the kitchen was spotless; no signs of bagel crumbs or a knife crusted with cream cheese. It’s the way I liked things. If his towel hadn’t been wet in the bathroom I never would have known that Mark had even been in the house.
I turned the shower on and stepped inside, turning my face into the water. Four days until Christmas. I put my hands on my face and let the water wash over them. Why was the holiday season so long? I shook my head and washed my hair. After leaving work today I would have the next ten days off for Christmas. What in the world would I do with all that time? I sprayed the shower walls with cleaner and used a squeegee to remove the water from the glass doors before reaching for my towel.
By 5:30 A.M. I was dressed and ready for the day. The phone rang and I sighed. I knew who it was. “Hello.”
“Good morning,” my mother said.
“Mom, why do you call so early in the morning?”
“I knew you’d be up.”
“But I could have been sleeping.”
“Were you sleeping?”
“No.”
“See. I knew you’d be up.”
It was no use. I could always count on at least three or four early-morning calls a week. For years I had tried to break her from calling so early, with no success.
“Just wanted to let you know that I’m going Christmas shopping with Miriam today. What do you and Mark want for Christmas?”
I opened e-mail on my computer and half listened to her as I read through them.
“Do you need anything for the house?”
“We don’t need anything, Mom.”
“You may not need anything but you might want something! Do you want anything fun?” Every year she tried so hard.
“I can’t think of anything.”
She was quiet for a moment before sounding upbeat again. “Okay, well, if you think of anything you just let me know. I’ll be out shopping on other days, too, and I can pick up whatever. You just let me—”
I cut her off and told her I’d call after I got home from work, and hung up.
When my father left, he told my mom he was going to the store to buy a newspaper and never came home. My mother had never known about the gambling; he was good at hiding things. He left right before the bottom dropped out. The police showed up on our doorstep before my mother had a chance to report him missing. He had taken thousands of dollars from the company he worked for and they had come to collect and throw him in jail (or in the case of his absence, take my mother to jail to question her or, as she said, scare the daylights out of her). I don’t think the police believed her when she said she didn’t know where my father was but they let her go.
We were evicted from our apartment, our belongings were seized, and the Dodge Dart was repossessed. We stayed in a motel for three nights, but then what little money my mother had ran out. We had been to church on occasion up to that point and on the morning we left the motel my mother packed our clothes in a paper bag and stuck it under her arm. She took hold of Richard’s hand and instructed me to hold on to his as we made our way down the street. After walking several blocks Richard declared he was too tired to go any farther and my mother lifted him onto her hip and pulled me close to her side. “Stay right here beside me,” she said, adjusting Richard and the paper bag.
“Where we going?” Richard asked over and over again. I never said a word. Somehow I knew not to say anything.
“We’re going to see some people,” my mother said. We walked across town and I could see the church in the distance. My mother hoisted Richard onto her other hip and handed me the paper bag to carry the rest of the way.
“It’s too heavy,” I said, regretting the words as soon as I said them. Mom took the bag from me and lugged it on her other side. When we got to the sidewalk leading up to the front door of the church my mother set Richard down and straightened his clothes.
“We going to church, Mommy?” Richard asked. “It’s not Sunday.”
My mother opened the door and looked around.
“What you looking for, Mommy?” Richard asked.
I rolled my eyes and wished he would be quiet for once.
“You looking for the church?”
“We’re in the church,” I said, hoping to ease the pressure off my mother. A woman in a pale pink dress peeked her head around the corner.
“Hi,” she said, stepping toward us. “I thought I heard voices. Can I help you?” I looked up at my mother but she couldn’t speak. Nothing was coming out. I noticed her eyes were filling with tears and the woman in pink noticed, too. She leaned down to Richard and me. “We’ve got a plateful of peanut butter cookies back in the kitchen that I made for a luncheon today.” She leaned close and whispered. “Would you like some with a great big glass of milk?” We nodded and she took our hands. “I’m going to let your mother sit down here in the office while you two eat some cookies and play with all the toys we’ve got back there.”
Another woman behind a desk with glasses looked up and smiled at us. “Mrs. Burke,” the woman in pink said. “These children are hungry for cookies. Maybe you and Pastor Burke might like to visit with their mother.”
Mrs. Burke saw the tears in my mother’s eyes and got up from her desk. “Just take your time,” Mrs. Burke said to the woman in pink. “I’ve even got some chicken salad back there in the refrigerator if you want some of that.” The thought of eating chicken salad at ten o’clock in the morning was less than appealing to me but Richard cheered with excitement.
I’m not sure how many cookies we ate but when Mom walked into the kitchen the plate was nearly empty. “Thank you,” my mother said, looking at the woman in pink. “Thank you very much.”
We walked outside and a woman driving a station wagon was in the driveway waving at us. “I’m Geraldine Culberson,” she said, looking at my mother. “Just hop on in.” Mom ushered us inside the car and Geraldine drove us to her home. “We’ve got a bed and a couch down here,” she said, leading us into the basement. “You can put your clothes in here,” she said, resting her hand on a small chest of drawers, “and the bathroom is right at the top of the stairs.” She turned to leave. “I’ll have lunch ready in about an hour, so you just get settled in and come on up whenever you’re ready.”
My mother sat on the edge of the bed. She didn’t say anything; she just pulled Richard and me close to her and cried.
We lived in Geraldine and George’s basement for six months until someone else in the church had a small apartment we could rent. Before long, church members dropped off a small black-and-white TV set, a full-size refrigerator, sofa, beds, toys, and clothes. Mom found a part-time job answering phones and doing the books for a small dress shop while Geraldine watched Richard. When I got out of school I walked to the Culbersons’ house and when Mom was finished working we all walked home to our apartment together. At night I would watch my mother go through the bills my father had left and I always saw the same look on her face. There was no way out.
My mother lost her smile after my father left. I was too young to fully realize what was wrong but knew it had to have something to do with the mess my father had left us in. Creditors were threatening her on every side but she had nothing left for them to take. She’d write a check for five or ten dollars and stick it in an envelope hoping that her attempts to pay off the debts would prove something to the creditors. For some it did but for most it didn’t. It was a few weeks before Christmas when my mother broke down at the kitchen table. She held on to several letters and wept. I ran down the street for Mrs. Culberson. She read through a letter and patted my mother’s shoulder. “Nobody’s going to take your kids away from you, Charlotte,” she said. “Don’t you worry about that!”
Several days later Pastor and Mrs. Burke knocked on the apartment door. My mother invited them in and put a pot of coffee on to brew. When she finished her coffee Mrs. Burke opened her purse and pulled out an envelope. She pushed it across the table to my mother. Mom opened it and gasped. “I can’t take this,” she whispered.
“You take it and pay off every single bill,” Pastor Burke said.
“But there’s more here than what we owe.” My mother moved the envelope back across the table but Mrs. Burke stopped her. “I can’t take it.” Mrs. Burke put the envelope in Mom’s hand.
“I can’t go back to all these people and tell them that what God laid on their heart was wrong. God wanted them to help and that’s what they’ve done.”
Mom sat clutching the fat envelope. “But I don’t know who gave this,” she whispered. “How can I ever thank them?”
“They didn’t do it for the thanks, Charlotte,” Mrs. Burke said. “But God knows who they are. He’ll thank them.”
Mom shook her head and used a towel sitting on the table to wipe her face. Mrs. Burke leaned toward Mom and squeezed her hand. “Sometimes we’re not supposed to be in on every single part of God’s plan. Sometimes we just need to take the blessing and run.”
We would never know who gave us the money. When adults would speak to my mother at church I’d listen for some clue they might give to help us clear up the puzzle. But no one ever acted as if they knew anything. Tears ran down my mother’s face as she wrapped her arms around Mrs. Burke’s neck. The Burkes quietly left and I watched from the hallway as my mother cried, clutching the envelope. That was the end of the creditors, the letters, and the threats … and the return of my mother’s smile.
For several Christmases leading up to that one I would, under the guise of “cleaning,” rummage through my mother’s closet or beneath her bed in an attempt to find even the smallest gift. “Patricia, Christmas isn’t all about you,” Mom said one day, ushering me out of her room. “It’s not about what you can get. It’s about what you can give.” At the time that notion seemed crazy to me but after my mother received the envelope full of money from a church full of strangers I knew exactly what she meant.



I poured what coffee there was left in my cup down the sink, cleaned and polished the coffeepot, turned it on an angle so it sat just so on the counter, and opened the garage door. I wanted to beat the traffic that would be traveling across town so I left an hour early for my first appointment. It took me forty minutes and when I pulled into the drive I noticed that the Lymans had decorated the outside of their house and trees with lights. Santa and his sleigh were perched on top of the roof close to the chimney and Frosty or some snowman that looked like him greeted visitors at the front door. I opened my trunk and waited for Justin. Claire Lyman opened the door and waved, placing her hand on Justin’s shoulder as they walked down the front steps. “How are you, Patricia?” Claire asked.
“I’m great,” I said. “How’s everybody in the Lyman family?”
She gave me a big okay sign and I reached for Justin’s suitcase. “How are you, Justin?” He shrugged his shoulders. Justin placed his plain brown suitcase inside the trunk. “The house looks great, Claire.”
Claire put her arm around Justin. “Justin helped us. We couldn’t have done it without him.”
“Wow Justin! This place looks awesome.”
He looked at the ground and Claire caught my eye. She wrapped her arms around Justin’s small shoulders and kissed his face. “Thanks for staying with us, Justin.”
He nodded but didn’t take his eyes off the ground. He didn’t want to leave. “Can I ever come back?” His voice was quiet.
Claire kept her arm around him and looked at me. She turned him toward her and made him look at her. “You and your mother can come by anytime,” she said. It wasn’t what Justin wanted to hear.
“Can I come back to stay?”
“We love you, Justin, but your mom loves you very much and she needs you.”
She opened the door of the car and Justin slunk into the passenger seat.
“Oh, wait!” Claire said, running into the house. She ran back to the car carrying a package wrapped in bright Christmas paper. “You can’t open this until Christmas,” she said, placing the gift on the boy’s lap. “It’s for you and your mom.” She looked at me and smiled, and I got behind the wheel, waving at her. I had worked with Claire and her husband for several years now. They were foster parents I could always depend on and were willing to open their home to any child. I backed out of the driveway and noticed Claire waving at Justin. He wouldn’t look up.
“Claire’s waving, Justin.” I stopped at the end of the driveway for a moment to give him time to respond. He didn’t. She continued to wave. I pulled onto the road. “Justin, Claire’s waving at you.” He pressed his hands into his thighs. As I drove past their mailbox and front of the house Justin spun in his seat to catch the last glimpse of Claire. He threw his hand in the back window and waved till we rounded the corner. He clutched the gift and slumped back in the seat. At twelve, Justin had been in and out of foster homes since he was eight years old. It was always hard to leave the ones where he felt he was loved. In the past nine months he had been in two separate foster homes as his mother went through rehab. I knew he didn’t want to go back and live with his mother again.
“Your mom sure is excited to see you,” I said, turning my head to catch a glimpse of him.
He looked out the window and didn’t say anything.
“She said she’s going to wait for you to get home and then you both can go pick out a Christmas tree this weekend.”
He remained content to look out the window. I knew what he was thinking but I also knew he was wrong … at least I hoped he was wrong.
I pulled into a grocery store parking lot and turned toward him. I’d seen lots of parents come out of rehab and many times I knew that they’d fall back into the traps they weren’t strong enough to resist. But other times I knew when they were genuinely clean and wanted to get their life back in order. They no longer said things they knew I wanted to hear but talked to me from a broken heart. I knew Justin’s mom wanted her son and her life back. “She’s met every goal set by the state and she’s clean, Justin. And she’s going to stay clean.”
“Yeah, right,” he said, mumbling, turning toward the window again.
“Your mom has changed, Justin.”
He didn’t say anything but watched a man load groceries into the back of his SUV.
I pulled his face toward me. “Your mom is not the same person that you remember.”
His eyes welled up with tears. “She always says she’s going to change but she never does.” He slung the tears from his face, embarrassed. “She always promises that she’ll be different but she never is. She just lies to get people to think she’s different!” He ran his coat sleeve under his nose.
I reached for a tissue out of the glove compartment and handed it to him, pulling him onto my shoulder. “She has changed,” I whispered. “I know it’s hard for you to believe but I’ve seen her and talked with her and she’s a different person now.”
He shook his head. He couldn’t believe it.
“She found a job.”
“She won’t be able to keep it.”
I squeezed him closer to me. “She’ll be cutting hair again and she loves to do that. She was working in a factory before and she didn’t like that.”
“She couldn’t cut hair before because everybody always fired her.”
I turned his face toward me. “I know this is hard.” A single tear ran down his cheek. “But your mom loves you so much. She’s worked hard to get clean, Justin, and she wants you back to stay. I know it’ll be easy to act angry toward her but that’s not going to help her or you.”
He nodded.
“I’ve worked with a lot of people over the years and I know that your mom loves you very much.”
He fumbled with the package in his hands. “Will you come to our apartment a lot?”
“I’ll have to make my appointed visits, yes.”
“Will you come over even if you don’t have an appointed visit?”
I smiled. “Will you be able to provide some sort of liquid refreshment? Perhaps a soda or iced tea?”
“Okay.”
“How about a confection of some sort?”
“I guess so but I don’t know what a confection is.”
I laughed and put on my seat belt. “Well, you better find out, because I will need a confection of the chocolate persuasion!”
When we arrived at the apartment complex I put my hand on Justin’s shoulder and walked him up the two flights of stairs. Rita Ramirez opened the door before I could knock, and pulled her son to her, burying her face in the top of his head. She was only thirty but looked ten years older. She spoke in rapid-fire Spanish and I put up my hands.
“No fair,” I said. “English only. For all I know you’re criticizing my outfit or my hair and that would just ruin the rest of my day.”
Rita stood back and looked at Justin. “You’re so handsome,” she said, holding his face. “Are you hungry?”
He shook his head.
“Miss Patricia, are you hungry?” She held on to Justin’s hand and led us into the small kitchen. “Would you like some coffee?” She poured me a cup and we sat down together at the table. I had looked through Rita’s apartment and gone over the expectations of the Department of Family Services with her on an earlier date so there was nothing left to do except wish them well.
I finished my coffee and stood to leave. “I’ll let you know when I’ll be back,” I said, opening the door.
“You can come by anytime for a confection, though,” Justin said, reminding me to come visit.
“I just might do that,” I said, looking in his eyes that held so much doubt.
Rita grabbed my arm before I walked out the door. “Thank you, Miss Patricia. Thank you for bringing my Justin back to me.”
I smiled at them, another one of my fragile families trying to start over again. Rita wrapped her arms around me. “I hope you have a beautiful Christmas!” I couldn’t say anything but waved as I walked toward the stairs and whispered a prayer that this time Rita would make it.
The day before I had typed Rita’s address onto the front of an envelope and used it as the return address as well. Enclosed were two gift certificates: one for a hardware store where she and Justin could find Christmas decorations and one for a nearby grocery store. They’d receive it in the mail by tomorrow at the latest. It wasn’t as much as what my mother had received in the envelope so many years ago but I hoped it was enough to help Rita and Justin have an extraordinary Christmas together.
I drove through Knight’s Auto Wash before heading to the office. I didn’t want salt buildup underneath, and Justin had left a trail of mud and dirt from his boots. I instructed the employees to move the seats back in order to clean well under them. They hadn’t done that last week. Once the car was clean, I drove to the office, turned on the computer at my desk, and rummaged through the Ramirez file, making sure it was updated. Weeks earlier many of the office staff had taken the last two hours of the day to decorate a small Christmas tree and hang ivy throughout the office. I made sure I had an appointment at that time so I could avoid the Christmas cheer and banter. Christmas was no longer a time of joy for me and I didn’t want to put a damper on the staff’s festivities.
I closed a drawer in my desk and the sound made a toy fish on Roy Braeden’s desk move to the tune of “Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer.” I shook my head. For the last few weeks that fish had been driving me crazy. Thankfully, the dancing Santa was broken this year, although Roy picked him up every day trying to diagnose the problem. Roy had worked for family services longer than I had. His first wife died after twenty-eight years of marriage, leaving Roy lonely and depressed. Thinking he was in love, Roy married Ella a year after his wife’s funeral. It was a mistake. Roy realized he wasn’t in love but just desperate for companionship. The marriage lasted less than two years. Now he’d been dating Barbara for four years but was gun-shy about marriage although I often told him that he was going to lose Barbara if he didn’t marry her. She was a good woman and Roy was a good man. “You’re good for each other,” I said time and again to him. Roy was a father of four, grandfather of five and counting, and a good friend. I noticed a doughnut sitting on his desk across the aisle from me and I rolled over in my chair and swiped it, taking a bite. I didn’t think of it as stealing. I thought of it as doing him a favor. His cholesterol was up and he had no business eating a greasy doughnut. I heard his voice and pushed the last of the doughnut into my mouth. He walked to his desk and stopped.
“Patti, did you see a doughnut on my desk?”
I leaned over to look toward his desk. “No, I don’t see anything.”
He opened a drawer and looked inside. “I could swear I put a doughnut right here.” He started toward the lounge. “I’ll just go get another one.”
“There’s none back there,” I said, typing.
He threw up his hands. “All a man wants is a lousy doughnut to help him get through the day. Is that too much to ask?”
“From my view it looks like the man has had too many doughnuts over the years.”
He stopped and looked at me. “I guess you went into social work so you could encourage and uplift.”
I laughed as my phone rang.
“Do people say I’m heavy?” he asked, pulling his shirt across his belly.
I waved my hand to get him to be quiet and picked up the receiver. It was Lynn McSwain, our supervisor. He was calling from his cell phone.
“I may be beefy but beefy’s good,” Roy said. “Beefy’s not heavy.”
I turned my back to him and pressed the phone closer to my ear. “Okay,” I said. “I’ll take care of her.” I hung up the phone. “Bridget Sloane was taken to County a few minutes ago,” I said, pulling a file from my cabinet.
“What for?”
“Selling to an undercover cop. I have to place Mia.” I shook my head, shoving files into my briefcase. “She left Mia in her crib at seven o’clock last night and never went back home.” Roy looked down at his watch. “Fifteen and a half hours,” I said, helping him do the math. “The police are at the apartment now.” Bridget Sloane was eighteen years old and the mother of a beautiful ten-month-old daughter who was an albatross around Bridget’s neck. Bridget had been on the move since she ran away from home at sixteen. If she had any idea who the father was she would have fought him for child support so she could use the money for drugs. But she didn’t even know she was pregnant until she was three months along and by then she couldn’t remember where she had been, who she had lived with, or what she had smoked. We had placed Mia in a foster home for three months when she was born so Bridget could finish a jail term for bad checks. I called that foster family again to see if they were available to take Mia this time. The message on their machine said they were out of town. I called Sandra and Guy Michaels, a new family I had worked with and liked.
“Bring her anytime,” Sandra said. I hung up the phone and grabbed my purse. “You up for tagging along?” I asked Roy. He took his jacket off the coat rack and followed me to the elevator.



We entered Bridget’s apartment and found a police officer bouncing Mia up and down. She was screaming. It was cold inside the tiny three-room apartment. “We’re with DFS,” I said to the officer. Reaching for Mia, I gave the officer my business card. “Doesn’t the electricity work?” I asked.
“Nothing works,” the officer said. “Guess the electric company turned it off.”
I wrapped Mia’s blanket around her and held her close. Her hands were freezing.
“She’s been screaming since we got here,” he said. “She’s screamed so much that she threw up. We couldn’t find any diapers so I made one out of paper towels.”
I put my hand on Mia’s bottom and felt the massive “diaper” the officer had created.
“Shh, shh, shh,” I whispered into Mia’s ear. “It’s okay, Mia. It’s okay.” She straightened her legs and screamed louder. I rummaged through the kitchen cabinets looking for formula.
“There’s nothing here,” the officer told me. “We’ve already looked.”
“I’ll pack her clothes,” Roy said, walking toward Mia’s bedroom.
The officer handed him a plastic grocery bag filled with clothes. “I knew you’d want them. They were the only clothes I could find.”
Roy took them and looked in Mia’s room at the mess that was in the portable crib. I walked behind him holding Mia.
“Looks like Bridget ran out of diapers a few days ago,” Roy said. I shook my head and tried to quiet Mia’s screams. She was starving and I had to find her something to eat. I headed for the door.
“What will happen to her?” the officer asked.
“She’ll go into a foster home,” I said.
“Will her mother get her back?”
“I don’t know.”
“No baby should ever have to go through what she did.”
“I know,” I said, bouncing Mia. Roy opened the door and we walked down the hallway.
A woman stuck her head out of her apartment door. “Ma’am,” she said. “Ma’am!”
I turned around and saw her coming toward me holding a bottle. “I heard the police talking to you.” She handed me the bottle. “It’s not formula but it’s warm milk. Maybe it will help.”
“Thank you,” I said. “You wouldn’t happen to have a diaper, would you?” She ran back into her apartment and carried out a handful.
“They’ll be too big but they’ll still work.” She disappeared into her apartment and we could hear her bolt the door behind her. I handed the diapers to Roy and put the nipple of the bottle into Mia’s mouth. She continued to scream and I ran the nipple over her lips and the inside of her mouth.
“Here you go, Mia,” I said. “Here you go, sweet girl.” She closed her lips around the nipple and began to suck. I wiped the tears off her face and kissed the top of her head, pulling her closer to me so she’d feel safe. “How about we get in the car and find you something to eat, huh?” Roy opened the rear car door and I laid Mia on the backseat of the car and pulled off the paper towel diaper. “Totally dry,” I said to Roy. After fifteen and a half hours of being alone I was sure Mia was on her way to dehydration. I fastened a diaper on her, strapped her into the car seat, and started to cover her legs with her blanket but stopped. I smelled it and set it aside. It reeked of cigarette smoke. “Would you get the blanket out of the trunk?” I asked Roy. He popped the trunk and handed it to me. I tucked it around Mia, propping the bottle on it so she could continue to drink. “Food’s coming up,” I said, noticing the bottle was all but empty at this point. I knew as soon as it ran out that she’d be screaming again. I sat in the backseat with Mia as Roy drove to a small nearby diner.
I handed the waitress Mia’s bottle and asked that she fill it with milk and warm it as quickly as possible. Mia began to cry again and I assured her that the bottle would be returning. “I’ll never understand it, Roy.”
He nodded. What I was thinking went without saying in our line of work.
“There are so many people who would love to take care of this baby.”
“I’m sure somebody will,” Roy said. I knew what he meant. Bridget would see a lengthy jail sentence this time for selling drugs and Mia would be placed in a foster home and then probably up for adoption. The waitress handed me the warm bottle and I stuck it back in Mia’s mouth. She stopped screaming.
“She’s loud but she’s cute,” the waitress said. “Your mommy’s not going to let you starve,” she said, talking to Mia. I didn’t say anything. There was no point in explaining the situation.
Roy watched the waitress leave to fill our drink order. “Now, why did she think you were Mia’s mother but she didn’t think I was her dad?”
“Look at us, Roy,” I said, patting Mia’s back. “She knows a young chick like me would never marry an old rooster like you.”
He stared at me. “There’s another reason you’re good for social work! You’re so gentle and kind. You’re what we like to call the inspiring sort.”
I laughed. I always knew which buttons to push to aggravate Roy. The waitress brought the potatoes and a spoon and I held Mia in my lap to feed her.
“I’m sorry, Mia,” I said. “I’m so sorry that you were scared.” She had no idea what I was saying but was so excited to have food that she bounced up and down in my arms as I fed her each bite. Roy and I watched her eat for several minutes.
“I’m always amazed at how sweet they are,” Roy said. “You’d think they’d be bitter but they somehow always manage to laugh.” Roy tickled Mia’s leg and she pulled it away from him, giggling.
“Year after year I keep thinking that things will change, but they don’t.”
Roy threw his arms in the air. “You keep thinking what will change? People? You think everybody’s going to wake up one day and do the right thing? That they’ll suddenly take care of their children or stop selling drugs? Things like that are never going to change as long as there are people on this planet.”
I put the bottle in Mia’s mouth. “Does your tummy feel better now, Mia?” I asked, setting her onto the table. “Huh? Does your tummy feel better?” I’m not sure what I said but she laughed at me. “Was that funny?” She flapped her arms and squealed. “If you think that’s funny you should see me when I’m really on,” I said, picking her up. “I can bring the house down.” She laughed again and tried to put the bottle back into her mouth. I motioned for the waitress to bring more milk. Roy filled the bottle and handed it to me. I guided it into Mia’s mouth and she went heavy in my arms, content to rest there for the remainder of the day.
“See, I told you your mommy wouldn’t let you starve,” the waitress said, squeezing Mia’s leg as we stood to leave. I thanked the waitress and wrapped the blanket around Mia as we left the restaurant.
We drove to Guy and Sandra Michaels’ house and left Mia with Sandra. I went back to the office to file my report. At the end of the day I could hear everyone talking about their Christmas plans. I kept working, hoping they would leave me out of all the “Are you staying in town or going away for Christmas” conversations, and they did. Throughout the years the office staff knew to leave me alone. Everyone, that is, except Roy.
“Is Mark working on Christmas, Patti?”
I sighed. I knew I couldn’t escape it. Roy had asked me to spend Christmas with his family for the last three years but each time I declined.
“I don’t know.”
He knew I was lying. Mark had worked the last two Christmases. Why would this one be any different?
“When you find out, let me know. Barbara’s coming over. All the kids and grandkids, too. Everybody would love to see you. Barbara’s bringing over a huge bird. We’ll have plenty of food to go around.”
I gathered my things and handed Roy a small gift I had wrapped for him, a leather journal with his name engraved on it.
“I didn’t get you anything,” he said, sounding more frustrated than grateful.
“I don’t need anything,” I said, putting on my coat. I hugged Roy good-bye before he had a chance to open the gift. “Have a great Christmas.” I headed for the elevator doors so I could make a quick getaway. I drove home, entered our empty house alone, closed the door, and tried to imagine how anyone could look forward to the holidays.
THE CHRISTMAS HOPE. Copyright © 2005 by Donna VanLiere. All rights reserved. For information, address St. Martin’s Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y 10010.