I went on Christmas break in 2014 ready to lie in bed until noon everyday. I was ready to smell lasagna cooking in a sauce splattered oven for my family unit’s traditional Christmas Eve dinner. Tradition was a welcome thought in my first year of high school where the workload and my sleep schedule felt alien.
My favorite tradition is lunch at my grandparent’s on Christmas Day. Aunts, uncles, and cousins all gather to stuff themselves on turkey, ham, rolls, and sweet potato casserole. There are two tables: one for the kids and one for the adults. I always sit at the grown-up table. My feet touch the floor now so I figure I’m old enough to sit quietly and complement the food. After lunch everyone crowds on the two worn living room couches and gifts are passed out amongst the children; soon there are mounds of red, green, and candy cane wrapping like mountain ranges. When the wrapping is in bulging black bags the family files out to the fleet of pickup trucks loaded down with Tupperware and gallon sized plastic bags filled with leftovers.
But all of this warmth and familiarity I looked forward to was not to be in 2014. It was the Monday before Christmas and I was sprawled on the love-seat with headphones blasting metal while my sister watched ABC Family’s 25 Days of Christmas. My mother came into the living room with her pink phone case pressed to her ear, her mouth was set in that straight line that says there’s something serious going down.
“Okay, well thanks for telling me,” was all I caught through the slashing guitars. Being fifteen years old for a month now I’d decided that Christmas music was boring. I would rely on gifts and Christmas dinner to put me in the spirit. Even the neighbors lights seemed dull in comparison to a junior I sat with on the bus. All I could think about was the fact that she told me she would be spending Christmas with her boyfriend this year. She’d laid on my shoulder once, and it gave me an absurd amount of hope.
I took an earbud out and looked at my mother.
“Your grandmother called.”
“What’s going on?” I asked.
“She needs to bring her dog over, they’re heading up to North Carolina.”
“Is something happening with Michelle?”
Michelle was a cousin on my mom’s side of the family. She’d been battling breast cancer for years and it had recently put her back in the hospital. My grandmother had been talking to her sister about it nearly everyday.
“No, your cousin Robert died of a heart attack,” my mother said.
“But what about Christmas?”
Robert was a name I barely knew, and it seemed impossible that he could affect my life in such a way. My mother told me we wouldn’t be having Christmas at my grandparents that year. The family would be in North Carolina for Robert’s December 24th service.
My parents, sister and I would spend Christmas in Jacksonville. On Christmas Day we would see a movie and then my father would spend the rest of the afternoon watching football.
I didn’t learn about who Robert was until weeks later when my grandmother visited with a pile of books.
“They were his,” she said.
It was a shock. My cousin love to read, and he had a special place in his heart for fantasy. This man who I blamed for ruining my Christmas, was a human being. I could feel him in the stacks of books that now sit on my shelf.
“He loved history just like you,” my grandmother said.