One of the many reasons I so enjoy being back in the city on Christmas evening is because of a personal tradition I have of walking the usually bustling city streets on a chilly night while they are almost deserted. With exception of a few others doing the same I basically have the streets to myself and the guy dressed in the Santa Claus suit peddling his bike down Clark St. It gives me a chance to think. Think and reflect and relax after the climax of the holiday season. I explore all that I am grateful for not just on Christmas but everyday of the year. It's one of my favorite traditions and one I have missed out on for the last several years. Doing the Christmas evening walk on the beach is although thoroughly enjoyable and a heck of a lot warmer just not the same as walking down the city streets with all the streetlight decorations and store windows filled with ribbon wrapped boxes and shiny displays as Christmas music plays softly from the overhead store speakers all through the night.
Since making the decision a few years ago to spend summers in Chicago as my parents get older I have since extended that to six weeks during the Christmas season as well. I am quite certain it is one of the best decisions I have ever made and one I'll likely never regret. The ability to be here in Chicago and still have my life out on the west coast is one though I live by design is also one I do not take for granted. Nor do I take for granted the time I get to spend with my family and parents as they grow old. The thing that would most break my heart is to one day get that dreaded though part of life call one that that they have gone on to a better place and have the feeling rush through me that I missed out on their lives in their old age. The feeling that I could have been there more or done more to make it easier for them. I never want to for one second think that my parents might have felt alone or that no one cared especially their son. No never! That will never ever happen as long as I have a choice. We have all already for many reasons missed out on each others lives far too much during our youth and I absolutely refuse to miss out on anymore.
I took my traditional walk tonight and then went to my Christmas AA meeting as I usually do, it is my form of church and for most most part the closest I get to church these days except when my ma gets me to go to mass with her. I reflected on a lot even enjoying the chilly winter evening. I caught my reflection smiling back at me as I stopped to window shop. Then I jumped into a taxi for the last several blocks home.
Once home and warm and cozy I sunk into the couch to reflect on my day and suddenly and without any warning I began to cry. I cried like a baby for several minutes. No, I was not sad to the contrary I was happy and grateful. I cried like I had not cried in a long, long time and it felt great. I cried because because I was overwhelmed by emotion and beside myself with gratitude and admittedly cry as I sit here writing. I cried because I realized that throughout all the hard times and adversity my family and particularly my parents have faced that God has been good to us and in their old age made life safe and secure for them to some degree. I cried too because He has given me the ability and opportunity to be there for my family in whatever little ways I can and make life just a bit more comfortable for them. I cried because regardless of all the craziness, bad luck and bad choices their lives turned out okay and they go to sleep warm every night not in need of life's basic necessities. I cried because it was not always that way.
My parents were never rich people and by many standards except for a few years in their brief married life they were barely middle class. They have always just barely squeaked by financially and there was never much room for extras but they were never afraid to splurge if they felt it would help morale of those concerned. They didn't come from solid financial stock and did not possess many of the living skills necessary to raise a family. They had difficult lives and were from difficult families. Adversity was nothing new to them. They are street people so to speak who know how to survive. Needless to say they weren't schooled in how to impart on their children the life skills many learn and acquire growing up. This never really bothered me as I learned from an early age to survive on my own. Not too long ago my older sister who assisted greatly in raising us said to me in response to something I told her my mother had said that 'for all they may have lacked in teaching us in life skills, they taught us things about how to survive in life just by being who they are that they don't even know they taught us, and for that I am grateful.' If anyone is a survivor my sister is.
One of my prayers to God I vividly recall during a particularly difficult time in life was from when I was just a young boy of maybe eight or nine years old . I called on Him asking that He always take care of my family even if it meant he could not take care of me. It was not as though I felt I was a martyr by any means in fact I am quite sure I did not even know what a martyr was at the time. Nor was it that I felt any less than anyone else, though that would be a personal obstacle I would later have to overcome. It was simply that I was just a little boy who was keenly aware even at that young age of the hard times they went through personally and financially. I was simply a little boy who wanted the best for his family. I never had a great desire for toys, games and shiny new bikes at Christmas time but instead yearned only for life's simple things like money for food for the table and electric bills that needed to be paid and for a safe home. I asked that my ma didn't cry at night out of fear of physical harm or because of an inability to do for us what she really wished she could. I asked that my father not get hurt outside or hurt anyone else outside or inside particularly us. I asked that he not cry by himself in the bathroom at night when I saw him sneak in there with a drink in his hand. I knew he never wanted to be mean but he didn't know how not to be. I don't know how I knew the things I did, I just did. Even my aunts would comment on the fact that I just knew too much for my age. I never wanted for myself because I knew deep down inside He would look out for me no matter what. I knew this because my ma had said so, so it was true. I also asked God that he give me the ability to one day be able to take care of my family and make them smile. Well, they say God gives you what you ask for and though it took many years He did give me what I asked for. For that I am forever grateful.
There were years when my brother who is schizophrenic was homeless as was my ma and I did what I could do for them when I could find them. There were times my father could not pay his rent and moved from place to place but never gave up on himself or others. My sister did what she could but was trying to raise a family yet was still always there for us. Often life was not kind to them. Even now my ma has a hard time talking about the difficult times but in her old age is getting more comfortable with telling me more, maybe because she feels the years creeping up on her but still there are some things she can't talk about and I believe will go with her. I myself am only beginning to become able to share many of these things with others. An old girlfriend used to comment on how much of my youth was a haze but truth was I didn't want it to be anything more than that. I had selective memory, something I believe helped me survive emotionally.
I realize now the hard times I witnessed her go through was only a fraction of the hard times she survived. She shares stories of the rough times my father went through growing up but still doesn't let him off the hook for things he did though she does acknowledge he didn't know better. For his part my father does not deny his mistakes and in fact wholly admits them and has done a great deal to make up for what he did or did not do. One thing I can say is that neither of them has ever talked negatively about the other though I am certain they easily could have the ammunition to. No, they just weren't built that way. They didn't believe in turning family against one and other, their problems were their own and they didn't make them anyone else's Even when my fathers sister in laws during their own personal troubles would call on my ma to jump on their band wagon and bash my father and his family ma wouldn't go down that road. She just never understood how someone could bash the father of their children and try to turn a mans own children against him because of their own marital troubles even though no one could rightfully fault her if she had chosen to do that. She was old school through and through. As for my father, even after all their personal problems and his destructive ways he sincerely taught us to never strike a woman or someone you loved and that loyalty to a fault to your family and those you loved was a virtue to be admired. I can't say he lived what he believed in the early days but he truly believed what he tried to teach us. He is a real man who has always been loyal to a fault. He would kill for those he loved and would have killed anyone else for doing the things to him that he did to himself. It would take him many, many years but he would eventually learn to love the one person he despised most of his life, himself. He was always a do as I say not as I do kind of guy. He like my ma came from a large family and never had a loving relationship with his own mother but always made sure over the years to remind us to have a loving one with our own. One time my father told me that after some reflection he realized that they got married not so much out of love but in part because they came from like families. Both needed someone to get through life with and both could drink with the best of them. Drinking was a large part of their marriage and would for many years become a large part of my own life. I have always had great love for both of them but the more we talk have learned to have great respect for both of them. I realize it is as a direct result of who they are that I have been able to survive life's often treacherous waters.
Every year I try to give them something nice and pay at least a few bills for them. The greatest gift is to see the smile on their faces when they get their gifts. Every year they never expect anything because they have never been the expecting type of people. But nothing can replace their smiles when they get gifts. I don't give because I expect only because I love them so much and want to make life a little easier. I am not rich but know I don't need to blow money on crap when I can use it on my family. When I come home we go out and eat all the time because I know they can't always do it. I am blessed I can do it. I am blessed I can help my daughter when she needs and give my brother some of life's necessities and few few luxuries he cannot himself afford. I am blessed I can pick up a few bills for my parents so they have a little extra cash on hand at months end when bills come due. I am blessed I can make my father smile at Christmas Eve brunch in a fine dining restaurant that he is not accustomed to going to. I am blessed I can find a special gift that I know will mean something special to my sister in her life.
Yesterday my father thanked me for everything that I did for my family but I didn't think I did that much. I do what I believe is necessary as a son and because I want to do it for those that I love. I responded to him that I feel fortunate to be able to do the little that I can and that I will do more as time goes by. He responded it didn't have to do with money or things but simply with the fact that I was there with them. That to him meant more than anything else could. It took me all I could do to not tear up when he said that. The simple fact that he knows how much I love them is all that matters to me. My brother being a little more comfortable in life or my daughter getting something she really wanted but couldn't afford or knowing my sister was able to be with her Marine son on Christmas is what means something to me. My father smiling at brunch talking about how grateful he is to be with his sons. Me and ma laughing our heads off at dinner Christmas day at the only place she wanted to go, the neighborhood diner. Packing up her leftovers myself and making sure she gets her coffee, not in a ceramic cup but instead in a paper cup the way she likes it and then walking her home through the neighborhood. Or making sure my father gets on the train home safely after a long and always welcomed walk and talk through the city. That's what I'm grateful for, not just this Christmas day but everyday. It's like ma said, through all the hard times God took care of us and it all turned out okay. It only gets better from here. I made it through a lot of bad episodes in life to get here and I wouldn't change a thing.
Just as I was nearing the end in this spilling of my guts the phone rang. It was my cousin, my fathers recently deceased brother's daughter. I was fortunate to be able to get home when my uncle her father was dying last year and spend several days with him at the hospital. We were close but had bad disagreements a few years prior. But I was able to be there with him at the end. She called to wish me Merry Christmas and hoped we could get together while I was in town. She is older than I and I never really knew her well until the past few years though she and my sister were very close. She thanked me for bringing out my uncle another of my fathers elderly brothers to see her and her husband when she was in Southern California recently. She commented on how she wasn't going to call me when she was in California even though she truly wanted to see our uncle as it was so last minute but her husband convinced her to at least try. She did call and it took no time for me to decide how important it was for both her and my uncle to make sure they met up. I hung up with her, called my uncle then immediately called her back and the next morning we were all sitting down for lunch on the beach. They needed to put closure on his death and achieved just that. She said that she always hears about people and loyalty to family but truly witnessed in me. I responded I did what I believe is my duty to my family nothing exceptional, she begged to differ, I graciously accepted her love and thanks.
My family for better or worse is who made me, they are what makes me. Those few I have in my life today are my family whether it be by blood or choice. Family is family and loyalty to a fault to those for me is the only way. I have survived in life and made it because of those things they taught me and didn't even know they did. Mine might not be the traditional Christmas story but nothing in my life has ever been on a direct path so I'll gladly take my story and love it. It took us a lot to get here but I'm ever so grateful for it.