Christmas Presence

“He had eaten most, talked most and laughed most. But now he simply was not there at all!”

— J.R.R. Tolkien, “The Hobbit”

 

Every year, my sisters and I knew that to wake up Christmas, we had to wake up Grandma Elsie.

We planned it with the skill of a military operation. I would stay awake through the night on Christmas Eve, softly singing carols to myself in order to stay awake. At 6 a.m. – the earliest time we were allowed up, amidst warnings that would chill the blood of Jacob Marley – I would wake Leslie. She would wake Carey. And together, we would let our rambunctious dog into the basement where Grandma slept, so that she could make coffee and trade silly songs with us while waiting for the caffeinated odor to rouse Mom and Dad.

It was her English-accented voice that taught us the words to “Here We Come A-Wassailing.” It was her presents that always included a package of miniature chocolate Santas. She was often the one who invited us to Christmas Eve services and always the one who would have a margarita with Christmas Eve dinner at the Armadillo, our standby restaurant on Dec. 24th for over 30 years.

And this year, it’s her absence that’s felt most around the Christmas tree.

It’s our first Christmas without Grandma. It still feels strange to say or write it. It felt strange back on Thanksgiving, when my Dad’s voice quavered slightly as he remembered her while saying grace. It was an occasion with good food, good family and lots of squirming toddlers – just the sort of environment she loved most.

The place she would once have been at the heart of.

They say the holidays can be the hardest time. I had no idea how true that was until now. We’d had an empty place at the table before – once, when my new job in Kansas had me working on the night of the holiday, and a few times since after Leslie moved to Washington and couldn’t join us as frequently.

But those were small things by comparison, shadows that could be put to flight if needed. All of us knew that, if it were necessary to have the whole crew at the old house, we would find a way there.

Not so easy this time.

It may be most powerful now because of the ritual. Christmas is the time when traditions wake and walk again, when we do things the way we’ve done them for years upon years. Favorite movies, favorite meals, favorite memories. The weight of that habit can become mighty, as Heather and I discovered our first Christmas, when we debated whether stockings were emptied before presents or afterward. (I still think I was right.)

But when the time comes to walk that ages-old dance again, there’s suddenly a step missing. A skip in the music.

And it makes the absence, the presence, more noticeable than ever.

Perhaps that’s as it should be. I’ve always had a disdain for “getting over it” or “moving on.” Memories should remain, just as love remains. How horrible to even contemplate forgetting, how hideous the thought of putting that memory away, like an unneeded ornament in a taped-up cardboard box.

But memory doesn’t have to be joyless, either.

Grandma loved this time of year. She may have had mixed feelings about the snow – or even spectacularly unmixed feelings – but she never failed to take joy in the lights, the music and especially the gathered family. She would not have wanted that joy to end, nor should it.

Not even when it needs to live side-by-side with grief for a while.

It’s OK to cry. It’s OK to remember.

But it’s also OK to celebrate.

And so, as we scramble to gather presents, I’ll also stop to mind a Christmas presence. Maybe even sing an off-kilter carol or two.

I’ll wake up her memory yet again.

And with it, wake up Christmas one more time.

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Beginning to See the Light

For the third time in four nights, Missy and I hit the road. And as we drove, the nightly refrain again rang out.

“Look a’ that!” Missy’s finger shot out to indicate a brilliantly decorated home and yard, accented by an inflated sleigh with reindeer.

“Look a’ that!” A roof edge outlined in blue-white LEDs, looking as though it had been claimed by stained-glass icicles.

“Look a’ that!” Electric candles in the windows, the only soft glow the house had.

“Look a’that! Look a’that! Lookit!”

By the end of the trip, Missy’s busy finger was still requesting new avenues to explore, pointing out the signs of lit homes and neighborhoods all the way back to the house. At her direction, we could have gone for hours longer, then likely started again.

“Want to do this again?” I asked as we pulled back into the driveway.’

Vigorous nodding. “Yeah!”

I couldn’t blame her. After all, my inner Missy was doing exactly the same thing.

There are a few things that really mark the start of the Christmas season to me. There’s the annual struggle to find and erect the Christmas tree, festooning the branches with every long-held decoration we own, right down to the bodiless head of Holly Hobbie. (LONG story.) There’s the comforting strains of John Denver and the Muppets, singing in the season as only they can. (After all these years, I still automatically respond to “Five … gold-en … rings!” with “Ba-dum, bum, bum!”) And yes, there’s the well-worn tapes and discs bearing tales of Scrooges and Grinches and sad-looking Christmas trees that only need a little love.

But the essential punctuation for me has always been the lights.

My wife Heather’s the same way. We react to Christmas lights the way a groundhog reacts to its shadow, ready to add six more weeks to the season just so we can see it all. We spent many a date night noting and categorizing the displays we’d pass, including:

* The Landing Strip: A roof perfectly outlined in a single color, with no other decoration, seeming to call out to passing aircraft, sleighs or UFOs.

* The American Epileptic Association Award: A home with so many blinking and flashing lights that it could have been level 37 of an especially busy video game.

* Disneyland: The home and yard that had been completely taken over by lights, figurines and licensed characters, cramming in five Santas, two Nativities, the whole Mickey Mouse family and a utility bill that could have reset the national debt.

* Oh, Really?: These would be the well-intentioned ones that somehow didn’t come off quite right, like the automatic Santa Claus in one home that bobbed back and forth, looking oddly like he was pounding on the window, trying to escape.

After we became guardians to Missy, my wife’s developmentally disabled aunt, it cranked up the Light Run by a few notches. No surprise, really, because Missy is a little like a home at Christmastime herself.

No, I don’t mean that she comes with running lights and glowing reindeer (though she might find that really cool, come to think of it). But she often meets the world at one of two extremes. Sometimes silent, her expression hidden, taking in the places and people around her. Or else with her feelings completely on her sleeve, cheering at a bite of pie, beaming at a newly-met passerby, calling out when she wants to go somewhere (or even more loudly when she doesn’t).

All that’s missing is Clark W. Griswold getting humorously electrocuted in the background.

So these last few years, I’ve watched both the neighbor lights and the “Missy lights.” Both seem to transform the world around them with just a little effort. And in a landscape of darkened homes, that effort stands out all the more brightly.

Maybe there’s some hope there for all of us.

Meanwhile, it’s time to hit the road. Somewhere out there is a rainbow-colored Rudolph with our name on it. Maybe even literally.

“Look ‘a that!”

I can’t wait.

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I Didn’t Mean To … And I Love It

Three things in life have the gift of utter invisibility: the second half of a pair of socks, the car keys when you’re 20 minutes late, and the last box of Christmas tree ornaments.

“Not in the garage … not in the basement … not in the closet … wait, here’s some wrapped newspaper … no, those are old dishes …”

I don’t know about peace on Earth, but I was ready to give last year’s Scott Rochat a piece of my mind. Where were the stupid things?

One more try in the basement. Back straining, I pulled out old boxes of newspaper clippings … old suitcases … an old plastic tub full of …

Oh!

“Honey?” I called to Heather as I brought my discovery upstairs. “Take a look at this.”

The grungy plastic tub didn’t hold any Christmas ornaments. But it did hold an album of wedding pictures. More specifically, wedding pictures of Heather’s grandparents, in a worn but glorious black and white. Further down were more discoveries: a book of tales from India lavishly illustrated by Heather’s great uncle, old pictures of our ward Missy as a baby, even a picture of Heather and Missy as girls together, hair shining in the light.

“That’s incredible.”

We never did find that last box of ornaments. But it no longer mattered. We’d already unwrapped the most amazing present imaginable

***

It’s odd, really, but the best discoveries are often like that. Seek and ye shall find … but not quite what you were looking for.

Ask Richard James. He was trying to find a way to make naval instruments more stable when he accidentally knocked over one of his springs – and found he’d discovered the Slinky.

Or maybe Percy Spencer, who found a melted chocolate bar in his pants, and realized it had been cooked by the microwaves of a magnetron he’d been working on.

A stove left on too long led to vulcanized rubber. A transistor grabbed by mistake helped create the first pacemaker. And we’ve all heard the story about dirty dishes and penicillin.

On and on the list goes, oddly comforting in its serendipity. It’s a reminder that even our frustrations can come back to help us and that the “right thing” may not be what we think.

Nobody’s perfect – and it turns out that’s pretty wonderful.

Granted, there are mistakes and there are mistakes. I’m pretty sure nobody’s going to give me the Nobel Prize for successfully introducing my chin to a concrete sidewalk, for example. But if we don’t fear mistakes, that’s when real learning can take place.

My brother-in-law Brad, one of life’s truly handy people, once told me and Heather that a lot of home projects were easier than they looked. “You just can’t be afraid to break anything,” he said.

Good words to remember.

***

Looking back at my own delvings and the more noteworthy discoveries above, there really does seem to be a common thread, a balance that has to be struck. You have to be willing to make the effort, without being so focused on what you should be seeing that you miss what’s there.

If I’d said “Oh, well,” and done something else, I’d have missed a treasure. But I also would have missed it if I hadn’t started to widen my search.

Instead, in a season of the unexpected, we found a welcome surprise. That’s more than worth a few missing beads and bangles. And who knows what new discoveries might lie ahead?

I might even learn about this wonderful thing called “labels.”

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A Simple Thanks

“What time will the bus get here?”

For a moment, Heather didn’t know what to say.

Missy, our developmentally disabled ward, spends five mornings a week waiting for her “bus,” the van that takes her to her day program. She’s watched eagerly, fumed impatiently, even rearranged the contents of her lunch box a dozen times to pass the minutes.

But the minutes – that was the trick. In three and a half years of living with Missy, we had never heard her refer directly to “time.”

A simple time. Small in moments. But not in meaning.

Faced with that, what else can you do but say “thank you?”

And note the time, of course.

==

When you think about it, Thanksgiving is an odd sort of holiday.

Most holidays, aside from deliberately silly ones such as Talk Like a Pirate Day, commemorate something grand or important. They mark the birth of religions, or the founding of nations, or the labors of parents, workers, and soldiers. They underline famous names and sometimes infamous ones. (Right, Mr. Fawkes?)

And then there’s the fourth Thursday of November.

The first Thanksgiving — the one mythologized with construction-paper hats across the country, anyway — didn’t mark the arrival of the Pilgrims into a new land or the first meeting between natives and newcomers. It celebrated simple survival. Not so simple at that, either. Half of the original Plymouth colonists died in the first year, many in the first three months.

After a start like that, a good crop and helpful neighbors were things to be thankful for, indeed. Mind you, I won’t put on rose-colored glasses; I think we all know how quickly those neighborly relations turned sour. But I won’t ignore the moment, either.

And if the moment then is foggy and half-legend, the moment now is more like Missy’s grasp of time: simple in its essence, profound in its implications. An entire day, built around the words “thank you.”

That’s something we don’t always do so well, anymore.

Oh, we know the words. We learned them all as children. But “please” has become an intensifier for the resigned and the upset(“Will you please stop feeding your peas to the dog?”), while “you’re welcome” has vanished almost entirely in the wake of “no problem.” And “thank you?” That’s something we toss off over the shoulder, a social nicety less about gratitude and more about saying “OK, you did it, that’s great, can we go?”

Thanksgiving makes us take that at a slower pace. It gives us time to think about those two words and what we mean by them – well, in between the Lions and the Cowboys games, anyway.

It’s about as simple as you get. And maybe that’s why it’s slowly fading out.

It’s not a fair contest, really. Christmas has the glamour and the music and the gifts. Halloween has wild costumes and abundant chocolate. The most elaborate thing that Thanksgiving has is the food, and that’s easily subsumed by its tinsel-wrapped neighbor.

And so a time for family and gratitude becomes Black Friday Eve.

Don’t get me wrong. I’ve worked on Thanksgiving myself. I know the attitude matters more than the day it’s celebrated on.

But it’s easy to lose the attitude, easy to get caught up in the stress and strain of the moment. Easy to just be too tired, to not have time.

Simple things break easily.

But it doesn’t take much to make the fragile powerful. It doesn’t need turkey or stuffing or a big dining table. All it needs is a few minutes to see the world instead of just passing through it. We’ll see soon enough how much we owe to how many.

And maybe we can even hope for new gratitudes to come.

==

Soon, Missy will watch the window again as the minutes roll by. Her minutes.

It’s only one moment. But it adds to so many that have made this year so special. And like the facets of a crystal, all these small, brief moments add up to something beautiful.

That can’t be ignored. And it won’t be.

Take the time. Always. A simple thought, for a small moment.

Thank you.

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Crash Landing

Before Disney and the heirs of Jim Henson sic an army of googly-eyed lawyers on me, I need to be clear about one thing. Cookie Monster did not eat my computer. But his disco past has a lot to answer for.

Yes, you read that right. And no, I have not been eating any brownies of questionable origin.

Like many celebrities, the Muppets cut a disco album in the ’70s. Two disco albums, in fact, which should demonstrate just how close to Armageddon the world was teetering in those days. And in the second album, with the shocking title of“Sesame Disco!”, the Big Blue One himself took the mic for the most heart-rending disco ballad since “Disco Duck.”

I speak, of course, of the immortal “Me Lost Me Cookie at the Disco.”

There are portions of one’s childhood that remain unforgettable. And if we ever perfect mechanical telepathy, scientists will discover that entire sectors of my brain are permanently tattooed with a thumping rhythm and the words “Me lost me cookie at the DIS-co! Me lost me cookie in the BOO-GIE MU-SIC!” So naturally, as an adult, I used the vast and awesome power of the Internet to inflict this on others.

My wife Heather nearly lost her own cookies laughing. It became a running family joke, something to dial up when nothing of less epic silliness would do. Which made it inevitable, of course, that we would introduce it to Missy.

At this point, there are three important things to understand about our developmentally disabled ward. Missy loves the Muppets. Missy also loves disco.

But Missy does not necessarily love the Muppets singing disco.

And so, when I mixed it into an evening YouTube session, Missy giggled. Then smiled. Then decided the joke had gone on long enough and punched the power button.

Now, even in these permissive modern times, there are still a few things you just don’t do. You don’t pull a car key out of the ignition at 80 mph. You don’t wear black and silver at a Broncos rally. And you really don’t turn off a computer in mid-stream.

“Wait!”

Too late.

When I brought everything back up, my word-processing files were among the walking wounded. About half of them had to be saved into a new format, document by painstaking document, in order to be usable at all.

I have seen many a parent recite under their breath “I love my child … I love my child … I love my child.” I think I’m beginning to understand.

But here’s the funny thing. It was worth it.

It was worth it because of the time spent laughing with Missy, however wrong a turn it may have taken.

It was worth it because of the enforced trip down memory lane. As I patched and ported my files, I discovered columns I’d forgotten I’d written, scripts I hadn’t performed in years, even parodies that made me smile one more time.

Most of all, it was worth it for the chance to underscore, without mortal injury, two fundamental truths of parenting: that accidents happen, and that even when they do, your people are still more important than your things.

Hug, forgive and learn.

I think if more of us remembered that, this would be a nicer world.

There’s still a few repairs to make. But it’ll be OK. Both the family and the machine will survive to make more memories, even if it occasionally takes a minor crisis to do so.

Sometimes, that’s just the way the Cookie Monster crumbles.

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The Smallest Flame

The coldest night I remember came a few years ago, during an outdoor candlelight vigil.

The outer desolation matched the inner feeling. It was about one degree at best, with the wind driving the temperature far, far lower. The sort of night when reporters carry pencils, so that frozen ink won’t stand in the way of a story. The sort of night where the air seems to turn to blue fire on every exposed piece of skin and no one, man or beast, ventures outside unless they had to.

This crowd had to.

There had been a death, of course. One of those car accidents that claims someone far too young far too soon. Now friends and family had gathered on almost no notice to light their small piece of fire and share one more memory, standing together shoulder to shoulder.

Someone started to sing familiar words.

Silent night, holy night,

All is calm, all is bright …

The melody, still soft, gained strength as others joined in.

Round yon virgin, mother and child,
Holy infant so tender and mild …

And then, united in a whisper-strong moment.

Sleep in heavenly peace,

Sleep in heavenly peace.

And for a moment, the cold didn’t matter at all.

***

I’ve always liked winter the best of any season. There are the occasions for family, of course:  the visits for Thanksgiving, the calls at Christmas, the chance to see and joke and marvel at how “She can’t be starting middle school now! Really?” Add in the lights and decorations, the music, and the snow that can transform an entire landscape — when it doesn’t rearrange your spinal column trying to shovel it — and you have a near-perfect team.

But I have to confess, it’s only recently that I’ve come to appreciate the cold.

Cold is the feared henchman of the winter season: silent, quick, often deadly. It lays siege to you in bed, dogs your steps when you venture outside, rides on a “lazy wind” and cuts straight through you. It doesn’t tolerate the ill-prepared  or the unlucky.

In my mind, it’s always been easier to fight than the broiling heat and humidity of summer since, as I’ve often joked, “You can always put one more layer on, but there are only so many they let you take off before calling the cops.” But that’s like saying it’s easier for a high school football team to play the Detroit Lions than the Denver Broncos — technically true, but you’re still in for a rough time.

I’ve always accepted it as a necessary part of a beautiful season. But there’s a hidden quality that makes it powerful, one glimpsed only in moments.

Cold, like crisis, unites.

Maybe it would be more accurate to say that it amplifies our best and our worst. We’ve all driven the major roads and seen the anger, impatience and desperation that result from even an inch of snow on the ground. But we’ve seen the better, too. This is the time for the volunteers that search the streets and staff the warming centers for those in need, for neighbors who shovel out neighbors, for crowds that stand just a little closer together to keep warmth from escaping.

Cold unites. It has to. Because no one can stand against it alone.

Severe need brings us together, whether it’s a 30 mph wind of solid ice or an act of unspeakable violence on a beautiful September morning. Maybe it shouldn’t take that much. Maybe we should know better how to join as the family we are, without the crushing power of mutual need.

For now, we are as we are. But winter’s chill serves as an annual reminder than we can be something more.

Maybe it’s not much. Just a candle against the dark. But candles can be enough, when held together. Enough for long enough.

The air is again blue fire as I write this. A warning, and a reminder.

Let there be candlelight.

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A Hitch in Time

Phil Connors, the fictional weatherman, once lived Feb. 2 over and over. No matter what he said or did, he’d wake up in the morning to find it was Groundhog Day all over again.

What an amateur.

If Phil popped by Casa Rochat these days, he’d find more time loops than an episode of “Dr. Who.” Lately, it seems like everyone has their personal piece of calendar turf that just refuses to go away.

For the dogs, of course, it’s the daylight savings business. Like most canines, Duchess the Wonder Dog and Big Blake aren’t too sure about this whole “Spring Forward, Fall Back” business – especially when it messes with their feeding time. So while I’m rejoicing at the return of a stolen hour of sleep, they’re filling 30 minutes of it with big eyes and urgent tails, wordlessly asking “Don’t we get Food Time yet?”

For Missy, our developmentally disabled relative, it’s Halloween that’s getting recycled. Which is a novelty, really. She’s often gotten locked onto Christmas, ready to play carols on the car stereo at top volume until the back-to-school sales hit. But Halloween used to be a holiday she preferred to avoid – at least, until she made an inordinately successful re-entry into the Trick-or-Treat field this year with the world’s coolest Harry Potter costume. Now, she parades her chocolate-covered winnings for all to see, wanting to know why we can’t grab the glasses and wand and go out for another candy run.

And then there’s the larger world. The one that sometimes seems stuck on Nov.4.

I don’t just mean the phone callers, though that has been a little exasperating. Life in a swing state as it approaches Election Day tends to be filled with polls and surveys, to the point where it seems more worthwhile to unplug the phone, ask friends to text or email, and spend the evening watching an ad-free DVD. But once The Day has gone by, the phone usually becomes safe again – or so I thought until it rang at 9 p.m. on Wednesday.

“I represent an independent market research firm …” Click.

But it’s more than that, really. If you take a look around the press or Facebook, it’s obvious that for many, the election still isn’t over. The fight goes on, My Side and Thy Side, regardless of where the ballots fell or who now occupies the big desk with the box of American flag pins.

I’m not always sure how I feel about that.

On the one hand, I can’t argue with the passion. There once was a time when Americans seemed locked in political apathy. Not anymore. Social media especially seems to enable the launch of a dozen crusades a day, all of them armed with zeal, determination and catchy quotes of dubious origin. Politics needs people who care, and we have no shortage of that these days.

But so often, it feels like an ideological version of the Indy 500. Lots of energy, dedicated to covering the same ground over and over again, without making any real progress.

Please don’t misunderstand. I do care. I’ve got my own candidates and causes that I consider vital, my own list of names that I consider to be utter disasters. I’ve got my own hopes and worries based on the way the ballots came down.

But come down they did. And now we have to find a way forward from there.

Together.

I suspect that the biggest issue for most voters this year was not the economy or terrorism, but simple fatigue. Most of us, I think, are tired of seeing a government whose members dig in their heels and go to war with each other at any excuse or none.

There are a lot of reasons, some of which need serious attention. But the simplest thing that most of us can do is set the example we want to see. We need to still care, to still strive – but without hating our neighbors who have cares of their own. Don’t surrender to evil – but don’t be quick to interpret disagreement as evil, either.

It is not easy. It requires judgment, kindness, endurance and understanding. But if we can do it at a ground level, maybe we can drag Washington along with us – or at least make its bickering irrelevant while we all work together to do what needs doing.

We don’t need to agree. But we do need to live with each other, work with each other, learn from each other. That’s how it’s supposed to work.

And maybe, if we’re lucky, we’ll find an extra Trick-or-Treat bag along the way.

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Stage Left

There’s a doorknob on my desk from a troupe that ceased to be.

The Doorknob Award usually garners a few questions when people notice it. The simple answer is that it’s a prize given for overcoming technical difficulties, where the set broke down but the actor didn’t. I got it for navigating a grease-covered stage as the moustache-twirling villain in a melodrama, after the audience got a bit too enthusiastic about throwing popcorn.

It’s one of my favorite things that I ever brought home from the Community Theatre of Emporia. And now it has to be a lasting memory.

This week, I found out the CTE is no more.

I’ve never lost a theatre company before. I never really believed one could. Like most disasters, it’s a possibility you can be intellectually aware of without realizing it can happen to you. It seems even less likely when the company has a long run, 34 years in the case of the CTE.

But sometimes, in spite of everything, the show really doesn’t go on.

There were a lot of reasons. There always are. The company had to move out of its base in the Emporia Arts Council about the time I moved out of Kansas, and never really found another permanent home. Toward the end, there was never quite enough money and never quite enough hands on deck, a familiar refrain to many actors and producers. It’s always been easier to get people to see a show than to perform in one, and in this over-busy day and age, even getting them to be an audience takes a lot of work.

Funny. So many times it never felt like work. Not really.

I think many of us have a space like that. The home away from home, the place you come because you want to, not because you have to. And whether it’s a church, or a pub, or a reading group, or a stage – or even an online community – it comes to feel like an extension of your own family, a place where, as the song goes, everybody knows your name.

Losing a place like that can feel like a death. When the bookstore closes or the website goes away or the mall gets bulldozed, it leaves behind questions, confusion and uncertainty about the future. It’s easy to rehash the deed and wonder if anything could have changed it, to get angry or depressed or numb.

For an actor, the poignancy has a jagged edge. After all, we create dreams. We turn sweat and imagination into worlds that never were. To be reminded that the magic has limits, that all our powers of sub-creation still have to bow to the world outside the stage door – it’s humbling. And more than a little frightening.

Like many a mourner, it would be too easy for me to get lost in grief. So instead, I’ll raise my virtual glass to stir the echoes, strengthen the memories, and wake up the ghosts.

Here’s to the CTE.

Here’s to the crew that performed outdoor Shakespeare in 95 degree heat and 95 percent humidity, bringing the same passion whether the audience held 100 people or three.

Here’s to the company that made sets fall apart on command and who improvised fast when they fell apart without one.

Here’s to my role as an actor literally playing God in “J.B.,” complete with a beard that belonged on a Pearl Street busker.

Here’s to blunted swords and guns with blanks, to robber bridegrooms and roaring Roosevelts, to Christmases on the road with “Politically Correct Bedtime Stories.”

And yes, here’s to popcorn-covered stages so slick you could skate on them.

Here’s to you, my friends and family. May our creation rest in peace and live in memory.

And someday, like a stage-door ghost, may it rise and walk again.

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Reaching for Magic

It didn’t come with a letter to Hogwarts. But that was about the only thing missing from the Halloween costume on the kitchen table.

“I have a wand, too,” Missy told Heather. Indeed she did, along with the glasses, robe and tie needed to transform our small, slight, rumple-haired ward into the small, slight rumple-haired Harry Potter. Add in a lightning scar from Heather’s makeup kit – assuming Missy didn’t squirm and Disapparate out of reach – and the look of her favorite bedtime character would be complete.

No doubt about it. This was going to be cool.

In matters of trick-or-treat season, I usually have more enthusiasm than ability. This is despite the excellent foundation laid by my Mom, who in my grade-school years, came up with costume after costume that fit both my eager imagination and the Halloween Commandments.

1) Thou shalt be able to fit a coat over it.

2) Thou shalt be able to fit a doorway around it.

Violating these rules could lead to tragedy, as my wife Heather discovered one year, when her camera costume was too wide for her to enter the Twin Peaks Mall easily. I understand the lack of candy access has scarred her memories to this day – or at least heightened her sense of melodrama.

But within those rules, almost anything was possible. And so, I cheerfully ventured forth as a bowler-hatted ghost, or a crackling scarecrow, or Robin Hood with a homemade bow (thanks, Dad) ready for chocolate-covered glory in the cold October air.

And then I grew up and mostly yielded the stage to others. Time was short and my sewing ability even shorter. (All right, nonexistent.) A third commandment magically appeared on the list:

3) Thou shalt be able to readily assemble thy costume on Oct. 30, after speaking the ritual incantation “How did Halloween come so early this year?”

Sometimes I still had a fun and easy idea, like the year I showed up to work as an IRS agent with a briefcase reading “I’M NOT DEATH – I’M THE OTHER ONE.” But the rest of the time, costumes became something for plays. Or, more often, for other people.

It happens to most of us, I think. Not enough time. Not enough energy. A little too much self-consciousness.

So we tell ourselves, anyway, and not just on Halloween. And so costumes don’t get assembled, books don’t get written, chances don’t get taken. It’s easy. Even convincing.

And often, about as transparent as a Halloween ghost.

There are always limits. Time, money, ability. But within those, amazing things can still be possible. Or at least fun ones.

But first, the dream has to be more important than the limits.

That’s where I think parents have an advantage. Building a costume for yourself might seem silly or self-indulgent. But when it’s your child getting ready for a party or for the chocolate patrol? No contest. You do what you need to do.

Maybe it’s easier to set aside those doubts when it involves someone else. Maybe self-consciousness grows weaker when the moment is no longer just about the self.

Maybe, just maybe, dreams grow more potent when shared.

It’s a magic worth trying. And it doesn’t even require a holly wand or a Hogwarts education. Just a little bit of caring about the things and people that matter.

That’s why Missy Potter has a wand today.

And it’s why we’re all conjuring up more fun than we could have imagined.

 

 

 

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To Say the Least

“Ma shoe.”

Missy had just finished her bath and gotten into pajamas. She pointed a small finger at her blue sneakers as she had done on many nights, sometimes just to point out they were there, sometimes to ask to put them on or get them out of the way.

“Ma shoe.”

Pause.

“Ma tennis shoe.”

I blinked.

OK. That was new.

In fact, for Missy, that was practically grand oratory.

If you’ve read this column regularly, you’ve probably started to get a feel for Missy, my wife Heather’s developmentally disabled aunt. She is, to say the least, a lady of personality, capable of being roused to high excitement at the prospect of bowling or dancing or even having a bite of peanut butter pie.

But she’s not a woman of many words. Not normally, anyway. People who meet Missy for the first time are sometimes surprised that she speaks at all; those that hang around her longer get used to hearing some of her more common phrases such as “I wanna eat the food” or “I wan’ my book” – the latter of which can mean “book” or “purse.” Many times, her exact meaning has to be decoded from her face, her gestures and a carefully chosen vocabulary.

But lately, that vocabulary seems to be growing.

After a weekly trip to the therapy pool, Missy proudly told Heather that she had been “swimming.”

My own title, which has mostly been “He” or “Frank” (her father’s name) for three years is now sometimes “Scott.” Or even “Dad,” to my startled surprise.

And when our biggest dog started pestering her for food, Missy doubled us all over with laughter with a hearty “Gonamit, Blake!”

A well-chosen word can do that. And Missy has more choices than she used to.

That’s heartening for a lot of reasons.

We’ve never been quite sure what goes on inside Missy’s mind. The incident that caused her brain damage happened in infancy, and even now, I often describe her as “sometimes 4, sometimes 14 and sometimes 40,” based on the various ways she interacts with the world. Her occasional words are a part of that, sometimes reflexive, sometimes hinting at much more going on behind those mischievous green eyes.

In electronics terms, it’s a question of whether the computer itself is damaged – or just the printer and monitor. How much does she understand? How often does she know exactly what’s going on, without being able to express it?

I’ve often suspected the latter, especially since in moments of high excitement, she seems to bypass whatever’s blocking her communication and express herself. (Her question of “Where’s Gandalf?” during a tense moment in “The Hobbit” is now one of our most retold examples.) Every time she adds another word or phrase, another building block, she reinforces that.

More than that. She reinforces my own hope. Missy and I are the same age – so if she can keep learning and growing, so can I.

So can any of us.

Did I say Missy’s words could be reflexive sometimes? Thinking back, that’s true of most of us. We get locked into patterns of speech, of behavior, of life. After a while, it’s easy to stop noticing our surroundings and just fly on autopilot.

Shaking that up can be the healthiest thing in the world. It might be a big trip across the country or just walking instead of driving through the neighborhood. Anything that makes you put on new eyes.

Heather’s joked that in Missy’s case, she suddenly found herself with two guardians who wouldn’t shut up. There may be some truth to that. Certainly, we’ve often talked to her, with her and around her. Maybe her own words started to come in self-defense.

Whatever the reason, it’s happening. And it’s exciting, as new lessons often are. I can’t wait to see what the next bend in the road will reveal.

Wherever it leads, Missy has her shoes ready.

Her tennis shoes.

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