Five days before Christmas, my boyfriend finally gives his wish list. I overhear him tell his middle daughter that the batteries he wants for his power tools are not the big chunky ones, but the flat compact ones. I bought him the wrong batteries. My eyes well up with tears.
“What’s wrong?” my boyfriend asks.
“I hate Christmas,” I mutter. “I never buy you the right thing and then I always feel bad. Maybe you should leave me home this year and go shopping with your daughter. I just don’t think I can handle it. I’ve been under so much stress. I nearly lost it with the Wal-Mart clerk on the phone when she couldn’t find my daughter’s bike my mother ordered on behalf of my sister.” I wiped the tears from my cheeks with the back of my hand.
“You’re a mess,” my boyfriend says.
I move closer for a hug. He pulls me away and gently says, “Maybe you should stay home if you’re going to have a meltdown.”
I think about sitting at home, alone, except for the dog and then I think again. “Do you want me to come?”
He hesitates before saying, “Yes, but not if you’re going to fall apart.”
I promise I’ll give it a try to keep it together.
We drive to the first store on the shopping list. In the parking lot, I apologize to my boyfriend’s daughter. “The holidays are hard for me,” I say. “I spent the last 25 years in a family where it mattered more about how much you gave and what you gave then the fact that you had a family to give it to. I just can’t measure up and it always tears me apart.”
“You weren’t this bad last year,” my boyfriend says.
I nod. I wasn’t this bad. I was worse. But he didn’t know because I was paying for counseling and I still had friends I could confide in. This year I was taking my daughter to counseling and I had no friends other than my boyfriend’s friends who I could not share anything with unless I wanted it to get back to him. “You helped me through it last year,” I say.
As we stroll across the parking lot, my boyfriend reaches for my hand. I walk beside him and he swings our arms back and forth in an exaggerated arc until I smile from his silliness. Inside the bright store, we follow his daughter down the aisles until we reach our destination in the bedding department.
I think about the first time I wanted to buy my boyfriend a gift. It was a year before we started dating. It was a bat for softball but he wouldn’t accept anything from me because I was married.
“I want to buy you a bat,” I say.
“All the retailers who sell senior softball bats are online. It won’t get here before Christmas.”
“That’s why I wanted your list before Thanksgiving. I gave you mine in October. You’ve had three months to shop. I have only five days.” The tears threaten to overwhelm me again.
This time my boyfriend squeezes my hand and says, “Don’t worry about the gift. Christmas is about us.”
For the first time, I realize I’m with a man who doesn’t care that I can’t afford the dozens of gifts everyone wants. He’s just happy to be celebrating the holidays with me for the second year in a row. He looks forward to seeing me every night when I come home even though I can’t pay all the bills. He tolerates listening to me vent even when I’m an emotional volcano. And he works with me as I struggle through the first year after my divorce. He waits for me to untangle the knots I’ve made of my life, even when his patience runs thin and his heart strains to love me. The more I show him who I am, the less afraid I become.
And that’s the true spirit of Christmas.