Three Christmases

Christmas Past 

After my sons’ mother and I separated, she became a Jevohah’s Witness, which meant it would be entirely up to me to celebrate all future birthdays and Christmases with them. That first Christmas I took my boys to my hometown of Ironwood, Michigan in the Upper Peninsula. My plan was to take them skiing for the first time.

Five months had passed since the separation. I was living with a friend from graduate school who generously allowed me to have the second floor of his house. There was a room for me and a room for my boys when they visited. Somehow, I had managed to make it through the fall teaching semester and to suppress my turbulent feelings in order to maintain my visitation schedule with my sons. Yet, I was putting one foot in front of the other: I was still sad, still angry, still smoking to deal with stress.

That Christmas I was trying to figure out if I could pick up the slack. For 10 years leading up to the separation, I had taken a more backseat role when it came to planning for the boys’ birthdays and holidays. I was stilled involved, but their mother took more initiative when it came to these matters. Now, because she was converting to her boyfriend’s religion, there would be a void that I needed to fill. Birthday celebrations would be no problem. I was happy to take the boys out to dinner and purchase a big birthday item for them. Christmases were, however, another matter.

First, I am not religious. Therefore, I don’t celebrate Christmas for religious reasons. Second, I think that Christmas can be a frenzy of consumerism. And, as a single-father making child support payments and trying to maintain his own household on a fixed-term lecturer’s salary without any government assistance, times were tight. Yet, for some reason, the idea of keeping Christmas continuity for boys became a spur for me, so I accepted the holiday, despite my skepticism, and determined how I would make it meaningful for them.

For one week, the boys and I stayed with my father. It was entirely up to me feed, manage, and entertain them. Before, their mother would handle those tasks while we vacationed, so the enormity of parenting that trip by myself was a little challenging—but my boys were good. They were never in daycare, so when they were little, I would work a full day, and then come home and watch them while their mother went to work. That’s not how most people want to spend their 20s, but I believe that this strengthened my abilities as a parent and my bond with my boys. Thankfully, my boys were patient with me during that trip as I was healing my frayed psyche and trying to come to terms with the new normal.

I spent a lot of quality time with my boys that first Christmas. We went skiing, snowtubing, and watched movies. At the end of the trip, I dropped them off at their mom’s place, and made the 30-minute drive to my home in the neighboring state. 

My roommate was not home, so the place was quiet and dark. Outside the mounds of snow blanketed the ground and the wind roared around the empty house. 

Christmas Present

This year winter break at Qatar University (QU) was scheduled earlier than my first year of employment here, so Western expats, like me, are able to celebrate both Christmas and New Year’s. Last year, I worked both days, which was really not a big deal. I enjoyed the reprieve from the mania of the December holidays going on back in the States.

As soon as final grades were posted, many of my colleagues left the country, either flying back home to celebrate the holidays or traveling to neighboring countries to enjoy a much-needed vacation. Me? I am staying put in Doha, awaiting the arrival of my sons.

My boys fly from La Crosse, Wisconsin on December 23, and weather and flight connections permitting, they are scheduled to arrive on December 25 at 00:05, five minutes into the start of Christmas Day in Qatar. They will stay with me for two weeks.

People at work ask me my plans for the break, and I tell them my boys are coming to Qatar. Oh, you have boys? Yep. How old are they? 19 and 17. Oh, they are grown! That should be fun. It should be. 

There is no artificial Christmas tree waiting at my apartment for my boys. No presents under the tree. No Christmas stocking hanging over the fire place or on the wall. Those days are halas, or finished! All the Christmas funds went towards the roundtrip plane tickets for boys and towards the padding in my bank account to cover all their expenses for the next two weeks.

This month, I was able to move into a bigger apartment so that I would have the space for them to sleep comfortably in a larger guest room, so that I could have a second couch in the living room in order for them to sprawl out while we watch movies or play games, so that I could fit my dining room table in an actual dining room in order for us to eat meals together—although we’ll probably eat a majority of our meals sitting on the couch, per our routine when I was living in the States.

What will we do the two weeks that they are here? Not quite sure. I have a list of things that we can do, but it’s not like when they were little, and I made all the unilateral decisions. Now, my sons are adults. I will discuss my plans with them and get their input, like you would make plans with a peer or another adult.

That’s the issue between my boys and me now—there’s nothing saying that we have to spend Christmas, or any time of the year together, for that matter. They aren’t my dependents anymore, they aren’t my wards living with me on most weekends of the year. This year my sons were willing to come to Qatar, but next year, maybe my oldest will say that he’s saving up for a car and can’t keep his job if he just takes two weeks off from work. Maybe my youngest will say that he would like to go skiing with a girlfriend over the holidays. Sorry, Dad.

That’s ok, though. I have never been that precious about Christmas, per se. When the boys were young, all the work that went into buying and wrapping the presents was about the excitement and euphoria that unwrapping the gifts created for them. The past few Christmas when I was back in the US, I tried to get one or two big gifts for my son, things they needed, not an assortment of toys like when they were little. It was all about spending the time with them when I could and doing what I could for them within my means.

There are no Christmas rules that I need to strictly adhere to, no traditions that need following. I’ll make the holiday work for us, or not.  

In the future, Christmas for my sons and me might be getting together in another country. Maybe we’ll share an Airbnb somewhere warm with cheap airline tickets. Maybe I’ll make it back to the US and give them some cash for them to spend however they see fit, then take them out for dinner, before heading back to my hotel. Or, maybe I’ll sit on the balcony of my apartment and drink my coffee and stare at the Arabian Sea before heading to QU in order to teach class.  

Christmas Yet to Come 

Grandpa Conan, what was Christmas like when you were young?

Well, Zylan Jr., my brothers and I used to look through the JC Penny Christmas Catalog, and our mother, your Great-grandmother Minh, would buy the toys for us.

Was this Christmas catalog an app or website, like you mentioned before?

No, grandson, it wasn’t. This was before the internet. It was all paper. You would flip through it like a phonebook—

What’s a phonebook?

It was a book, again, made of paper, that listed all the phone numbers of people that lived in your town or city?

Why didn’t you have numbers listed on the internet or programmed in your phone?

Again, grandson, this was before the internet, so all of the numbers had to be printed in a book in order for people to call one another.

All those phonebooks printed on paper sound like a waste of trees. I miss trees!

I do too.

Would you call each other by telegraph?

No, we wouldn’t. Telegraphs came much early before telephone. However, we did need landlines to call one another.

Wow. That sounds ancient. How did you get your presents? 

Well, Grandma Minh would either go and buy them from the store or order them from JC Penny.

And, did you open the presents on Christmas morning, like I heard people used to do?

No, my family was impatient, so we used to always open them on Christmas Eve. That way the adults were able to sleep in the next morning while us kids could play with our presents.

Wow, Christmas sure sounded like fun. Did you ever play outside in the snow? Back when the Earth still got cold.

We did. I even took your father and your Uncle Ronan skiing one Christmas.

Really? Were they any good?

They were ok. I think they were better at shooting guns than skiing. They spent more time at the gun range than on the ski hill, which is a good thing because it prepared them for Skynet and the rise of the machines.

I like hearing about what the world was like before the terminators.

Things were much different, grandson. Hopefully, your father will come back soon from his scavenging mission, and then we can have Christmas dinner. Then you, young man, can open your special Christmas present.

Even though I know Christmas dinner is just MREs, and my present is likely a firearm, I am glad that you are teaching me about these old traditions.

Well, hopefully your Uncle Ronan will be successful with his time travel mission for John Connor. If he can destroy Skynet before it went live, then this time line will be wiped out. There will be no machine war, my body will not have been injured in a bomb blast, and my consciousness would never have been uploaded into this terminator body.

But, grandpa, I’m glad that you’re still sort of alive to teach me about the past.

I am too, Zylan Jr. I just wish I could have been uploaded into a T-1000, not a T-800.

Well, if Dad’s scavenging mission is successful, we can upload you to a T-800 body with its living tissue still intact. That was you won’t look like a metal skeleton, and my sisters won’t be scared of you no more.

That would be a nice Christmas present. Let’s hope your dad comes home soon. Merry Christmas, Grandson!

Merry Christmas, Grandpa!

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