It’s the most wonderful time of the year…
But only for some.
For others, it’s a lonely, painful time. A haunted time. Haunted by the ghost of Christmas past. Shrouded in shadows. Cold and lonely.
It’s a time of unfulfilled expectations. Of laughter that never reaches the heart. Happiness that never makes it to the soul. It’s supposed to be a time of families and close friends joyfully gathering, celebrating, sharing love, magic, joy. But some of us paint a smile on our face and pretend. We nod our head and act as if we belong. As if we “get it.” Because this wonderful time of the year, for many, is just another empty, disappointing day. One that feels even more empty than normal because it’s supposed to be full and magical.
Those of us who see the ghost know the dark side.
I have a memory of when I was a young child. It’s Christmas break. My father was a teacher, so he was home with my brother and me. It was a few days before Christmas and it had snowed…a big, deep, delightful (when you’re a child) snow that turned the world into a frosted, glorious wonderland. My father was born and raised in Michigan. It snowed a lot there. And while this wasn’t a major snow by Michigan standards, it was pretty significant for Missouri. The snow was knee deep in the shallowest of places. It was thigh deep in the drifts. My brother and I could barely contain ourselves, we were so excited. We bundled up and rushed outside to enjoy the dreamy land that spread out before us.
My father didn’t often play with us. But even he seemed enchanted by the beautiful snow that shrouded the world in clean, frigid white, like icing on a cake. Being from a state where a heavy snowfall in the winter was an everyday affair, he knew lots of outside winter games. He asked us if we had ever played fox and geese. We both shook our heads “no,” shivering with anticipation, as well as with the cold. Excited because he was spending time with us. At our response, he smiled and the fun began! He instructed us to clear a big circular path in the snow in an open area of our yard. We kicked and dug and packed and tramped, working up a sweat. Once the circle was complete, he had us make two more paths through the circle, dividing it into 4 equal quadrants.
He was the fox. We were the geese being chased around and through the pathways we had created in the snow. The goal of the fox was to catch a goose. Once tagged, the goose would then become the fox. We ran for our lives! Laughing. Falling. Laughing some more. It was so much fun! We played until we were soaking wet, freezing cold and totally exhausted. Then we all tumbled back into the house to change into dry clothes and to warm our frosted, runny noses, red ears, and stiff, numb fingers and toes.
This is where the memory changes for me. This is where the darkness made itself known. Where the shadows become a heavy blanket of fog that blocked out the sun.
I was in my room, having just opened my dresser drawer. I was trying to decide what sweater I wanted to wear. As I poked through the 3 or 4 sweaters I owned, I was startled when the door to my room opened and quickly closed. My father entered, an odd expression on his face. He was acting strangely. I was confused. Time stood still. An eerie silence enveloped me.
In that moment, playful daddy turned into what I later labeled “sick daddy.” He sucked the air out of the room with his heavy breathing. Stood quivering with anticipation. I was filled with an overwhelming sense of dread that didn’t make sense, no matter how hard I tried to understand.
“Let me make you warm,” he said quietly but firmly with an odd, trembling voice.
Then he removed my clothes as I pleaded with him not to. Begged him. But he didn’t stop. He seemed not to hear me. He kissed, fondled, groped, invading me. And when he was finished, he said, “There, now isn’t that better? Don’t you feel warmer? Get dressed and come on out to the kitchen. I’ll make us all some hot chocolate.”
Then he was gone.
I remember standing in my room, unable to move for what seemed like a very long time. I watched the shadows dance all around me. Finally, I picked up my discarded clothes and placed them in a pile. I dressed quickly. Quietly. I felt numb. Frozen by ice that was colder than the snow that covered the ground outside. Once dressed, I picked up my wet things to put them in the laundry and cast a glance back into the room before walking out the door. I wanted to make sure everything was in order. As if anything could ever be put back into order.
But what I most remember…vividly remember…is seeing myself still there in my room, hopelessly broken, barely breathing, laying on the floor. Bloody. Splintered. I remember leaving that shattered little girl behind. I left her there, a pile of gore and broken bones, crushed spirit and ruptured heart, dumped where my wet clothes had been laying, hideously destroyed, fractured beyond recognition. She wasn’t able to walk out of that room. She wasn’t capable of facing the monster that waited down the hall with hot chocolate and marshmallows. She couldn’t pick herself up and go on; couldn’t stop screaming. She was in a million pieces and I left her there to fend for herself, half angry with her for leaving me, for making me walk out into the dangerous world alone. I saw her body, ripped, torn, decimated. And instead of rushing to her side and comforting her, I turned away. I walked out of the room. Closed the door. And joined my brother and father as we sipped steaming mugs of freshly made cocoa. As if nothing had happened. As if nothing had changed.
Why do I remember this particular memory so clearly; so vividly? It wasn’t the first time my father sexually abused me. Nor was it the last. It wasn’t one of the worst memories that haunt me. Certainly, there are far more horrible recollections of perverted things he did to me, things I couldn’t blot out or from which I couldn’t disconnect. So why is this one day, this one event, etched so deeply and perfectly in my mind? Why can I still see it as if it happened only yesterday? Only seconds in the past?
Several things seem pertinent.
When my father began sexually abusing me, I was around 4 or 5 years old. The memories I have of that time are veiled in fantasy. I didn’t have the maturity to understand what was happening. I didn’t like it. It scared me. It felt wrong. But I didn’t have the ability to grasp or process what he was doing or the implications of his actions. I was able to create a make-believe world and escape into it.
As an older child, this became more difficult to execute. I finally reached an age and a point of understanding where it was no longer possible to ignore, warp, or wrap what he was doing to me in an imaginary world. I could no longer deny or fictionalize the abuse. And when this happened, I shattered. Completely shattered.
I believe the crystal-clear memory I have, this memory that haunts me still, is of the day, the moment in time, when that horrible shattering took place. So, even though what he did that day was not the vilest thing my father would ever do to me over the years he abused me, it was a significant moment in time because of the internal impact. It was the moment my soul was utterly obliterated.
I didn’t stop loving Christmas. Though I hate snow. But Christmas was never a carefree or magical time for me afterwards. I find myself looking over my shoulder. Waiting for everything to morph into some unspeakable reality. The holiday has never again been wonderful or innocent. There remains a hidden razor’s edge, cutting into my deepest and most vulnerable parts and wounded places. There is now unbearable pain mixed with fleeting happiness. Fear mixed with the shallow laughter. Terror mixed in with the carols that are exuberantly sung. And I have stopped expecting Christmas to be special. Because everything that was once special has been stripped away.
Magic no longer exists. The lights are not as bright, the ornaments aren’t as shiny.
A hideous monster hid beneath the bows and colorful paper that covered the gifts under the tree. I knew the monster. And the monster knew me. He watched me, waiting, pouncing, taking. Christmas that year was when I finally understood what he was. And seeing, I firmly closed the lid on the brightly wrapped box with which he disguised himself, stood, walked on trembling legs, and carried on, acting as if everything was as it seemed. As though nothing evil lay beneath the tinsel, glitter and lights. As if nothing foul had happened. Pretending the Christmas snow was yet unmarked and undefiled.
He is long dead now, this vulgar, unclean monster. This ghost of Christmas past. But he haunts me still.