Do you see that little kid in the foreground of the photograph? Man, he’s sure happy.
It was Christmas Eve, 1973 – maybe 1974 – when that picture was taken, and my family and I had just arrived at Grandma and Grandpa Bey’s house. I can’t remember specifics – I either was 2 or 3 years old at the time – but if I had to guess, we’d just left church. I remember mom telling me my face just lit up when I walked into the living room and saw all the presents under the Christmas tree, and either she or grandma had captured that Kodak moment. I couldn’t even tell you what I got that year. All I knew was Santa had left me some cool stuff, and I couldn’t wait to rip open all the packages with my name on them.
Without fail, the evening of December 24th was always magical from elementary through high school (Star Wars toys! An Atari 2600 and a boatload of games to play on it! A 19-inch color television with its own cable-TV hookup!). Turn the pages of the Bey family album over the years, and you’ll see me wearing that same big smile when I opened my gifts.
I just realized earlier this week that I’ve never seen that euphoric look on Nolan’s face at Christmastime. And it’s devastating to me.
Autism robbed our family a long time ago of having any sense of normalcy, and I’ve accepted that. But I still have a difficult time dealing with what I know is coming every year when the calendar turns over to December. The struggle to buy gifts for a nonverbal son who can’t tell us what he wants, or if he even wants anything at all. The knowledge that Nolan, Cindy and I will spend the Christmas Eve service at our church in the narthex because it’s too crowded and loud inside. The sadness of trying to interest Nolan in his gifts, only to see him bolt from the living room either with indifference or pissed because he absolutely does NOT want to open presents. The frustration of spending part of Christmas Day with him in Cindy’s mother’s living room while she and her family are downstairs opening gifts and visiting.
You know that rush you feel when you get that one thing you really, really, really wanted? That’s the joy I feel when the holiday season is over and our family gets back to its normal routine. For me, dealing with the day-to-day shit Autism throws at us – meltdowns, toileting accidents, nights with little sleep, setbacks at school – is easier to cope with than seeing Nolan’s indifference toward Christmas. I mean, it’s Christmas. Isn’t it the one time of year when we’re all supposed to have the glee and enthusiasm of children who is ready to go full Tasmanian Devil and rip open all the presents piled in front of them?
As happy as I am to wake up on January 2nd every year and see the holidays in the rearview mirror, please understand that I do not dislike Christmas. Now more than ever, I have a true appreciation for its meaning. My parents and grandparents have all passed away, and I don’t know where I’d be if I couldn’t share Christmas with Cindy and Nolan. Hell, I’ve been known to play a Christmas song or two – my favorites are Hall and Oates’ version of “Jingle Bell Rock” and The Eagles’ version of “Please Come Home For Christmas” – when it’s 70 degrees and I have to mow the lawn.
I lost a lot of the enthusiasm I’d had for Christmas after I graduated from college, left home and began my career as a print journalist. I never put up the little Christmas tree mom bought me in the various apartments I lived in – Christmastime gets to be a lonely, kind of depressing time for the single person. Cindy rekindled my enthusiasm for the holiday. We bought a tree for my apartment the year we got engaged, and I willingly put it up. Somewhere there’s a picture of me wearing reindeer antlers and smiling either our first or second Christmas as husband and wife. I might have gotten a little excited the year Cindy gave me an iPod.
And oh, boy, the things I was going to get for my son when Cindy found out she was pregnant. I remember getting excited about finding a Fisher Price monkey on wheels I was sure Nolan would love and playing with it in a toy department aisle. And the stuff under the tree would get better and better as Nolan aged (A baseball glove! A video game system that will blow away an Atari 2600! A killer stereo system! Whatever gizmo is the coolest gizmo in the world at that moment!). We have bought him some nice gifts over the years – things he’s enjoyed. He still plays the digital keyboard he got last year quite a bit. He’s enjoyed bouncing on the yoga balls we’ve bought him – so much so that both of them have long since popped. But we’ve been the ones who have opened his presents while he’s retreated to another room before either coming back on his own or we’ve forced him to come back and see what he’s gotten.
There have been times where I’ve told myself we’ve saved a lot of money over the years because Nolan hasn’t asked for every damn thing under the sun. And I know it’s not about how many gifts you buy, nor is it about how much you spend on someone. Still, I would give anything to see Nolan show the excitement that little boy in the picture showed so many years ago because Christmas was such an amazing time.
I still remember it, and it’s a great feeling. I wish I could get it back.