"Christmas Lights" Part Four

(Photo used by permision from the talented Tabitha Kingma at 723 Photography)

            There are so many things I want to say yet I find myself speechless. It’s not the first time my wife has elicited this kind of reaction, but the reasons are entirely different. I open my mouth as if trying to force something out when Linda asks me a question.
            “What is your fondest memory of our family?”
            I expected something a lot different. Something about making the right or the wrong choice. Something about the focus needing to be on Jesus. I don’t expect this.
            The funny thing is how fast I provide an answer.
            “The toddler years, when they were all running around the house like little monkeys and we were losing our minds.”
            Linda stares at me to see if I’m kidding. Then she smiles and shakes her head. “That’s surprising.”
            “You used to say how much you loathed life back then.”
            “Yeah.” I chuckle. “I did in a way. But I didn’t know how good we had it. That was before—before this. Before all this started getting out of hand. That was before they grew up and began talking back. Before hormones kicked in. Before they realized how much of a loser their father really was.”
            It’s odd to hear her say my name. I like the sound of it.
            “I’m just being honest,” I tell her.
            “That’s good.”
            We both know the drinking wasn’t the only thing. There were other things. Secrets and lies and cover-ups and big fat messes I constantly needed to try to clean up. Messes a lot bigger than the ones a one and a two and a four-year-old might make.
            “Do you remember how Rick used to tuck Molly into bed?”
            I nod. I haven’t thought of that in a long time. I’m sure they certainly haven’t either.
            “I think for about five years there, life was one giant haze,” Linda says.
            “The irony is it became that way for me a little while later.”
            “So why are you here?”
            “I don’t have to explain it to you. I think you know.”
            She studies me for a moment. Nat King Cole is now singing.
            “So what one thing made you leave Rick’s and come here?”
            “This place has been on my mind for quite some time.”
            “I’m sorry to hear you say that.”
            I shake my head and clench the curse about to come out of my mouth. It comes from that dark place, the same place that brought me here, the same place my anger resides. I know Linda won’t appreciate it. Yet I still can’t believe her words.
            “I’m the one who’s sorry.”
            “There’s still a chance for you to make the right choice. You know that, too. Otherwise a beer that’s getting warmer by the second would be gone.”
            I chuckle again. “There’s a lot I want to say.”
            Linda brushes back her brown hair. I realize she really is beautiful. The age thing doesn’t matter. It really doesn’t. She’s like one of those ornaments on a tree you’ve taken for granted for years and years. When you finally take it in your hand and examine it closely, you realize it’s truly something precious.
            This thought only fills me with more regret.
            “I’m just not sure where to start,” I continue.
            “Save your words.”
            “But you need to know--”
            “No. The people who need to know are waiting back at that house. They don’t know you like I know you. They depend on you. They need you. They need to know their father hasn’t lost faith.”
            I feel something deep in my gut. It burns and it’s bottomless and I know she’s right.
            Their father’s faith is slipping and this holiday is only making it sink faster.
            “Arthur, I will tell you this, and I will only say it once. Consider it my Christmas gift to you. Or consider it the words of a woman who’s spoken every single thing she could to you. Whatever you do, please—please—just consider this.”
            I nod. I look at the bar and lamb-chops is smoking something. I think there’s a law about smoking in restaurants and bars in Illinois but you know—whatever. Judy Garland is singing—no, make that lamenting this season her with classic melancholy ballad.
            “It’s been over four years since you became sober and started attending Celebrate Recovery. Are you willing to give up all that you’ve achieved in our family, in your personal life and church life over these years? Because that's exactly what you’re about to do. Is this drink—is this escape tonight--really going to be worth it?”
            These were the words I figured would come. I expected them yet they still make me wince. Linda isn’t finished either.
            “Today you make a choice to either take a stand for our family or wallow in self-pity or whatever it is you’ve convinced yourself is worth more than us.”
            More than us.
            “You’re right,” I say in a weak and soft voice. “I’m just—I’m just sad.”
            “I know.”
            For a moment, she looks at me, such grace and such love.
            “The thing with this day—with the presents and the food and the bickering and the insanity—the whole reason is to remember. It’s to remember this beautiful, precious gift God gave us. A child. A little baby in a manger. A baby that would change everything. His name really was Christ, and he really did do all those things. There shouldn’t be any sadness. Not an ounce. I rejoice. I’m happy. I’m blessed.”
            I let out a frustrated snort. “You’re happy and blessed. Meanwhile, I’m thirsty.”
            Linda remains silent, and I wonder if this is all she’s going to say to me. I glance at my watch. By now the presents should have all been opened at Rick’s. Maybe they’re all watching Jimmy Stewart on television while continuing to bicker and complain with each other. I try to break the silence by sharing this thought with Linda.           
            “Do you know the beauty of It’s A Wonderful Life?” she asks without missing a beat. “It’s not that an angel comes down to help George Bailey. It’s the fact that time after time, things don’t work out for him. He ends up a broken and distraught man. He needs to find faith. He needs to find hope. That’s the story of Christmas. That is what this whole thing—all of it—is about. We don’t need a holiday break and we don’t need our family. Those are blessings, don’t get me wrong. But in the end, we need Jesus. In the end, that baby in the manger is a gift that will be with us forever. It’s a gift that frees us from all those mistakes and brokenness.”
            I don’t want to get emotional but I don’t think I can take anymore of this. It’s either drink up or take off. I feel her hold my hand again.
            “I’m sorry I was a drunk even when I was sober,” I say.
            I’ve wanted to tell her these exact words for some time.
            “I love you, Arthur Duncan. I love you for the flawed, broken man you are. And for the portrait of grace you continue to be.”
            “I never wanted to be a poster-child of anything.”
            “Please,” Linda says, rolling her eyes. “Do not talk about regrets.”
            I nod and smile. Suddenly I’m no longer thirsty. Suddenly, all I want is to get back to Rick’s house and keep the festivities going.
            “I’m going to leave, and I hope and pray you do too.”
            “Can I walk you out?” I ask her.
            Linda shakes her head. “I don’t want to hold your hand and walk out this door. You’re stronger than that. Your God is way—way—stronger than that. You don’t need to lean on me anymore.”
            “One more time would be nice.”
            She stands and she’s so elegant and so easy to look at. Sixty-seven and yet still so reminiscent of the first time I saw her. This strong-willed, quiet but calculating, tall and attractive girl I met in high school. I wonder if she’s going to hug me or kiss me but she just stands and gives me that beaming glow of a smile. Then she nods and heads out the door.
            Leaving me here.
            Leaving me at this table with the double-barrel of drinks.
            There’s no longer a choice for me. Not anymore.
            I stand too and then wish the bartender a Merry Christmas. A song I don’t recognize starts playing and I’m beginning to think he’s making these song selections himself.
            “So who’s this?”
            “What are you talking about?” he asks with a slur. “The greatest band after the mighty Led Zeppelin. It’s Queen. Come on.”
            The singer says the chorus over and over again.
            “Thank God it’s Christmas.”
            Lamb-chops is nodding his head, already two sheets to the wind. Already gone and already hoping for a happy tomorrow
            My happy tomorrow awaits me back at Rick’s place. It’s the only place I should be. 
            (Read the fifth and final part to "Christmas Lights" here.)

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