We keep the holidays pretty simple around here as far as the gift-giving goes. Partly because I can't stand "stuff" and the "stuff" aspect of Christmas fills me with sadness, not to mention a fair share of disgust too. But also, frankly, because there's just not much wiggle room when it comes to monthly finances.
We do have a number of traditions, though. I've written several times before about the basket of Christmas books we get down from the attic at the start of every December. This isn't something I did as a kid, just an idea I co-opted from someone on the radio, but it's turned into one I love. This year, when we got the books down, the kids immediately set upon it and grabbed books they haven't seen in a year.
"I remember this one!"
"Oh man, I love this."
"This one's awesome."
Watching them stretch out on the floor and get comfortable with old stories? I'll keep that moment to call back on when they're arguing or shouting or otherwise driving me mad.
My other well of holiday happy is pulling the Christmas ornaments from the plastic bin to hang on the tree. Our tree is a mishmash of ornaments - a convoluted mess, really - that put all together somehow works. Maybe it just works for us. It's filled with expensive glass ornaments that smash to a zillion pieces when they fall. There are cheap gold balls from Target and plastic red ones too. Most of the ornaments tell stories. I bought the canoe the year we traveled to Alaska, the egg when we miscarried the first time, the Grinch when we saw the "Grinch on Ice."
My mom started the whole tradition of meaningful ornaments. I have a wooden airplane from 1992, when I studied in Sheffield, that she inscribed: "To the land of poets, this earth, this realm, this England." It's broken into three pieces now and awaiting repair.
At some point, my mother also started giving my sister and me a single Radko ornament at Christmas. They're glass and expensive and colorful and sometimes silly (like the Santa in pink candy-cane pajamas). They're not something I'd ever buy for myself but I cherish them as a reminder of her thoughtfulness, her style.
The year we got married she bought us a Radko car with a sign across the bumper that reads "Just Married." She also gave us a glass bride and groom (not by Radko). The groom shattered a year ago and now the bride hangs by herself. Don't read anything into that. I didn't.
The kids are old enough now that they decorated the tree this past week. But I sat at the bin to take each ornament out, to tell their stories. Since I'm such a sap, the ones that hit my gut most are the handmade pieces by the kids, especially the ones with their photos. My mother still has a plain white styrofoam ball with a hole dug out in the middle that holds a photo of my sister as a young girl. I imagine my kids looking at their own ornaments when they're big. They already look at the preschool photos and blush.
Me? I just clutch my chest and repeat, "aw."
We added one more ornament to the collection this year. One that tells a long story of love - and heartbreak. It's Uma's dog tag. Try not to clutch your chest.
Before Kent left for the veterinarian's office Sunday morning, I dug out a manilla folder filed in the cabinet under "Uma." It held her vaccination records, microchip ID number, and her original paperwork from the District of Columbia Animal Shelter.
One of the forms was labeled "Wiggles Medical History."
We never called her Wiggles, so I don't know why that's what tripped me up today and made the tears fall in a hot, uncontrolled rush.
Perhaps because Wiggles seems so childish and Uma grew old and is now gone.
Uma was always too dignified for such a silly name. Even when we she was just 10 and a half months old and we drove her home to Raleigh. She acted more wildebeest than puppy, then, gnawing the baseboards and standing atop the kitchen table when we went to work. But Wiggles? Never.
She didn't answer to it anyhow, so we changed her name. The family who saved her from the shelter told us she was a German Shorthaired Pointer mix. Uma is a beautiful name and it sounds German enough, we thought. Later, we found out she wasn't even remotely close to a German Shorthaired Pointer, but the name suited her.
"What kind of breed is your dog?" they asked every time I called the groomer's. "She's a mutt," I'd say proudly. A gorgeous, gentle, kooky mutt.
Uma was on double-secret probation once way back when we first got her and she was such a handful. I told Kent that if there was one more baseboard ruined, one more bite, one more table trampled, she was getting shipped back north. He pulled her snout to his, looked deep into her eyes and they had their first of many "talks." She was as good as gold after that. Except for when she wasn't.
My mother remembers the time Uma escaped and bolted to the house across the way. Kent and I stood in the middle of the street to block any car that threatened to hit her as we coaxed her back.
"More cat than dog," that's how we always described her. She could be aloof. She was often very shy. But she was always unfailingly gentle. Given her shelter background and skittishness, we didn't know how she'd react to a new baby in the house. She couldn't have been more generous. She gave way as one, then three, then FOUR little people stole the attention and love she once owned exclusively.
Uma started to slow weeks ago. I first noticed it after our morning walks when she took the steps back into the house slowly instead of bounding through the front door, bystanders be damned. She seemed to breathe more deeply. Last week, about midway to the coffee shop, she needed to stop. Her mouth watered, she struggled to catch her breath. I knelt to pet her and our neighbor asked if there was anything she could do. "No," I said. "We're ok."
She wasn't, though. We put off calling the vet because we figured it was something big, a sickness we couldn't afford to fix or one she might not pull through anyway. On Wednesday, Kent left for Florida and Uma stopped eating. That was the last time I walked her to the coffee shop as well. She didn't even want to get up from her bed to go to the bathroom in the back yard. When I insisted, she came back winded.
On Friday, I called the vet and got an appointment first thing Monday morning. She never made it. She died Sunday after Kent rushed her to the emergency clinic. He walked through the front door with her and they labeled her a Code 1. They put her in an oxygen tent, gave her a sedative and Kent called home.
Without an X-ray or any diagnostic tests, the vet was fairly certain she had congestive heart failure or pneumonia or both. Her chances of surviving any sort of treatment were grim, he said. About 10 percent. We decided to euthanize her.
The night before Uma died, Esme asked if we could buy her a puppy pop from The Dairy Godmother. She hadn't eaten in days and even standing left her breathless, but goddam if she didn't stand to eat that entire pop. Every last bit of it. I take great solace in that and I think Esme feels proud that she could comfort Uma in her final hours.
Heartbreak is one thing but watching your child suffer a loss is crushing. "I don't want her to die," Esme said as she wept and I ran my fingers through her hair.
"Flowers come back after they die, why can't Uma?" Tobias wondered.
Desmond asked immediately for a new dog. Josephine surprised me. She didn't say much of anything.
When Uma was a pup, we took her for long romps off leash in the woods near our house. There was a creek there that she loved to race through. In June, about the time she would have celebrated her 13th birthday, we'll return to Raleigh and spread her ashes in the forest, near a bend in the path that she especially loved. It was Kent's idea and I think it's a beautiful gesture.
"Did you know I once tried to give her away?" I asked him today when the kids were gone and the house quiet. If Uma had been there, she would have pushed her nose onto our bed or sat curled beside it. I confided that shortly after we moved to Virginia and the twins were still small and I felt I was drowning, I called a dear friend back in Raleigh. The way I remember it, I could barely talk for the sobbing and I wondered what she thought of helping me find someone to care for Uma. I felt like I was doing Uma wrong, neglecting her in my inadequate attempts to care for three small ones, myself, a husband, a dying brother.
My friend talked me off the cliff and Uma stayed. I still feel guilt for loving her so completely then making her split that love by people who came first.
After lunch, I rifled through hundreds of old photos. So many moments I forgot. So much joy we were lucky to know.
This is the last photo we have of Uma, taken the day before she died. She was beloved and adored until the end.
Josephine and Esme were wrestling over a bitty notepad that belongs to Josephine. Turns out, Esme used it to write herself a to-do list. Pretty adorable, right? As I discovered a few minutes later, though, the book contained other, more impish lists.
A sense of humor? This girl's got one.