Miss Claudia came up to the table wearing an apron with a big, showy Christmas pin. She was the owner’s wife and made the best pies anywhere. “Hey, Jenny,” she called out as she approached. Her smile shifted to me. “Miller, nice to see you. Are you getting excited for Christmas?”
“What brings you in today? Christmas shopping, eh?”
“Just came for a chat,” Mama replied in a cheery voice. “And maybe some of your pie. What do you want, Miller?” Mama’s face was smiling but her eyes weren’t.
“I’ll have the key lime pie and coffee,” Mama said. When Miss Claudia left, Mama folded her hands on the table and leaned far forward to catch my eye. “You’re just hurting yourself by not getting pie.” When I didn’t reply, she gave an exasperated sigh. “Miller, I know you think Taylor got a dog for Christmas. It might seem like that. Yes, he got a dog. Yes, it’s Christmas. But, no, it’s not a gift or something he got for Christmas.”
Yeah, right, I thought to myself. If it walks like a duck, quacks like a duck, it’s a duck.
Her coffee came so she stopped talking and smiled at Miss Claudia while the mug and cream were set before her. Mama moved the plate of key lime pie to the center of the table and passed me a fork. I didn’t want to eat it but I couldn’t resist. It was my favorite. I took a bite with a scowl. Across from me, Mama sipped her coffee, her eyes never leaving my face.
She set down her cup. “The dog’s name is Thor,” she began. “He’s not a pet. He’s a service dog. There’s a big difference.” She paused to make sure I was listening. When I looked up from my pie, she continued, “Taylor applied for this dog months ago, when he got out of the hospital. Thor is specially trained to help your brother with his PTSD. I’ve been reading about it and I’ve learned a lot. It’s called post-traumatic stress disorder because it happens after a trauma. That means he got it from something terrible that happened to him in the war. Probably the IED explosion. He survived the blast, but his brain got hurt. Can you understand that? His injured brain makes him do these things we don’t understand. Like how he’s been staying in his room and doesn’t go out. And how he gets angry all the time. And his bad nightmares?”
I nodded, listening now.
“Thor is trained to wake him up if he has those nightmares.”
I looked at her with doubt; I didn’t know whether to believe her. “Like, how?”
“When he has a nightmare, Thor will lick his hand and his face to wake him up before Taylor gets too deep into the dream. He can sense when it’s happening. The same for when he starts to get angry or anxious.”
“Do you remember how you said Taylor wasn’t the same person? How you didn’t like who he was now?”
I looked away. “Yeah.”
“Me, too. I’m ashamed I thought that. Are you?”
I felt choked up and nodded.
Mama reached out to pat my hand. “It’s okay. Here’s the thing. A service dog is a kind of therapy for Taylor. I hope . . . I pray . . . that Thor will help Taylor get back to being the guy we love. Taylor only got the phone call the other day that his dog was ready. He’d been waiting for months. Honey, he didn’t get a dog as a Christmas gift. It was a coincidence that it was today so close to Christmas. Try to understand, Thor isn’t a pet. Taylor needs this dog.”
“Well, I need Sandy, too!” I cried back. “Why is it that what Taylor needs is more important than what I need? Who is going to feed Taylor’s new dog, huh? He doesn’t get up in the morning. And how can we afford to feed him and not Sandy?” I sniffed and wiped my nose with my sleeve. “It doesn’t matter now, Sandy is sold and I can never have him. And that’s not fair.”
I shoved the plate of pie away and climbed from the booth. “I’m going home.”
“Wait, I have to pay.”
“I don’t want to go with you. I’m walking.”
As I opened the door, the bells chimed and Miss Claudia called out, “Merry Christmas!”
Yeah, right, I thought, blinking tears from my eyes. Walking home, when I saw the red ribbons and bows on the windows and doors, it made me feel sadder. All I could think of was the red “sold” ribbon around Sandy’s neck.
The sight of these poor revelers appeared to interest the Spirit very much, for he stood with Scrooge beside him in a baker’s doorway, and taking off the covers as their bearer’s passed, sprinkled incense on their dinners from his torch.
—A Christmas Carol
Once again the doors were shut upstairs. I swear, all I wanted for Christmas was a normal, happy home without closed doors! Where was the season of brotherly love? I wondered. Those two brothers were not even talking. I was beginning to side with Team Scrooge.
I stood in the front hall still in my winter coat. It was after five but it felt like midnight. I was tired and drained. As I took my coat off, I realized the last thing I wanted to do was prepare a dinner for this crew. All I wanted to do was climb into bed and cry.
But of course I couldn’t do that. I was the mother. At times like these, when I was at my wit’s end, I brought to mind what Mother had told me the day I first held in my arms my newborn baby:
“Motherhood is your greatest joy and also your greatest challenge. From this day forward your life is no longer just your own. Mothers give, give, give, and when they think they have nothing left, they dig deep and give some more. Because a mother is the heart of a family. A family is only as happy as the mother.”
Christmas was a week away. If I gave up now, what hope would my children have for any joy this holiday? I wouldn’t be happy this Christmas if they were not. So I did as my mother advised and dug deep. I found my strength in remembering Christmases past when the boys were young. The excitement in their eyes when they helped make holiday cookies or went out to find a tree. Helping put out the nativity scene at our church. Hanging up stockings and leaving cookies for Santa. Visualizing their smiles, I felt a renewed energy.
With resolve bubbling inside my heart I turned on the radio to the Christmas station. The children made fun of me for playing the carols all throughout the holiday, but I believed it lifted the spirits—at least mine. Appropriately, the crooning of “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year” filled the room. I indulged myself and poured a glass of sherry. Sipping its sweetness, I went to the kitchen and scrounged my fridge to see what I had. I pulled out butter, bread, and cheddar cheese and began to make grilled-cheese sandwiches. It was comfort food in my book and perfect for a wintry night when the larder was low. As the cheese melted, I made up a few trays, decorating them with a holiday placemat and napkin. When the bread was golden and oozing cheese, I put the warm sandwiches on plates with chips, crisp carrots, and a few almond cookies. It wasn’t a grand dinner but it made for a tasty supper.