Sinatra and The Ralph Brewster Singers are crooning a jazzy version of Jingle Bells on the All-Holiday Music channel during my commute home from work. I’m singing along under my breath with the chorus “I love those J-I-N-G-L-E bells… I love those J-I-N-G-L-E bells…” and it takes me until the end of the song to realize I’ve been spelling out “J-I-M-B-L-E bells”. The digital read out on the radio glows 6:11 and it’s been dark for nearly 2 hours. They say that this is the time of year the days get shorter, but they lie; these days seem endless. Almost without defined chapter breaks or the ascending page numbers of dates that bookmark our exact moment in time; no, everything lately is a monotonous run-on sentence of rambling sameness. A sameness that make makes me feel insignificant, and paired with being away from Jack and Adam for 9 to 10 hours each day I’m beginning to burn out. Even though I’m surrounded in the frigid darkness by hundreds of other travelers, their silhouettes headlamp outlined in the cars ahead of me and reflected in my rear-view mirror from the cars behind me, I’m alone.
Traffic is plodding along and the air inside my car is stuffy, oppressing and I feel like I’m suffocating so I crack the driver-side window and the cold December air bites through the space and sinks its teeth into the side of my face. The frigid gnawing is revitalizing enough for me speed and weave through a convenient gap in the traffic and I’m sprung from the jar; free to cruise home to my family. Solar systems of Christmas lights suspended between porch pillars and wrapped around trees blur by me as I pick up speed on an open stretch of the road. A glimmering set on an otherwise unlit house presents the illusion of forward motion as I approach them and I think of fireflies.
Practically every night over the summer at dusk, Jack and I would take off our shoes and socks, slip out the back door into the backyard and stand reticent in the cool grass anticipating the first indication of flickering lights to awaken in the lawn of our neighbor’s yard. Since our yard is fenced we’d have to wait for them to drift through the diamonds of the chain links for us to barefoot chase them through the twilight as they furtively evaded our pursuit. In one hand Jack carried a glass baby food jar and in his other its lid screwdrivered with air holes. A night never passed when we didn’t capture at least one and I marveled at the wonder in Jack’s expression as it appeared and reappeared in the gilded lantern glow of the firefly; intermittently blinking like a weary traffic light suspended above the heart of a forgotten crossroads fighting sleep and struggling to keep its eyes open. A single dimming light, scared and alone, Jack would only let us keep it in the jar for a minute before setting it free. “He needs to get back to his family or they’ll miss him.” he’d say as the bulb from our transient lantern floated upwards towards the sky, towards its family.
Finally I make the turn onto our street and approaching the house I see that Kathleen found a few minutes during the day to string our own Christmas lights between the pillars of our front porch. Swaying galaxies of luminary bulbs in the ghosting wind they dangle from the trim and cut through the gloom and I think of stars.
Again Jack and I are in the backyard but it’s late-September and though it’s the same time we used to chase fireflies it’s been dark for almost an hour. We’re standing in the grass staring up at the stars and its one of those clear autumn nights when not only is the window onto the universe thrown wide open but the ceiling on heaven itself if is lifted and we can see forever. The sky burns with filaments of light and we crane our necks to observe the cosmic laser show. Jack tugs on my hand, “Daddy, can you pick me up?” and I do instinctively. “Daddy, are we in outerspace?” and I begin to tell him that we are, but how do you explain outerspace, or the vastness of the universe to a child? Before I can say anything he continues, “Daddy, what are stars?” Sensing he wants a genuine answer rather than my typical fabricated mythology I try to answer thoughtfully, “You know the sun right?” and he nods, “Well stars are like the sun just really far away. You know, some are so very far away that they burned out millions of years ago and their light is just reaching us now.” He remains silent. I’m encouraged. “Some stars are called dwarf stars and some are called giants. I think it’s based on how bright they are. I mean, the giant stars are the really bright ones.” He’s still silent. Now I’m just shooting from the hip. “And there are so many stars that some don’t even have names.” He looks thoughtfully at me in the starlight, “That’s sad Daddy. Everything should have a name.” Before I can agree with him he whispers, “Daddy…I feel small all of a sudden.” Hugging him a little closer I looked skyward, “I do to Jack.”
The car lurches over a rutted mound of snow as I pull into the driveway. Putting the car in park I let the car idle for a moment and stare at the shimmering constellation of electric icicles. It’s been a rough stretch couple of months for me. The cause might be anything from the change of seasons, daylight savings, long hours at work, irregular sleep, mid-life crisis, or reliable old chemical imbalance or perhaps an amalgamation of them all, but I’ve felt a shell of who I used to be, anonymous, insignificant and at times invisible. I feel small all of a sudden. I’m burnt out and all that’s left of me is a faint light that just keeps traveling forward, so what you see isn’t really me; it’s what’s left of me.
Luciano Pavarotti is resounding a somber version of O Holy Night on the All-Holiday Music channel and I think back to a week before when I had a day off from work and got the opportunity to walk Jack to school. Due to a recent allergic reaction to latex the nurse needed an Epi-pen for him so after dropping it off at her office we waited in the hallway for the bus with his classmates to arrive. Once they piled off the bus I walked with Jack through the halls of the school down to his class and waited until the teacher arrived. A fidgeting line of 18 kindergarteners and a 36-year old Dad worried that one of them was going to swallow a mitten. Jack looked up at me from his place in the line, “Thanks Daddy.” I smiled and relaxed some. On the wall was a Gingerbread man mural with a huge gingerbread man in the middle with the “Run, run as fast as you can…” nursery rhyme markered onto his stomach surrounded by 18 miniature gingerbread men. “Which one is yours?” I asked Jack. Apparently my question was directed at the class as each child pressed themselves into the wall reaching to put their index finger on the gingerbread man that represented them. Just then Jack’s teacher walked up and thanked me for watching the children. She opened the door and the kids filed into the classroom. I kissed Jack and told him I’d pick him up after school. We nodded and hurried into the class but I heard him say to a fellow gingerbread man before the door closed, “That was my Dad. He’s a giant!”
“Oh night… oh night divine”…I turned the car off, grabbed my bag and stepped from the car. Free from my jar I floated upwards towards the sky, towards my family. Trudging through the snow I reach the side door and entered the warmth of the house. Our side door opens to a small area between the basement and the kitchen, it’s dark but under the door to the kitchen escapes a sliver of light just enough for me to see the stairs. The hackneyed pitter patter of little feet approaches the door, the knob turns and the door opens. Jack and Adam’s silhouettes are outlined at the top of the stairs and I hear “Daddy!” from Jack and “Dadadadadada” from Adam.
In this galaxy I am a Giant; a Giant burning bright in the heavens, a Giant with a purpose, a family and a name – Daddy. My light living through my sons destined to shine through the darkness of the universe long after I’m gone.