Morbid gift from St. Nicholas
SATURDAY, December 5 – Tonight we’ll be celebrating St. Nicholas. I’m in the middle of wrapping presents when the doorbell rings. The dog starts to bark as she’s expected to do when the mailman makes an appearance.
Besides the bill from the dentist (it’s a reminder: sometimes I’ve been forgetting to pay bills) and a belated condolence card, there’s also a fat envelope. It’s Jennifer’s medical file that’s been sent to me by my lawyer. It’s what’s known as a ‘bulky report’. Since it’s too big for the mailbox, it’s presented to me in person: It is a morbid present on such a festive evening.
No need to open it today.
23.30 – Even if Jennifer were still alive, she would not have been celebrating with us. St. Nicholas just wasn’t her thing and she made no bones about that. ‘This is a part of your culture that I don’t want anything to do with.’
As an American, she was horrified by the Dutch cavorting about in blackface as incarnations of ‘Zwarte Piet’ (Black Peter). It was just so politically incorrect and, further, in her eyes St. Nicholas was just too ridiculous. Besides, she still believed in Santa Claus.
So the weekend of December 5th had long been reserved for a visit to her friend C who lived in Paris and had recently given birth to a son. She always enjoyed going off on her own for a few days. The St. Nicholas weekend had always been our celebration and the three of us thoroughly enjoyed all the typically Dutch elements of this tradition which Jennifer found so distasteful.
You could say that we didn’t actually miss her, since she wouldn’t have been there anyway. The reasoning is a bit twisted, but still… after all of the presents had been opened and the boys had disappeared upstairs to hook up the iPod Touch (Eamonn) and the iPhone (Sander) to their computers, I felt her absence even more keenly.
Supposing she had been here, then the two of us would have experienced it together: picking up all the wrapping paper, savoring the afterglow, cherishing the surprise on the kids’ faces when, after opening present number eleven, when they heard Papa say ‘Hey, there ought to be a twelfth present somewhere. Are you sure you checked out my room?’ Then the way they stormed off to my bedroom and came back with something that was greeted with astounded shouts of jubilation and a big bear hug.
Such joy is indeed priceless, but what good is it to me if I can’t share it. I fell back into my chair and began to sob uncontrollably. I grabbed a pillow and pretended that Jenn was holding me tight, comforting me with a kiss or a caress, and her soothing assurances that ‘everything is going to be all right’.
But everything isn’t going to be all right. You’re gone, and you’ll never again stuff the crumpled wrapping paper into the garbage bag I’m holding up for you. You’ll never take me to task for buying such expensive presents. I sit here bawling my eyes out until I hear the boys come bounding down the stairs. I quickly wipe away my tears: tonight I mustn’t let anything mar their joy.
It is still a great evening and, my overwhelming misery and grief will just have to temporarily defer themselves to the festive atmosphere. So I grin and give the boys a big hug while Sander proclaims at the top of his voice that his present is incredible and Eamonn is delirious and I’m enjoying it all to the hilt, together with them.
They’ve each bought a present for me, after I had sent them downtown with twenty euros each. At the last minute, Sander made a beeline to the Bijenkorf department store and came back with an instruction booklet for the iPhone – ‘handy for you’ – while Eamonn had long since selected a stylish set of cups for the espresso machine I’d bought for myself.
Jennifer never liked the espresso maker and remained faithful to an old-fashioned coffee pot. I did feel a pang of guilt when I’d paid for the machine and had it gift-wrapped. But hey, our life has been turned upside down and we’re now under no obligation to preserve the customs of the past.
A cup of coffee for you, Mr. Overdiek? You bet… make mine an espresso!