Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Great Expectations

Oh, I've missed you! I'll try not to wait so long before my next post. No promises, though. 

Two Christmases ago (2013), I shared with you how God amazed me with literally my most beautiful Christmas season ever. Here, this may jog your memory:

That was my first Christmas after the divorce, and I'd been dreading it, struggling to muster up any Christmas spirit. God, my friends, and my family had more than enough Christmas spirit to share, and it really was the best Christmas of my life--all the more so because it was such a delightful surprise. 

After such a wonderful Christmas, I was actually looking forward to Christmas 2014. I wasn't at all worried about being depressed even though I knew both of my kids would be with their fathers on Christmas day. Although there were many blessings that Christmas season, I was surprised when I spent a good portion of Christmas day in tears, which led to a week or two of mild depression. 

So this year, I didn't know what to expect. I just decided to focus on enjoying family traditions. But things were different this year. Allyson and Bill went to Canada before Christmas rather than after, and we didn't get to do several of our usual pre-Christmas rituals, like making marshmallows. For the first time in seven years, we just didn't get around to it. But we did make banana bread and hand that out to our friends in the neighborhood.

We didn't do the Jesse tree ornaments, commemorating the saints in Jesus's family tree. But we did read The Christmas Miracle of Jonathan Toomey, which made me cry as it never fails to do. And we also read Lola The Snow Dog, an illustrated children's book that Allyson and I wrote together when she was just six. Each year, I mean to share that with you, but I will have to wait until next Christmas for that.

As always, we listened to Christmas music while we decorated our sweet little Charlie Brown tree and drank store-bought eggnog, the kids' favorite. Well, only they drank it; it wasn't allowed for me at this phase of my LEAP diet. (The diet is going very well, and my health has dramatically improved. I hope to share more about that later.)

This will be the last year for that sad little tree. Over the course of three weeks, the cats destroyed it. I didn't catch them climbing it very often, but nearly every morning I found a broken ornament or two at the foot of the tree, and one morning I found a partially eaten foam gingerbread man that Allyson had decorated in first grade. Boo!

By Christmas morning, I'd begun to consider replacing our $35 Wal-Mart tree. See the giant gap where the lower limbs are practically dragging the floor?

Two days after that, CiCi made up my mind for me. She chewed right through the cord, and now it's no longer a pre-lit tree. Ethan hauled the tree out to the curb on heavy trash week, and I'd planned to buy a new one at the after-Christmas sales, but somehow I never made it out. So next Christmas I'll be running out at the last minute to pay too much for another cheap tree. Oh well, if that's my biggest complaint, I'm very blessed indeed.

Our Christmas card picture was as humble as always, maybe more so. I so admire those people who manage to produce a really classy photo card where everyone looks all put together. On our card this year, Ethan is wearing a fake coon skin hat that might be mistaken for his actual hair, and I look like I must have forgotten to brush my hair that day (a strong possibility).

At least we were smiling, and the star on the tree was mostly still straight.

One tradition that Allyson wouldn't let me forget was our special Christmas Eve dinner. The menu was pretty paltry because she hadn't been home to plan the meal with me, and I refused to go anywhere near a store on Christmas Eve. So we had baked potatoes with lots of cheese and sour cream, and sparkling apple cider in wine glasses. Allyson lovingly decorated the table with some candles and a beautiful Christmas table runner that Mom gave us last year.

After our sumptuous feast, we raced off to a candlelight service with three of Allyson's closest friends. We were a bit late, but we still got to enjoy a very creative adaptation of The Little Drummer Boy, which we all agreed was our favorite. And then the kids got to pet some very smelly goats and rabbits while I shivered and begged to go back to the car.
Me, Allyson, and Sisters Alivia, Adrie, Eva

After that, Allyson got to bed rather late, and I had to find an excuse to stay up without her for fear of falling asleep without filling the stockings. I told her I needed some quiet time with Jesus in the living room, which was true.

I didn't think any amount of quiet time would fix my biggest problem that evening. For once I'd planned ahead and bought all the stocking stuffers well in advance (okay, a day or two before Christmas), using my family discount at Ethan's Walgreens. But at 9:30 on Christmas Eve, Allyson put out two tiny stockings I'd forgotten all about. "I wonder what Santa will bring for Arwen and CiCi," she said.

I sort of choked. "Um, they haven't been very good this year." That was so, so true, but I'll have to tell your more about that later. (The destroyed tree was the least of my kitty worries.) "You know, maybe they won't get any treats this year."

"Aww," Allyson whined. "That's so sad."

I sighed. "We'll see."

A dangerously short while after I'd tucked Allyson in and locked the cats in the bathroom so that they wouldn't eat Santa's cookies, I stealthily filled Ethan's and Allyson's stockings and stuffed a couple of things I'd been needing into my own stocking, such as an insulated stainless steel Thermos to replace the one I'd left at the movie theater. I couldn't put any candy in mine because wouldn't Santa know about my chocolate allergy and my 51 other sensitivities? What could I put in there, though? Surely I should have some sort of treat. I finally settled on a couple of apples, which I would sincerely enjoy.

Then I glanced at those cute, pathetic, empty cat stockings. "Oh, Lord," I sighed. "I wish I'd..."

Just then, a vague memory surfaced. Sometime around November, the diabetic cat that I'd always watched when my neighbors went out of town had passed away, and Steve had brought me some kitty litter, a carrier, and a box of paraphernalia for our cats. Busy as always, I'd simply stacked the stuff in the garage and promptly forgot about it. But hadn't there been some kitty treats in there?

I hurried into the chilly garage in my slippers, stumbling over all the other things I've piled in there willy-nilly. Ah, there was the carrier... and there was the box. I flung out the items one by one. Jackpot! There were several little cat toys, a couple of balls, and two bags of treats! With a grateful heart, I returned to my warm living room and filled those naughty kitties' stockings. Now that's grace--both for them and for me!

On Christmas Day, we opened gifts early because Ethan and Allyson were going to their dads' houses in the afternoon. The rest of my family would be three hours away, spending Christmas with my sister Melody and her family. This was not a surprise, and I'd planned to find some way to serve others rather than moping around the empty house all afternoon. But the Christmas season had been way too busy, and somehow I never got around to checking into how to serve at the local homeless shelters or the churches downtown. I figured I couldn't just show up. Surely I'd have to complete a background check or at least fill out some paperwork.

So I decided that this year I would visit the nursing home instead. I would find someone else who was alone on Christmas, and we would talk about our Christmas memories and family traditions. Every time I imagined that visit, I felt warm and fuzzy, and a little righteous.

On Christmas day, though, I wasn't feeling at all warm and fuzzy. I woke with a scratchy throat and a stuffy, sneezy nose. Ugh. I was pretty sure it was only allergies, but that didn't make it any more comfortable. I shrugged it off and focused on Allyson's joy over her gifts, including the most awesome gift ever from her big brother.

She also got a Dr. Who T-shirt from me, with her very favorite quote about Wibbly-Wobbly Timey-Wimey Stuff. And then she got the same shirt from Bill, but in a different color. Do you think she minded?

Ethan had spent his own hard-earned money on gifts for both of us, and I was so proud. And Allyson had spent all of her allowance on a few little treats for me and Ethan.

My favorite gift was a pair of very fluffy lounge pants that I pretty much lived in for the next week. I even tried to wear them to the grocery store once, but Allyson wouldn't let me. "They're pajamas, Mama."

"No, they're lounge pants."

"Trust me, they're pajamas."

"Oh, alright!" I said.

Luckily she wasn't with me this past Saturday when I couldn't resist swinging by the flooring store to look at samples on the way home from dropping her at soccer practice. We were running late (of course), so I wore my slippers. I figured I wouldn't have to get out of the car. But then I had to run to the convenience store after I dropped her off because we'd forgotten her water in all that rushing.

When no one at the QT batted an eyelash, I decided to try my luck at the flooring store, too. I'd been meaning to go to that store, which is normally about a 20 minute drive, and here I was, driving right past. How could I resist? Oh, what a sight I was, wearing faded blue jeans, my long church coat, and cheap pink slippers.

I immediately apologized for my appearance, but both salespeople were very gracious. The woman said she was actually jealous, and I didn't doubt it.

But I digress. That's what happens when I wait too long to post an entry....

Back to Christmas Day
Anyway, the more the day wore on, the more crappy I felt, and the less I felt like going anywhere, let alone the nursing home. I knew I wasn't truly sick, just blah. And I also knew that a big part of it was probably not physical--which was why I needed to go through with my plan and get outside my own self pity. But later, I'd do it later.

First I cleaned up the dishes from breakfast, and from our Christmas Eve dinner. And then I messed the kitchen up making an apple cake with cottage cheese maple frosting. Yes, cottage cheese! Isn't it wonderful? If you whirl it up long enough in the food processor, it can actually pass for cream cheese. You wouldn't believe all the substitutions I've learned while on this diet.

Look how the cake turned out, though.

For some reason, it stuck to the pan horribly and broke into several pieces. It must have been one of those substitutions I made. Boo!

Still, it tasted great. Yay!

Next I cleaned up the mess from baking, dithering the entire time over whether to visit the nursing home. I'd all but talked myself out of it, but then I talked myself back into it. I thought of all the other times I'd visited the nursing home, including on our caroling trip with sweet Ellie just two weeks before.
Allyson and Ellie making crafts on Christmas break
Hadn't I always been reluctant to go, and hadn't I always been glad I'd made the effort afterward? How could I guess what blessing I might miss if I stayed home on Christmas day? I didn't want to wake up on the 26th wondering what might have been, and regretting my selfishness.

Okay, I'm going, I relented. I just have to eat dinner first. 

By the time I'd made dinner (messing up the kitchen again) and changed out of my fluffy lounge/pajama pants, it was 7. And by the time I got there it was closing in on 7:30.

The halls were dim, and completely void of residents. I saw an employee with a medicine cart in one of the halls we frequent. "Excuse me," I said. "Do you know of anyone who'd enjoy some company?"

He stared at me like I'd asked a ridiculous question that he wouldn't even bother to answer. He shrugged his shoulders briskly and turned back to his work.

"Okay. Well, merry Christmas," I said, my voice trailing off at the end.

In the next hall I repeated my query to a friendlier looking lady who was piling sheets into a laundry cart. She thought for a moment before gesturing to the door across the hall. "She's usually up late, and she likes to talk," she said.

I hesitated in front of the closed door. Usually when I go there, I only talk to the people whose doors are open for fear of intruding on someone's privacy. But, I'd made the effort to come here on Christmas day, and I didn't want to leave without talking to anyone. So I knocked gently. If anyone answered, the voice was too faint to hear through the heavy door. I cracked the door an inch, "May I come in?"

"Yes," came the faint reply. "What do you need?"

I could feel my face turning crimson in the dim light of her lamp. "I... I was wondering if you might... enjoy some company."

"I already had company today, and I'm pretty tired," she said.

"Oh, of course. I'm sorry to have disturbed you. Merry Christmas," I said, my voice trailing off at the end.

Hot humiliation surged over me as I hurried down the hall and around the corner, away from the kind employee who must have witnessed my embarrassment.

Where was everyone?  We'd come at just this time two years in a row for caroling, and the halls had been full of residents, with nearly every door open. Maybe the old people were worn out from the festivities. But surely someone must be up. I still wasn't ready to admit defeat.

As I wandered through the back hall, two women at the desk asked if I was looking for someone. I swallowed hard. "I'm just wondering if anyone would enjoy some company tonight, someone who didn't have any visitors?"

"Well, most of them are asleep by now," one of the women said. "I'm not sure you'll find anyone this late."

"Oh," I said. "Well, merry Christmas."

I hurried into the hall I'd just left, searching for a restroom so I could let the tears come and then wash my face and get back to my comfy house.

There didn't seem to be any restrooms on this hall, and I couldn't remember where we'd found one before. Rubbing my knuckles across my eyes, I sniffed hard and took several deep breaths.

As I passed the site of my humiliation, I looked away from the closed door... and glanced at a woman in the room across the hall.

"Are you looking for someone?" she asked in a strong, clear voice.

I drew in a deep breath and stopped in the threshold of her doorway. "Well, I came here hoping to find someone who'd enjoy some company, but I can't find anyone tonight."

"That's because it's already past lights-out," she said.

"Yes, I guess I waited too long to come out," I said, biting my trembling lip.

"No, come on in and sit down," she said, pointing to her bed. "I can talk for a minute."

"Thank you," I mumbled, perching awkwardly on the edge of her mattress.

"So what did you want to talk about?" she asked.

"I..." My mind went blank for a second. "I... hoped you would tell me about your Christmas traditions."

"Oh, we had wonderful traditions," she said. "Mama always made a big dinner, and we had a few presents, and Daddy would cut down a tree from our farm and we would all decorate it."

And that was all. She was apparently not a talker, and I was too rattled to think of any more questions to get her to elaborate.

"So did you come to visit someone in particular?" she asked.

"No, I just like to come and visit people sometimes,"  I said. "I was alone on Christmas, and I thought maybe someone else might be, too."

A tear rolled down my cheek, and I dashed it away.

"Why are you alone on Christmas?" she asked.

I told her about the divorce, and how we had separated just before Christmas three years ago, so that Christmas reminds me of that painful time even though I'm quite happy the rest of the year.

She asked if I'd found anyone else, and I said no, and I'm not looking, after two divorces. She said that she and her husband have been married a long time. She couldn't work out the math, but she said it's been over 60 years.

I asked her their secret, and she said to keep communication open, and to forgive, and to know that hard times come and go.

She asked what I do for a living, and I told her about wanting to go back to teaching. She said her daughter is a middle school teacher in one of the local districts, and she loves it. She gave me some job hunting advice, including buying a nice interview outfit that makes me feel confident.

After five minutes or so, I smiled shyly. "I'd better let you get some rest. I'm sure it's been a busy day. I've enjoyed talking with you, Mary."

"My friends call me Evelyn," she said. "I've enjoyed talking with you, too."

"I'll look for you next time I come out," I said.

And then I hurried for the exit, where I set off the alarm and couldn't figure out how to shut it off! So I had to track down yet another employee who probably thought I was crazy for coming out at 7:30 on Christmas evening.

"I'm so sorry," I said as the woman ended the obnoxious racket.

She waved her hand dismissively. "It happens," she said.

I smiled. "Merry Christmas," I said, and my voice did not trail off at the end.

But in my car, I burst into tears. I cried most of the way home. "This is not at all what I expected, God."

What had I expected? I guess I wanted to brighten someone else's day. I wanted the satisfaction of knowing I had served someone.

I had not expected to disturb someone's rest. Or to feel like an idiot for not realizing people would be asleep by 7:30 p,m.

I had not expected to do a good deed that left me feeling more humiliated than I can remember feeling in years.

"Why did I come?" I asked God. "Was it just my own idea? Or did you want me here?"

In reply, one of my favorite verses passed through my mind: In all things, God works for the good of those who love Him, who have been called according to His purpose (Romans 8:28).

So maybe God didn't call me there. Maybe it was my own desire to make myself feel righteous by doing a good deed. But that didn't mean He couldn't make something good come of my humiliation.

I sobbed harder. "I don't like to feel that way."

I gave voice to the thoughts that filled my mind. "Love is messy. Loving people means taking a risk. Yes, I know. But I don't like to feel like this."

I drove on for a few blocks, only my sniffles breaking the silence.

"Maybe it's good for me to be humbled," I said. "It doesn't matter what people think of me, only what you think of me.... And you love me so much, always."

I still felt blue the rest of my evening, though the apple cake with maple frosting helped a bit.

As I reflected over my experience the next few days, I decided that the lessons I'd learned were worth the discomfort of my bruised ego. I learned that even in the most awkward experience, there are good moments. I learned that some people are kind, even if you've made a fool of yourself. I learned that old people go to bed very early on Christmas day. And I learned that sometimes I'm the one who needs to be loved.

So my Christmas mission didn't turn out at all like I expected. Why should that surprise me? My whole life looks nothing like I expected it to, but that doesn't make it any less wonderful.

This tendency toward disappointed expectations is a long-standing pattern with me. Remember my summer vacation last year? Life would be so much easier if I could let go of my preconceived notions. But I don't want to give up on my great expectations. Instead, I want to learn to expect surprises, to take joy in whatever God may bring to my day. I don't have to know what's coming, as long as I know He's working all things for my good.

Merry belated Christmas, all.

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