The Christmas of 1991 found me recently separated and with joint custody of my 11-year-old daughter and 8-year-old son.
They knew there was no chance for reconciliation, so their mother and I decided that it wouldn't be confusing for them to set aside our differences and give the kids one last traditional Christmas. We took them to the children's Mass on Christmas Eve and went back to her place for the Feast of the Seven Fishes. It was quite nice, truth be told.
I returned the next morning for breakfast and to see what Santa brought. The kids were happy, and I was happy to see them that way.
After a few hours I brought them over to my place for a nice lunch -- hey, I'm Italian, we gotta eat -- and more presents. The soon-to-be ex had had her fill of togetherness, I guess, so she didn't come with us.
Finally, it was time to return them. The long-standing tradition was to visit one of her relatives for Christmas Day dinner. I planned to drop the kids off and then come back, pour myself a nice, big glass of a decent red, and watch what was left of the NBA tripleheader.
But that's not what happened.
I walked them to her door and then grabbed myself two armfuls of children. "Merry Christmas, kids. I love you very much."
"Merry Christmas, Daddy. We love you, too."
And as I stood there, the door slowly closed in my face, and the deadbolt clicked into place. I can still hear that click. And I became overwhelmed by the crushing realization that, for the first time since I had my little angels, they would be somewhere on Christmas where I couldn't go. Where I wasn't even welcome.
Now intellectually I knew, of course, that not everyone is thrilled on Christmas, that many people get together simply out of habit or obligation. I knew that. But with my emotions wrecked, at every house I passed I was certain that all of them were filled with love and beauty and children and happiness. And the homes with lots of cars out front made me feel even worse.
I got home and felt very strange. Uneasy, adrift. And sad. Definitely sad. I've never had a problem being alone, but I found that for me, at least, there was a vast difference between regular alone and Christmas-without-my-kids alone.
I had recently started to see someone, and I thought maybe we had some potential. She told me she usually wrapped up her Christmas stuff at her mom's by mid-afternoon. So I took a chance and called her. Maybe she'd be home.
"Hi, Darlene, it's JF. Merry Christmas."
"Oh, hi, JF. And Merry Christmas to you. How was it with the kids?"
"With the kids it was just great, but, uh, well ... listen, would it be OK if I came over for awhile?"
"Um. Ok. Yeah, sure."
I got there 25 minutes later, and she met me at the door with a big smile. And then she asked, "What's the matter?" Women always know.
I told her what happened and how I was feeling. "I know what you mean," she said. "It gets easier as the years go on, but the first Christmas after my divorce, I felt weird. I felt like I wasn't connected anymore. And worse, I felt like I didn't belong anywhere."
"You know, that's exactly it. I feel like I don't belong anyplace."
And then I said something for the first and only time, before or since, in my adult male life. I asked her, "Would you hold me?"
Anyone who tries to tell you that there is no healing power in a woman's touch has never been held by the right woman.
And it did get easier as the years went by. She was right about that. She was right about a lot of things.
A few years later I married Darlene. That and my two kids represent the three greatest achievements of my up-and-down life.
A very Merry Christmas, and happy holidays, to all.
James F. Cataldi of Moon, a retired dentist, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.