Christmas Doors and Dinners

It was Christmas Day. I was in my pretty little Connecticut condo, a gelatinous, grey fog enveloping, but not quite paralyzing me. No, I wouldn’t celebrate with friends. Or drive to be with family. The thought of merrymaking left me cold.

Though swaddled in depression, I had planned ahead. I had checked out all three parts of The Godfather from the library. The Corleones’ brutality and grandiosity would take up 547 minutes of what I expected to be a long day. And they would, I hoped, lift me from the desert of not feeling and land me somewhere, anywhere different.

It had been almost fifteen years since I was released from the stately looking hospital on a hill in southern New England, with its manicured lawns, its white linen tablecloths on Sunday dinner tables. I had arrived there on a brilliant but brittle January morning, and stayed over five months, though the plan had been for me to be there only twenty-eight days, in the hope of stopping drinking and wanting to live again.

I took to recovery gladly. By the time I left the hospital on the hill, I was confident, for example, that I would know peace; I would comprehend the word serenity. After all, ever since I heard a Higher Power’s voice—“Madeleine, you’ve had enough.”—I had been relieved of both the need and desire to drink. I expected that other miracles, in addition to the gift of sobriety, would follow. And they did. I made friends, got a job in the nick of time, found a wonderful place to live. But even years later, during that Christmas season, for example, the fog rolled in when it damn well pleased and I was back in the grey, aimlessly roaming, reluctant to allow anyone to see me in that dim light.

For years, I fought medication. I was sober! If I just worked my program, if I just tried harder, everything would be okay. After all, wasn’t the fog my fault, my failing? But everything wasn’t okay, no matter how many steps I worked, no matter how intently and consistently I prayed. When I finally agreed to try medication, I allowed myself to hope. Maybe this one will work. But, after a week, ten days maybe, hope wavered when side-effects—uncontrollable jitters, insatiable hunger and subsequent weight gain, dull-headedness—all landed me in even deeper, darker chasms.

So, there I was, years after my last drink. Alone. On Christmas Day. Trying to believe the holiday was, as friends often said, just another twenty-four hours. I would watch my films, even though I had seen them many times before. And I would wait for the fog to lift. This too shall pass. Or, as someone further along in recovery once told me: It’s passing right now. Yes, that slogan version I could hang onto. It reminded me that everything, everything is transitory, and that waiting, consciously, expectantly, is an action, far preferable to fighting or struggling or striving.

The night before I had gone to Mass at the nearby Monastery of Saint Clare. The nuns had opened their doors to me years earlier, when I went there to worship and pray there. I sang “O Come All Ye Faithful” and “Silent Night” with them and about twenty-five others, including a friend who, like me, knew what it was like to feel lost in very dark woods. An empathetic look from her, the view from the chapel, over the pond, surrounded by attentive, fragrant pines, a dusting of snow on the sloping hill. Yes, everything would be fine yet again. It’s passing right now.

•■•

I cued up The Godfather—Part Two, refilled my celebratory glass of Pellegrino and nestled back into the couch, when the phone rang. I hesitated before answering. I didn’t want anyone asking why I wasn’t out with friends, or Upstate with family, instead of gawping at a severed horse’s head on satin bedsheets, or disbelieving men who left their guns but took their cannoli after executing a fellow gangster.

Move a muscle, change a thought. Answering was the sober thing to do.

It was Tom. Recently divorced. Living in a garage apartment. Driving an aging Camry instead of the red 911 his wife got in the divorce. Like me, Tom wasn’t knowing peace, or comprehending the word serenity that Christmas. But, also like me, he wanted to stay sober more than he wanted to drink. I’d had an unabashed crush on him from the first time I saw him across a church basement. Usually not a good sign. There was something so darned adorable about him. Plus, he was a little bit mopey. Like he needed to be rescued, though he was loath to let anyone close. I knew that feeling. I had watched from afar for a couple years as he hopscotched in and out of relationships the way only the newly divorced do. And I had waited.

I didn’t want to go out. Not even with Tom. Not even for a beach walk. Certainly not for dinner. How depressing would that be? But, wait. Was the possibility of connection flickering?

We decided to go to a reliable Chinese place at the top of the avenue, one of the few restaurants open on the holiday. But when we hung up, I balked. The thought of changing out of my sweats into something decent, putting on a little jewelry, mascara and lipstick, felt as daunting as if l I was about to dress for a gala at The Met. But I did it. Like I said, Tom was so adorable.

•■•

Sitting across the restaurant table didn’t look or feel much like early childhood Christmas dinners I remembered fondly. The ones where cousins and I dined at the kids’ table on canned fruit cocktail, topped with maraschino cherries, in crystal goblets. And, oh yeah, teensy glasses of sicky-sweet red wine. After the meal, there were the men, narcotized by too much rib roast and Linzer torte, in front of the television. My uncles and cousins dozing. My father wondering whether the bets he’d made were winners, biting his nails when the outcomes looked grim.

The best part of the day, though, was working side by side with the cadre of women, in our small kitchen, cleaning up after the meal. One washing, three or four drying, after having ushered us all to Midnight Mass, then waking at five to put the presents under the trees—as if we hadn’t already peeked into the boxes, hidden in our parents’ closets, or under their beds. But there they were, these indefatigable women, doing what needed to be done, seemingly happily. Their rhythms familiar, uncomplaining. Comforting. At least they seemed so. But that was before I drank from bigger glasses of wine, then vodka bottles, and alcohol and depression separated me from them. Before I saw what was really going on in our families’ homes, behind closed doors.

•■•

I ordered steamed chicken and broccoli, sauce on the side. Tom went with General Tso’s. While we waited for our meals, there we sat. Him with his MBA, me with my Ivy League and Fortune 500 credentials. Each of us in lesser jobs than we were capable of. But each of us relieved of the need to drink. We tried to allow that to be enough as we wobbled through conversation that sounded, at first, as if we were speaking through Jell-o.

“How’s work?”

“Fine.”

“How’s your novel coming along?”

“Fine.”

Until that wasn’t enough. Until we were willing to risk. We had our gratitude, after all. Our commitment that, for those twenty-four hours, we would not only avoid picking up, but we would be willing to open doors, not shut them in each other’s faces. No, Tom hadn’t heard from his sons. They still weren’t talking to him. No, I hadn’t considered driving Upstate to visit family. Even after many years, the cost of pretending I was alright there felt too big a price to pay. And in the empathy that passed between us, the possibility that our challenges would resolve didn’t seem at all as remote as they had just hours earlier. Like my older program friend had told me, they were passing right then and there. They were resolving on the schedule that wasn’t ours to control. All while we reached across the table, if not to touch physically, then to understand, to encourage, to respect each other’s journeys, convoluted as they were at the time.

•■•

“I’m glad you called,” I said when Tom walked me to my door.

“I’m glad you answered.”

A quick, feathery kiss. A long warm hug.

As the door closed behind him, I turned back to catch one more glimpse of him. On that Christmas Day, for those twenty-four hours, we had been granted the gift of possibility, of freedom from the need to try to alter our circumstances with something other than connection, understanding and truth. Before I settled back into the couch, I ejected The Godfather—Part Two from the VCR and played music instead.

Earlier in the day, I wanted to shelter in place until the grey fog passed. Until I was my smiling, put-together self again. I was trying to heal on my own. But that was before a call, an unforeseen invitation nudged me to try a different way, to be willing to say, Yes, Tom, I’ll go to dinner. I’ll let you see and hear me at what feels like my least desirable…I’ll witness your journey and mine, no matter how circuitous and messy they now seem.

Then, because new doors had been opened, and new stories told, I didn’t need to replay old films whose tragic endings I already knew. I could hope. And wait. And know that I was not alone.


Madeleine P. happily lives and writes in South Florida. She’s looking forward to spending a sunlit Christmas there, no grey fog in sight.

Last Updated on November 13, 2020

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