That Christmas LtColEx was on a remote tour to Korea. He'd been gone almost a year and a half--six months in Washington DC, followed immediately by a year-long stint in Korea to which his family wasn't invited. Drake was ten, Elvira was four, and by the time LtColEx came home, Elvira couldn't remember when he used to live with us. We didn't have email and phone calls were rare. I won't bore you with the details of how difficult that winter was--flu, record snowfalls that stranded us at home, spending all day together homeschooling with no relief at 5:30 and too little adult contact. I'll just say it's really hard to keep somebody's space open in your life for that long, and that's the reason 75% of marriages end after just a one-year remote tour.
As Christmas neared, I did everything I could to make it special and, at the same time, normal for the kids. After they went to bed, I sewed a big, faux suede cape for Drake and painted wooden eggs to look like dragon eggs (one cracking open) for Elvira. They were going to go in her stocking and, knowing how much she would love them, I wished I could share the suspense with someone who would understand. It was lonely work being Santa that year, and, anyway it's a special feeling when you're chosen to share imminent surprises, right? I remember how mature I felt when I came out as a Santa disbeliever, and how much fun it was to be in on the secret and help play the Santa game with my four younger sibs.
Like I said, Drake was ten, so you would probably expect I could let him in on some of the Santa prep. And I would have, except he still believed in old St. Nick. If he had been most kids...hell, if he had been his sister....I would have suspected he was saying he believed just so he'd still get presents. A lot of kids think if they tell anybody they're on to us, they won't get any more Santa presents. But Drake wasn't like that. He's just never learned how to play those games. As far as I could tell, he'd never even questioned whether Santa existed or not.
And yet, how could he not have doubts? He had friends. Surely they talked. I thought he had to know. At his age, how could he not? Unless what they said about homeschoolers was really true, and we were hiding our kids from the real world, not letting them be "normal," whatever the hell that is. I was—fuck it, I'm just going to admit this--kind of embarrassed that he still believed some fat guy in a red suit slipped down our chimney and left filled stockings and Legos by the tree. And I really wanted to show him these cool eggs I was making and bring him in on the fun of playing Santa.
So one night a few days before Christmas as I was tucking him in I thought I was going to get my chance. He started the conversation. "Mom, Scott Murphy (a kid in his scout troop) said there isn't really a Santa. I told him he's wrong, but he said I should stop being a baby."
"Oh, yeah. What else did he say?" Finally somebody had let the kitty out.
"He said you and Dad are Santa and you're the ones who put the presents under the tree. I told him my dad can't put presents under our tree this year, and I know I'll still get some. And I told him Santa always eats the milk and cookies we put out for him. I don't know why he would say that. He's such a jerk sometimes." Not going well. Such indignation. "He's wrong, right, Mom? There really is a Santa Claus?"
This seemed like my chance. I was afraid he'd really get teased if other kids knew he still believed at his age. Still.....I loved his innocence, his belief in heroes and people who do good just because they can.
"Would you want to know if there wasn't a Santa? Would you want to know if I was the one putting the presents under the tree this year?"
A pretty broad hint, I thought, but I didn't expect his reaction. He started crying. "No!" He could barely get the words out he was crying so hard. "I wouldn't want to know if Santa wasn't real because that would mean all those kids all over the world aren't really getting presents for Christmas. And I know a lot of them don't even have enough food to eat the rest of the year, so they need to get presents for Christmas." He was sobbing, in his own little super-hero world, worrying not about whether he'd stop getting presents from Santa, but whether all the other kids in the world would have a Christmas. Not really what I expected from a ten-year-old boy.
I lay down beside him and put my arms around him. "Don't be silly," I said. "Of course there's a Santa. How could there not be a Santa?"
He finally calmed down and said, "That's what I thought. Scott Murphy is just wrong and I feel sorry for him."
"I do too," I said. And that Christmas I played Santa all by myself for my two excited, elf-believing children. Elvira thought the dragon eggs were real and patiently waited for them to hatch. Drake flew around the house in his cape fighting bad guys. There were children all over the world who didn't celebrate Christmas, who didn't have enough to eat, much less presents under a shiny evergreen tree, but for one more year I kept that secret to myself. These are burdens our kids will share soon enough, and I've always been ashamed that I forgot for even an instant how short that time of innocence is.
The next year, Drake no longer believed in Santa Claus, and I wished, just like my FB friend, that he'd had one more year of believing Santa really existed. I wish I had one more year too.