Evelyn quickly put her phone back in her purse and put her mittens back on. The van was still cold and no matter what technology they put into the thumbs, texting was clumsy at best with mittens on. The air was frigid, and the bare trees sparkled with frost.
“I am FREEZING,” said Sally from the back seat. Evelyn glanced at her in the mirror and barely kept from rolling her eyes.
“It is minus twenty and you’re not wearing your parka,” she said. “Or mittens. Or hat. Or anything.”
“Mom. I won’t need them at the mall, and carrying them around is literally the worst.”
“Sally, how many times to I have to tell you…”
“Yes, fine, not literally and not the worst, but it is very hot to carry a parka around the mall and I do not regret my decision except that right now I am as cold as polar bear tits.”
“Sally.” But Evelyn couldn’t stop herself from smirking a little, and Sally saw it in the mirror.
The passenger door opened and Lotta threw herself and a bulging backpack into the van.
“I am EXHAUSTED,” she declared.
“Are you now,” said Evelyn. “Are you literally the most tired anyone has ever been, including me when you breastfed for an entire night without ceasing?”
“You are so dramatic, Mom,” said Lotta.
“Yes, of course, I am the dramatic person in this vehicle. No one has ever been more dramatic. Dear God, when will I ever learn to just chill.”
Lotta didn’t even respond to the sarcasm. She turned in her seat to face Sally, and the two girls launched into a gossip rundown that Evelyn couldn’t hope to understand.
When they got to the mall, the parking lot was already crowded.
“Are you girls sure you want to do this?”
“This was your idea, Mom.”
“Right, yes, okay. Let’s get it over with.”
Within five minutes Evelyn was sweating in her parka but didn’t want to have to carry it. The girls were in Anthropologie, squealing over something tiny and sequined. Evelyn looked over the hideously expensive tree ornaments and wondered where her festive spirit had gone. She knew the answer, but wished for a different one. The year had been devastating, both for their family and for the people in their circles. Christmas Eve marked the anniversary of the death of her best friend Crystal’s mother. Lotta and Sally had both had tragedy in their social circles. And Evelyn and Mark had spent months in triage counselling, trying to save their marriage. Evelyn still wasn’t sure they had done enough, but at least they were still working on it. She wondered if this was the true marker of middle age – all the joyful events of her younger years, the graduations and weddings and births and exciting promotions, slowly being replaced by heartbreaking losses and events. You’re being dramatic again, she told herself. She might roll her eyes at her daughters’ hyperbole, but they came by it honestly.
“Mom, snap out of it!” said Lotta. “We’re done.”
Sally was holding a sparkly paper bag and was beaming. “I can’t wait to wear it!”
Evelyn didn’t ask what it was, or how much it had cost. “Where next?”
“Coffee?” Lotta asked.
“Yes, our treat, Mom.”
“You don’t have to do that,” Evelyn protested. “I can buy it.”
They sandwiched their mother in a hug.
“You need it. And we appreciate that you’re doing this for us.”
Evelyn blinked back tears she didn’t want them to see, and asked for the hundredth time what she’d done to get such loving daughters.
“It’s almost Christmas, it’s almost Christmas!”
Lotta and Sally were dancing around the living room, home from their last day of school before the holidays. Lotta was wearing a Santa hat and Sally had found a bright red onesie with a butt flap. They looked ridiculous.
“You girls are too old for this!” snapped Mark, sitting in his armchair and looking at the newspaper on his iPad. “Go text somebody.”
“Daddy is a Scroo-ooge, Daddy is a Scroo-ooge,” they sang, linking arms and skipping upstairs. Mark sighed loudly.
“iPads are not nearly as satisfying as newspapers because you can’t rustle them to show your annoyance,” he said to Evelyn.
“Hmm,” she said, holding an untouched glass of wine and looking at the reflection of the Christmas tree in the window. Tomorrow was Christmas Eve, their family’s traditional celebration day. Mark was an EMT supervisor and had volunteered to work on Christmas Day for their entire twenty-seven year marriage, because that guaranteed him Christmas Eve off. It was the best possible scenario, given his line of work, but some years Evelyn found it hard. It had never bothered the girls, but when they had been small, Christmas Day was often the worst day of the year for her. This year, everything was prepared; the girls had done most of the work. Even so, a cloud of dread hovered over Evelyn, and she wished it was any other time of year. The thought of faking cheer made her want to lie down on the floor and never get up.
“Mom wants to confirm that we’re going to her place on Boxing Day,” said Mark.
“Of course we are. We do every year. I thought I had confirmed with her already last week,” said Evelyn, snappier than she had intended.
“She’s just making sure,” said Mark, frowning. “What’s with you tonight?”
“Nothing,” she said, finally sipping her wine.
“Come on, Ev. You’ve never been like that.”
“Expecting me to guess what’s wrong with you. Come on, talk.”
“I…” She looked over at him, this man who had proven time and again that he would climb mountains for her. Their near-divorce had been all her fault, she knew, no matter how much the counsellor and Mark himself had said otherwise. She was the one who had retreated, stopped reaching out, let herself drift away from closeness. Mark was saving lives every day, dealing with bullet wounds and car crashes and brain injuries. How was he supposed to understand the ice shards in Evelyn’s heart that even she hadn’t noticed for years?
Mark was still waiting for her to speak. She saw him shift position, glance down at his iPad, twist his wedding ring. Signs of impatience. She tried to form a sentence that would explain how she felt, but the words evaporated when she tried to hold them.
“I’m sorry. I can’t right now. It’s not… I’m just tired.”
His face fell momentarily, then he transformed it into sympathy. “It’s been a rough year.”
“Let’s go out tonight,” he suggested, trying to bridge the gulf. “See a movie, go for coffee. Take a little break from Christmas.”
She wanted nothing more than to crawl into bed, but she said “Sure, that sounds nice.”
Mark smiled, relieved, and turned back to his electronic newspaper. Evelyn drank her wine and commanded herself to do better.
It began to snow while Evelyn was putting the traditional Christmas Eve meatballs on the table. Her first thought was The girls will love this. It was the first thing all day to shake her out of her melancholy, and she was grateful. She lit the four advent candles on the table, then the tea lights on the plate rail around the room so that the dining room was filled with a dim, warm glow. She called the family to the table, and as they each entered, the warmth filled their faces. She pointed silently to the window, the curtains left open, and her daughters’ faces lit with joy. She was reminded of their early years, when snowflakes and Christmas and their mother were magical to them. Again, she was grateful.
They all ate quietly, transfixed by the mood. The snowflakes were falling thick and fast, the fluffy kind that piled up quickly, and by the time they were finished, the back yard was tucked right in.
Evelyn watched her daughters get up and clear the table, rinse the plates, load the dishwasher. She remembered all the times she’d reminded, bribed, cajoled, and fought with them over doing the most basic of tasks, and appreciated how far things had come.
“You coming, Mom?” Lotta called from the living room. Evelyn shook herself. She was alone in the candlelight. She got up and joined her family, feeling as though she was two people in one body. One saw the way her daughters and husband were alive, vibrant, filled with love and happiness. But the other part of her wasn’t able to shake the physical ache in her chest, the jolts of pain when she remembered the too-fresh-to-be-trusted peace with Mark, the never-shifting dread that something else was bound to happen.
It was only a couple of hours until they would go to church, to hear the Christmas story and light the candles and sing Silent Night. Every other year, this had been Evelyn’s favourite part. It centred her, filled her with peace, reminded her of her tiny place in the universe. She had been holding on to hope that this was what she needed to restore her equilibrium, but as the minutes ticked past, the gloom rose until it choked her.
She could tell that Mark, Sally, and Lotta were concerned. She knew they wanted to fix everything for her, to bring her into their joy. She wanted it too.
She excused herself and went upstairs to her room. They would have a whispered conversation about what to do, she was sure. She allowed herself to cry, briefly, muffling her sobs with a hand towel and splashing water on her face to make herself stop. Her phone buzzed in her pocket.
I wasn’t going to say anything, but I’m really not doing well tonight. I don’t know what I’m asking for, but I think I’m asking for help.
Oh, Crystal. Sadness enshrouded her, her heart cracked. She knew, she had been to counselling, she knew that her own feelings were valid, that she was allowed to feel sad this Christmas, that the things that had happened in her life were hard things. But Crystal, losing her mother after her that jerk, that asshole, that dickhead left her for their daughter’s friend, and then her daughter blamed her for it, and cut her off, and now she had to live alone in an apartment, Crystal who was the bravest, most courageous person Evelyn had ever known, Crystal who came to help her when Mark left her overnight, when Lotta and Sally had drenched the house in icy silence, who sent flowers just because, Crystal was asking for help.
Evelyn stood up. She looked at herself in the mirror and saw an ordinary middle-aged mom, a financial advisor, doing her best but never quite good enough. She saw lines of joy and pain. She saw the residue of her tears. She saw a set to her shoulders and jaw that had been earned, chosen, and fought for.
She went downstairs. Sally, Lotta, and Mark sat up quickly and guiltily.
“I’m not coming to church,” she said, and felt the relief in her body as she said it. “Crystal texted me, so I’m going to her place. I’ll be back before you have to go to work, Mark, but don’t wait up.”
They nodded at her, and Lotta dashed into the kitchen. She came out just as Evelyn was heading out the door and handed her a grocery bag filled with leftovers from their Christmas party – cheese, crackers, chocolate, and wine. Evelyn embraced her trying to communicate with her body what she could not with her words, did the same with Sally and Mark, and left.
The world was muffled and quiet apart from someone a few streets over trying to get their car unstuck. Evelyn swept the snow off the van and drove to Crystal’s at a snail’s pace. She buzzed herself in.
Crystal opened the door, heartbreak etched into her face. “I was going to try to keep busy,” she said, her voice choking and hoarse, “but it turned out to be impossible. I just miss them all so much, and I can’t stop…”
Evelyn steered her to the couch, and together they sat, weeping into the dark.