I was sitting on the kitchen floor, trying to muffle my crying, when my husband found me that Christmas Day about ten years ago.
“Oh my God, what’s wrong?” he asked, his voice full of concern.
My response was a babble of how the kitchen was a mess, how I had spent hours cleaning it for two days so I could have it clean for Christmas, but because my husband and kids decided to make a big breakfast Christmas morning, the kitchen was now a mess again — flour on the counters, dirty pans on the stove, and I was faced with more cleaning before having to prepare Christmas dinner — which then I’d have to clean up after.
All of this between sobs and whining noises that only the dog could hear.
It was an epic, and well-earned, meltdown on my part. That past year, we’d been coming to terms with the fact that our youngest wasn’t just developmentally delayed, she had a disability such that she would probably always need to live with us. Just a couple of weeks before Christmas, she’d been diagnosed with epilepsy.
I’d been fighting depression and anxiety all year and trying to dig my way out of the messy house that came with it. Having the house clean for Christmas had been important to me. A clean house meant that I had my stuff together, that I was getting control of things, that I was a better mom than what I thought I was. A clean house meant a whole lot of things that it didn’t really mean, but it was important at the time. If my house was clean, then it wouldn’t bother me, and I could relax and enjoy the holiday.
I really wanted to enjoy the day.
Instead, I was sitting on the floor in desperate need of a tissue, hyperventilating.
My husband, who was now also sitting on the floor, apologized for messing up my clean kitchen, and offered to take care of things. I hiccupped about how I still had to cook dinner, and things needed to be started asap or else they wouldn’t be done in time, and maybe how everything was impossible because at that point, everything seemed impossible.
“How about we just order Chinese food?” he suggested.
I blinked at him.
“The kids don’t care about the food, and it’s just us anyway. It would be easier.”
A week later, as I told this story to my therapist, I got to this point, and she leaned in. “And what was your answer?” she asked eagerly.
“I told him to see if the Chinese restaurant was open,” I said.
“Yes! That was the right response!” she cheered.
And it was. It was exactly the right response. I was there, crushed to the floor with the burden of making a perfect holiday, and was given an escape route. I could have forced myself to reject the easier path, to pull myself together and make the damn Christmas dinner.
Instead, I chose the easier route, and in doing so, I chose to enjoy my day.
I can’t remember if the kitchen ever got cleaned or if we decided to just ignore the mess. I do know that the Chinese restaurant was open, and the kids thought it was great to get Chinese for Christmas dinner. Afterwards, I sat on the couch laughing with our youngest while the older three and my husband had an epic Nerf gun battle through the house. For months afterwards, we found orange darts in odd places.
I had given up my idea of what it should be, and embraced what the day could be.
The kids remember it as one of the best Christmases ever.
Go figure, so do I.
Life is funny — you grow up thinking if you just go to school, find the right job, marry the right person, have babies at the right time, that things will go well for you, and there you are on Christmas Day, with the perfect turkey cooked perfectly, the centerpiece of your perfectly laid out table.
But that’s not how it works for most of us, and you’ll find yourself faced with choices. Complicated, messy choices that are hard. There is no getting around those. Some choices are made for you and you have to go along with them.
And sometimes, you are faced with a choice that is almost ridiculously simple, and yet can change everything. They are the choices that end up as the memories we cherish most.
So as we head into this holiday season, I hope you all are able to make a choice that’s easy and that brings joy.