Dawn Downey on How to Survive Christmas Alone

December 17

Pull the covers over your head to block the morning light, and rest in the spot where your husband ought to be. 

Remember sitting here in bed beside him, propped up with pillows, a map spread between you. You had traced the highways and picked the overnight towns between home and the retreat center out east, where you had planned to spend the last two weeks of the year. It turned out you had wanted to stay home. It also turned out Ben had still wanted to go. Ordinarily your disagreements ended with one of you saying I don’t feel strongly. Let’s do what you want. This one had ended with him standing quietly in his truth and you standing quietly in yours. Remember how your certainty had caught you off guard. 


Wince at the prize you’ve won by standing in your truth: Christmas Alone. Your family spread across the country and you without a plane ticket, your friends with families of their own and you without an invitation. 

Think about being one with what-is. 
Think about surrendering to each moment. 
Think how un-enlightened you are. You don’t want to be one with Christmas Alone. 

Suspect if you were a better person—generous, kind, considerate—invitations would flood your email and your voice mail. 
Get out of bed and check your voice mail. Feel ridiculous. 
Eat breakfast. Write. Eat lunch. Write. Eat dinner. 
Drive to yoga class. 

On your way home, curse the shortened winter days. Curse the dark driveway. Curse the gloomy house. Fumble with the remote control. The garage door groans open. Hesitate as the car idles. Idle with the car. Once inside the garage, pause before pushing the button to close the door behind you. Before crossing the threshold into the house, pause again, one hand on the doorknob. 

December 18
An out-of-town friend calls. Recognize her country-singer drawl and calculate: she lives by herself four hours away; you could visit her, stay overnight, return on the twenty-sixth, the whole Christmas Alone problem solved. 

A country-singer drawl cuts through your calculations. Your friend is worried her forgetfulness is turning into Alzheimer’s. She’s panicked she’ll be trapped inside her mind, inside a nightmare. 

Remember your grandmother. Fighting with the lock on the front door. She’d tugged the handle, and the deadbolt had banged against the door jam. Her boney fingers had stuck out from the sleeves of a jogging suit, and the pants were falling off her skinny bottom. 

“Where you going,” you’d asked. 
“Home,” she’d said. 
“You are home.” 
 A country-singer drawl cuts through your memories. You should console your friend, but instead think at least you’re not afraid of Alzheimer’s. Feel un-enlightened. 

December 19
Make a joyful noise at Second Baptist Church. “Hark the herald angels sing, glory to the newborn king.” Pat your feet. Sing off-key. Feel both anonymous and essential. 

Twin girls read the announcements in high-pitched pubescent voices. The church is providing dinner for anyone who’s Alone On Christmas. Laugh when the pastor interrupts the twins, “Don’t get between me and the sweet potato pie.” 

Remember sweet potato pie, cinnamon and clove on your tongue. 
Imagine little boys in grown-up suits and red bow ties. Imagine old women clucking at you to “fill up your plate, child, you ain’t bigger than a minute.” 

Jot down 3:00 Xmas dinner on the back of the worship program, and stick it in your purse. 

Hum to yourself all the way down the church steps and across the parking lot, waving goodbye, God bless. 

Remember your house. It lies in wait, slack-jawed, ready to suck you into its belly. 

Drive to Target. Pretend you don’t see the Salvation Army bell ringer. Push a squeaky cart toward cosmetics, while Bing Crosby drones on about a white Christmas. Pick up a bottle of lotion. Set it back on the shelf. Pluck a cardigan from the sweater rack. Return it to the rack. Inspect a pair of headphones in electronics. Set them back on the shelf. Jimmy Stewart plays on the big screen televisions. Half a dozen Jimmy Stewarts handing out cash to the bank customers. You’re annoyed. Buy dental floss. 

At home, discover eBay. Bid on a coat you’d tried on at a department store but were too cheap to buy. Search the Internet for yoga tights. Search for luggage. Feel the life force leech out through your fingertips. Search for headphones. 

Slam the laptop shut. 
Scream, “What are you doing?” 
Try to recall the rhythms of your weekly routine. Check your calendar for last Sunday. Nothing’s listed, because Sundays are free days. You don’t feel free. 

See your grandmother fighting the front door. 

December 20
Stick a note on your laptop: no Internet shopping today. 
Eat breakfast. Check your eBay bid. 
Pick up War and Peace where you left off last month. You don’t recognize the characters. You can’t tell whether they’re at peace or at war. 

Meditate. 
Fall asleep. 
Read. Fall asleep. 
Go to bed at 7:00. 
Don’t fall asleep. 
You have no reason to sleep, read, or meditate. 
You have no reason not to. 
Hop out of bed at 8:00. Run the dishwasher. Mop the kitchen floor. Write a check for the water bill. Lay the pen gently on the counter. Whisper, “What are you doing?” 

December 21
At 2:00 AM throw a down coat over your pajamas and venture onto the patio to witness the eclipse of a blood moon on Winter Solstice. An icy breeze bites your ankles as patchy clouds drift across the heavens. The clouds part and then close. Part and close. Dissipate and reassemble. Each time, the moon re-emerges as an ever-thinner crescent, until the final sliver disappears. 

Witness yourself on the patio, in the middle of the night, alone, and calm. Feel yourself dissipate and reassemble. 

Go back to bed. Get up again at 7:00. Decide to do something fun today. Try to remember fun. Draw a blank. 
Check your eBay bid. Search online for yoga tights. Search for luggage. Search for headphones. Read celebrity gossip. 

December 22
Attend your Wednesday night book group. They’re surprised to see you. Your Catholic friend says, “Thought you were on retreat with Ben.” Remember how welcome you feel at her place. Ask what time she’s having Christmas dinner. Paste a fake that’s-great expression on your face when she says, “I’m not. I’m going to my sister-in-law’s.” Feel like a cage door has slammed shut behind you. 

Call your out-of-town friend; anticipate her country-singer drawl. 
She’s four hours away and at the same time right there in the palm of your hand. 
She tells you her girlfriends are all going away for the holidays this year. You laugh ironically at how the universe is handing both of you Christmas Alone. Say, “If the weather’s okay, I’ll come down.” Fail to appreciate the irony when she says, “I won’t be here. I’m driving to Little Rock tomorrow.” 

December 23
Check your eBay bid. You win. The coat is yours. Feel triumphant. Feel let down. Insist on fitting entertainment into your day. Write a To-Do list: art museum, grocery store, bank, drug store. You hate all that running around. Scribble out art museum. 

Check the forecast. The weatherman is wearing a Santa hat. He says snow all night tonight and all day tomorrow. He looks proud of himself. Curse the weatherman. Curse his Santa hat. Dig the worship program out of your purse, with its 3:00 Xmas dinner note. Toss it in the trash. 

Grab the grocery list, and point the Honda toward the store. Let the car take you to the art museum. Find yourself in front of “Mill at Limetz.” Find yourself in front of “Guanyin of the Southern Sea.” Feel content. Find yourself confused trying to exit the parking lot. 

Navigate through stacked-up traffic on your way to the store. Feel the drivers lean forward against their steering wheels at the red lights. Only two shopping days left! Everything must go! Sleigh bells ring, are you listening? You’re not part of it; you’re an alien floating in an alternate space-time continuum. 

Park, and float across the lot. 
Pretend you don’t see the Salvation Army bell ringer. 
Notice the turkeys and hams and tubs of whipped cream in the other carts. 
Toss your bag of frozen dinners into your back seat. 
Loneliness encases you like a casket. The casket walls press against your arms and the top of your head. Feel the coffin lowered into the ground, shovels of heavy dirt raining down on the lid. You can’t see. You can’t breathe. You don’t want to. 

After a block, that whole feeling evaporates. Your car is in drive, but your body and mind are in neutral. 

Pull into your driveway and discover you left the living room light on for the plants, and now the interior is backlit through the etched glass of the front door. Notice the sight of it feels like opening a present to find exactly what you wanted. 

Every few days, your phone rings. Expect it to be Ben, even though there’s no cell phone service where he is. Think this is what it will feel like, if he dies before you do. 
Lie in bed, read, feel drowsiness coming on. Nothing happened today. No museum. No grocery store. No today. There is only the bedroom. Right before sleep descends, understand there’s no bedroom. 

December 24
Fold clothes that are bunched up at the foot of the bed. Vacuum. Sweep away a cobweb from the ceiling near the window. Dust the nightstands and the headboard with lemon oil. Take a whiff. So clean. 

For dinner, treat yourself to pizza and a fire in the fireplace. Pop a movie into the DVD player. After the credits roll, you don’t want to go upstairs to bed. The flames flicker and wrap a smoky scent around you. You want to linger. Stretch out on the couch with a book. Let your fingertip relish the soft edges of the pages. Ask, “What are you doing?” Sleep there, in front of the fire. 

December 25
Bundle up for your morning walk. It’s only fifteen degrees. Even though there’s no snow (curse the weatherman for making you worry for nothing), marvel at the stark beauty of winter. Naked branches of oak and cyprus trees, evergreens poking into a steely gray sky. The shocking quiet in the middle of the city. Feel the urge to tiptoe. 

You stop abruptly further down the block. Someone has parked too many cars in their driveway. Your tidy neighborhood usually has nothing out of place. Two-car garages. Two cars per house. Weave a C-shaped path around the cars, into the street, and back onto the sidewalk. 

Wait. Turn around. One, two, three—six cars. What’s going on? Football party so early in the morning? 
Family visiting … from out of town. 
Realize: today is … Christmas. 
Wonder when it happened. Was it Christmas before the overflowing driveway, back there under the steely gray sky, beneath the naked oaks? Did Christmas arrive in one of those six cars? 

Picture the travelers crowded into the house, children in sleeping bags on the floor near the tree. Are they awake yet? Are the parents saying wait ’til after breakfast, honey? 

Realize Christmas arrived when you painted that picture. 
Feel calm. 
Remember when your grown siblings came home to your parents’ house for Christmas. 

Try to hear the word honey. Hear your father ridicule your brother because the handcrafted rug he designed for your sister is taking too long to finish. “You planning to give it to her next year?” Hear your mother count the presents she’s bought for each member of the family, because “somebody complained about getting fewer than everybody else.” Hear the handcuffs snap around your cousin’s wrists, the cops helping your father teach her a lesson for hot-wiring your car, even though you didn’t press charges and your mother’s crying “Bill, don’t do this.” 

Realize the Christmas you miss never existed. 
See your grandmother fighting the front door. 
“Where you going?” 
“Home.” 
“You are home.” 
Walk back to your house on this ordinary day. 
Wash clothes. Write. Play a Bob Marley CD. Sing off-key. At bedtime, watch a funny movie. 
When it ends, sob. 
You speculate you killed Christmas, and you’re grieving its loss. Then speculate you’re grieving the loss of a past you never had. Sense it doesn’t matter. 

Blow your nose. 
Picture Ben on retreat, meditating with the other retreatants under the gaze of a golden Buddha statue. Say, “Night, Sweetheart. I miss you.” 
Catch a faint scent of lemon oil. Take a whiff. So clean. 


© Dawn Downey. All rights reserved.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Dawn Downey is the author of From Dawn to Daylight: Essays and Stumbling Toward the Buddha: Stories about Tripping over My Principles on the Road to Transformation. Publications featuring her work include Persimmon Tree, Kansas City Voices, and Skirt! Magazine. She lives in Kansas City. Connect with her at dawndowney.com

  • If stories come to you, care for them. And learn to give them away where they are needed. Sometimes a person needs a story more than food to stay alive. —Barry Lopez, in Crow and Weasel

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