Slice. Scoop. Plop. I don't feel like doing this. Slice. Scoop. Plop. I
don't want to do this. I don't want to shop . . . Slice. Scoop. Plop. I
don't want to decorate. I just want to skip it . . . Slice. Scoop. Plop.
And pretend I didn't notice this year.
I plopped the last of the ready-made cookie dough onto the cookie sheet and
shoved it into the oven. These standard-issue chocolate chip cookies would
be a far cry from the bejeweled affairs I'd baked for 26 years, but the
only reason I'd even summoned the effort was because my youngest son, Ross,
had opened and reopened the cookie jar four times the previous night,
saying with 14-year-old tact, "What? No Christmas cookies this year?"
A big piece of the family was now missing-or hadn't anybody noticed?
Since today was the 23rd, and his older siblings, Patrick and Molly, would
be arriving Christmas Eve, Ross informed me that they would be "big-time
disappointed" if there wasn't "cool stuff" to eat. This from the same kid
who had never watched a Christmas TV special in his life and had to be
dragged into the family photo for the annual Christmas card. I never
considered a family picture this year. A big piece of the family was now
missing-or hadn't anybody noticed?
The First Christmas
All my friends had been telling me the same thing since the day of the
funeral: "Pam, the first year after you lose your husband is the hardest.
You have to go through the first Valentine's Day without him, the first
birthday, the first anniversary . . ." They hadn't been kidding. What they
hadn't told me was that Christmas was going to top them all in hard-to-take.
It wasn't that Tom had loved Christmas that much. He'd always complained
that the whole thing was too commercial and that when you really thought
about it, Easter was a much more important celebration in the church. The
phone rang. Molly was calling collect from the road. She and two dorm
buddies were driving home after finals.
"Do you know what I'm looking forward to?" she said.
"Sleeping for 72 straight hours?" I said.
"No." She sounded a little deflated. "Coming home from Christmas Eve
services and seeing all those presents piled up under the tree. It's been
years since I've cared what was in them or how many were for me-I just like
seeing them there. How weird is that?
"Not weird at all, my love, I thought. I sighed, took a piece of paper, and
penciled in a few gift ideas for Ross; Molly; Patrick; his wife, Amy; my
A Sense of Normalcy
And then I snapped the pencil down on the counter. A part of me understood
that the kids were in denial. Tom's sudden death 11 months earlier had left
them bewildered and scared. And now at Christmas, their shock was
translated into exaggerated enthusiasm.
The Cobb family Christmas traditions provided a sense of normalcy for them.
Patrick had even asked me last week if I still had the old John Denver
Christmas album. But as far as I was concerned, there just wasn't that
much to deck the halls about. Tom was gone. I was empty and unmotivated. At
worst, I wished they'd all just open the presents and carve the turkey
When the oven dinged, I piled two dozen brown circles on a plate and left a
note for Ross: I don't want to hear any more complaining! Gone shopping. I
love you. Mom.
The complaining, however, went on in my head as I elbowed my way through
the mob at the mall. Tom was right, I thought. This is all a joke.
It really was everything he hated-canned music droning its false merriment,
garish signs luring me to buy, tired-looking families dragging themselves
around, worrying about their credit card limits as they snapped at their
Funny, I thought while gazing at a display of earrings I knew Molly
wouldn't wear. All the time Tom was here pointing this out to me, it never
bothered me. Now it's all I can see. I abandoned the earring idea and took
to wandering the mall, hoping for inspiration so Molly would have something
to look at under the tree. It wasn't going to be like years past-I should
have told her that. She wasn't going to see a knee-deep collection of
exquisitely wrapped treasures that Tom always shook his head over.
"You've gone hog-wild again," he would always tell me-before adding one
more contribution. Instead of buying me a gift, he'd write a check in my
name to Compassion International or a local food pantry, place it in a red
envelope, and tuck it onto a branch of our Christmas tree. "This is a true
Christ-gift," he'd tell me. "It's a small demonstration that Christ is real
in our lives."
I stopped in mid-mall, lettings the crowds swirl past me. Tom wasn't
there, a fact that the rest of the family didn't want to face or discuss.
But he could still be with us, maybe just a little.
I left the mall and quickly found a Christmas tree lot. The man looked
happy to unload one very dry tree for half price. He even tied it to my
roof rack. Then it was off to Safeway, where I bought a 24-pound
Butterball and all the trimmings. Back home, the decoration boxes weren't
buried too deeply in the garage. I'd barely gotten them put away last year
when Tom had his heart attack.
I was still sorting boxes when Ross emerged from the kitchen, munching the
last of the two dozen cookies.
"Oh, I thought we weren't going to have a tree this year," he said between
"Well, we are. Can you give me a hand getting it up?"
Two hours later, Ross and I stood back and admired our Christmas tree. The
lights winked softly as I straightened a misshapen glittery angel Molly had
made in second-grade and Ross' first-birthday Christmas ball. I wanted to cry.
The house sprang to life when everyone arrived Christmas Eve. In the middle
of our church service, however, my spirits sagged. There was no lonelier
feeling than standing in the midst of one's family singing "Silent Night"
-surrounded by a vivacious college daughter; a sweet, gentle
daughter-in-law; a handsome, successful 25-year-old son; a wide-eyed,
mile-a-minute 3-year-old grandson; and an awkward teenager whose hugs were
like wet shoelaces-and be keenly aware that someone was missing. Back at
home, everyone continued to avoid the subject.
"The tree is gorgeous, Mom," Molly said. She knelt down and began hauling
gifts out of a shopping bag to add to my pile.
"I love what you did with the wrappings, Pam," Amy said. "You're always so
"I forgot to buy wrapping paper," I told her. "I had to use newspaper."
It was Christmas as usual-easier to pretend everything was normal than deal
with harsh reality. Ross and Patrick sparred over whose stocking was whose,
and Shane parked himself in front of a bowl of M&Ms. They all got to open
the customary one present on Christmas Eve, and after doing so, we
schlepped off to bed. It was Christmas as usual-easier to pretend
everything was normal than deal with harsh reality.
But there was one more thing that had to be done. I went over to Tom's
desk, found a red envelope in the top drawer, and stuck into it a check
made out to the American Heart Association. It seemed appropriate. "I know
the kids-and even I-have to go on with our lives, Tom," I whispered. "But I
wish you were here." It occurred to me as I tucked the red envelope midway
up the tree that one of the kids would say, "Oh, yeah-I remember he always
And then there would be an awkward silence and perhaps sheepish looks. I
Morning-or at least dawn-came way too soon. Shane was up before the paper
carrier. I dragged myself into the kitchen and found it already smelling
like a Seattle coffee house.
"This is what we drink at school," Molly told me and handed me a cup.
"Is anyone else awake?" I asked.
She nodded her head, and for the first time I noticed a twinkle in her eye
that was unprecedented for this hour of the morning.
"What are you up to?" I said.
"Mom!" Patrick yelled from the living room. "You've got to see this!"
"At this hour of the . . ."
What I saw was my family perched on the couch like a row of deliciously
guilty canaries. What I saw next was our Christmas tree, dotted with bright
"Man, it got crowded in here last night," Ross said. "I came down here
about 2 o'clock and freaked Amy out."
"I almost called 911 when I came down," Patrick said. "Till I saw it was
Molly and not some burglar."
I had never heard a thing. I walked over to the tree and touched each one
of the five envelopes I hadn't put there.
"Open them, Mom," Molly said. "This was always the best part of Christmas."
>From Patrick, there was a check for Youth for Christ, to help kids go on
missions trips like the one Dad supported him on to Haiti five years earlier.
>From Amy, a check to our church for sheet music, because some of her best
memories of her father-in-law were of him helping the children's choir.
>From Molly, several $20 bills for the local crisis pregnancy center,
because many of the women who go there have probably never experienced the
love of a husband like Daddy," she said.
>From Ross, a $20 bill for a local drug program for kids, "since Dad was all
freaked out about me staying clean."
The last envelope was lumpy. When I opened it, a handful of change spilled
out. "Mine, Gamma," Shane said, his little bow-mouth pursed importantly.
Amy finished his thought. "He wants this to go to the animal shelter-you
know, for lost dogs, like the one he visited with Dad just before he died."
I pulled all the envelopes against my chest and hugged them.
"You know what's weird?" Molly said. "I feel like Daddy's right here with us."
"Yeah, that's pretty weird," Ross said.
"But true," Patrick said. "I feel like he's been here this whole time. I
thought I'd be all bummed out this Christmas-but I don't need to be."
"No, you don't, my love," I said. To myself, I added, Neither do I. I have
my family, and I have Christ.