Christine Ann Barnett died early on a Friday evening, June of 2020, in the thick of a plague from which she was mercifully spared. Co-director of the Southern California Writers’ Conference, she was petrified of dying. Her word, petrified. When she told me over the phone, from a hospital bed I was not allowed to visit because of COVID-19 lockdown restrictions, I cried. Convulsed, really, trying hard not to let her hear my tears, certain that I’d never see her again. But she did come home after an eight-day stay. It was her decision. She wanted to be among her stuff, and among her stuff she remained for nine days more. Five days after her passing she let me know she’s all right. She was adamant.
See, Chrissie’s favorite time of year was Christmastime. Each holiday season, from out of the garage, 18 plastic tubs of decorations and figurines, ornaments and lights, several boxes of artificial Christmas trees, and every iteration of Father Christmas himself, would be carefully unpacked and meticulously deployed throughout the house by Chrissie over a period often spanning an entire week. Inevitably, that week of dutiful adornment began with Fat Santa, an eight-inch figure seated in a red, puffy chair – picture Burl Ives in Miracle on 34th Street or the Santa Claus in A Christmas Story who boots Ralphie down the chute at Higbee’s department store. Chrissie’s Fat Santa has batteries inside. Push his belly and he chortles, “Ho, Ho, Ho, Merry Christmas! Ho, Ho, Ho, Merry Christmas! Ho, Ho, Ho, Merry Christmas!”
Just like that. Push Fat Santa’s belly: “Ho, Ho, Ho, Merry Christmas!” three times. Raucous. Chrissie pushed his belly a lot. Drove me nuts, her pushing his belly.
Thing is, while Christmastime remained cherished by Chrissie, for too long of time, it was not so much for me. Both my parents died in December, just before Christmas, ten years to the day apart. For me, December was merely a trudge to next year, where renewed choices and possibilities seeded.
First it was my mom, 20-odd years back. Chrissie and I were in San Diego. We had a new answering machine. Christmas was coming and we thought how fun it’d be to record an outgoing phone message of us singing Carol of the Bells. You know, the one originally composed by Mykola Leontovych with lyrics by Peter J. Wilhousky in 1914, based on a Ukrainian folk chant, then adulterated three decades later to make it about Jesus or some such. We didn’t know the lyrics of any particular version of it, just a tortured amalgam of Ring, Christmas bells / Sweet silver bells / Gaily they ring / While people sing / Ding dong! Ding dong! / Merry, merry, merry Christmas! / Merry, merry, merry Christmas!
You get the point. We just drank and sang, giggled and improvised, and after finishing our recording, just ever rightly so, anxiously waited for someone to call. We waited and waited as Christmas was approaching fast. Nobody did.
Finally, we get home one evening to discover the answering machine blinking. Somebody had not only called, but this somebody had left a message. The very first somebody to respond to our carol. We hunched over the machine, near giddy with anticipation at how the somebody responded. I thumbed “play.” The message was from my dad about my mom. She was dead. She died unexpectedly. She died alone. Her name was Carol.
Ho, Ho, Ho, Merry Christmas!
We erased the outgoing message, then ten years later my dad died, again, just before Christmas. Suddenly. Unexpectedly. Alone. Don’t know if he was scared.
So Chrissie’s efforts to keep me from slipping into any Christmastime funk that might set in was often punctuated with her poking Fat Santa’s belly and setting off his rollicking chorus. Precisely three times, every time: “Ho, Ho, Ho, Merry Christmas!”
Christmastime, 2019. Less extravagant than in the past because of Chrissie’s illness. Some especially prized decorations went prominently on display, along with a tall new fiber optic tree she’d researched thoroughly and bought so I’d never have to decorate it in the future, but would promise to erect after she’d gone. Fat Santa, of course, was placed on his usual perch near a stereo speaker. Easily accessible for Chrissie to poke, which she did. Often.
A few weeks after Twelvetide – the Twelve Days of Christmas – while Chrissie slept, I wrapped and packed Fat Santa and most every other Christmas decoration back into it’s proper place in the garage. The 18 tubs were sealed and stacked neatly in their usual configuration, towering well over my head, taking up nearly half a wall until … one day.
Then Chrissie died in an opiate fugue on a Friday evening in June, petrified of doing so, surrounded by her stuff. Just she and I alone together.
The following Wednesday, sitting on the back patio, a space we’ve spent an inordinate amount of memorable time over the years, I was having a think, yet another in a seemingly endless tide of contemplative moments I find myself mired at present, with little more to care for than two cats who remind me each day that, apparently, neither have ever eaten food before, have ever tasted food before, let alone smelled food before, no matter how much of it you feed them, yet daily manage to explode in the litter box without warning.
I stepped in the garage to go back into the house, devoid of purpose now with so many hours available lacking any need to rush upstairs and check on Chrissie, administer meds, monitor her breathing, tease her appetite – all the while powerless to assuage her fear of dying. Then Fat Santa piped up. “Ho, Ho, Ho, Merry Christmas!” he chortled from one of the 18 plastic tubs stacked along the far wall. “Ho, Ho, Ho, Merry Christmas!” he continued. He possibly repeated the phrase seven times, but I can only recall five for certain. Standing there, stuck, I studied the wall of tubs trying to figure which one he’s in. I can’t. Then he stops.
Took me till Saturday, Chrissie’s and my anniversary, what would have been our 36th, to psyche it. It still stuns, my not grasping it in the moment. Ho, Ho, Ho, Merry Christmas! Not three times. Not four times. At least five times, even seven.
That was Chrissie. She was assuring me in no uncertain terms, I’m okay.
Monday, two days after, again I’m in the garage – which I do spend a lot of time in – and figured it time to tidy up our Ford Explorer parked outside. Because of the pandemic, over these many months lots of receipts and Lysol wipes had accumulated for fear of exposing Chrissie’s immunocompromised slip of a body to anything that might result in further sickness. In the back seat lay her emergency bag, which she’d packed in the event of an emergency stay in the hospital following an infusion. It was buried under a splay of grocery totes.
I brought it in the garage to check its contents. Among other things, it contained her cancer hat. Floppy. Faded pastel flowers pattern. The hat had seen enough. Even if I threw it in the washer, it was beyond being able to donate. So, reluctantly, I unfurled a large Glad trash bag and placed the cancer hat inside. The first of Chrissie’s possessions I’ll have to sort through and decide how to dispose of. Doing so almost made me puke.
Then this happened: “Ho, Ho, Ho, Merry Christmas!”
Fat Santa from one of the tubs. Once only. First time ever. Chrissie saying goodbye, giving me permission to move forward and get back to work. At some point I will, but whatever else should become of her stuff, Fat Fucking Santa ain’t going nowhere.