A hurricane, an earthquake, and a fire could not have left my life in such tatters as they are now. Currently, it was simultaneously soaking, yet smoldering, in pieces, yet held together with a Disney princess Band-Aid. Needless to say, I needed this break. Desperately.
Shivering from the harsh whip of the blizzard, I knocked my mitten-covered fist against the door. Thankfully, it opened up almost immediately. In front of me stood my mother, decked out in fall colors with her Thanksgiving apron which she’s had since I was a child.
“Eliana! You’re here!” she greeted me, immediately taking me into her arms. There are very few things that are quite as comforting as a mother’s hug when you feel like you’re at your lowest.
I held on for a few more seconds before pulling back to respond. “Don’t sound so surprised! I may be busy every other day of the year, but the holidays are for you guys.”
She took my face in her hands and smiled. “I’m glad to hear it.”
“At the store. Grabbed the wrong pudding for pistachio salad. He’ll be back soon,” she said, stepping back to allow me into the door before heading toward the kitchen.
I stepped past the threshold, kicking the snow off my boots in the process. Everything looked exactly the same. The furniture hadn’t moved an inch. The Thanksgiving/ fall decorations adorned the same places that they usually did. The dent in the wall from when my nephew ran into it with the handlebar on his new bike was still there from last Christmas. It was like a safe haven from all the insanity of the rest of my life. A place where everything slowed to a halt for just one second. I wonder how long this feeling will last?
I had just managed to get my coat off when the stampede of wild horses made themselves know. I wasn’t even able to turn around before I was body-checked by three identical triplets.
“Aunt Ellie! You’re here!” rang out from the three of them in chorus.
I smiled and gave Travis, Michael, and Annie hugs in turn.
“How are my favorite little gremlins doing?”
“Good.” “Awesome!” “What’s a gremlin?”
Wow. Way to make me feel old, kid.
“Another time,” I told Annie with a wink. “But right now, where’s your mom?”
“In her room. She told us we’re not allowed in there, though,” Travis informed me.
“I think she’ll make an exception for her favorite sister.”
“Aren’t you her only sister?” Michael asked.
These kids are getting too smart.
“Yeah, so that makes me her favorite right?”
“Doesn’t that also make you here least favorite?”
“… go see if Grandma needs any help with dessert.”
The triplets ran off so fast I swear there was a dust cloud in their wake.
I walked down the hall, taking in the pictures that my mom never fails to update with whatever we send her during the year. I paused next to the one of me and Greg standing next to a waterfall. It was from our trip to Tennessee this summer. It was also one of our last pictures together.
The pain tightened its grip on my heart and I had to take a deep breath before moving on.
Once I got to my sister’s door, I gave a quick knock before calling, “You better not be doing gross stuff with Martin because I’m coming in.”
I opened the door to be greeted in a hug with the same amount of vigor as her children.
“Eliana, it has been too long.”
“I saw you last month at lunch.”
“I said what I said.”
I rolled my eyes but smiled nonetheless.
“Good to see you too.”
She pulled back and sat back down in the spot I assumed she was previously in before patting the spot next to her.
“So how have you been?” she asked.
“Not gonna lie. I’ve been better.”
She nodded sympathetically. “I’d imagine. Everything that’s going on, it’s not easy to go through, especially not alone.”
I nodded and cleared my throat. “So what are you up to in here that your kids can’t see? You know you still have a whole month until Christmas, right? You don’t have to start wrapping yet.”
“Oh and be like you, saving all of it until the day before Christmas Eve?”
“Hey! That’s my wrap party and I love it!”
I couldn’t help it. I started giggling at my own pun. Kathy did not. Whatever, I thought it was funny.
She sighed, but a small smile was creeping over her face. “You can’t tell anyone but-“ she held out a box from behind her back and opened it. “I’m pregnant.”
I want to say that the first thing that I felt in response to that was pure elation for my sister and her family, but that would be a lie. The first thing I felt was anger- not at her, but at the universe- because of course my sister would get pregnant with her fourth kid when my life was a mess and I couldn’t even conceive one. Yet, regardless of those feelings, I pushed them down and slapped a smile on instead.
“Oh my gosh! Congratulations! I’m so happy for you!” I embraced my highest-pitched excited older sister voice and hoped that it did the job as I wrapped her in another hug.
“Thank you!” she smiled into my shoulder. “But don’t tell anyone yet. I want it to be a surprise for when we give thanks.”
I mimicked zipping my lips. “I won’t say a thing.”
“Thanks,” we heard a thud at the front of the house. “Sounds like dad’s home.”
“I’ll go say hi to him. You finish wrapping this up.”
I walked back to the kitchen to find my dad starting the dessert salad.
“Hey dad,” I greeted.
“Hey pumpkin,” he responded with a big smile and a hug. “I thought that was your car across the street. Still treating you well?”
“Thankfully, yeah. She’s still kicking,” I said as he released me.
“How ya been?”
Luckily, that was all I needed to say to make him understand.
“Gotcha. Well, I’m glad you’re home.”
“Me too, dad. Me too. Need help with anything?”
“Just setting the table. Then I think we’re ready for dinner.”
So, I got out the plates, the tablecloth, the silverware, and the cups and prepared the table. Within minutes, it was covered in detectable dishes that smelled as good as I knew they would taste. I was joined by the little monsters, my sister, her husband, my aunt, my uncle, and my cousin Marilla (the latter four of whom must’ve been in the garage) as well as my parents, of course.
“Shall we begin with thanks?” my mother asked, taking her seat next to me. “I’ll begin. I am thankful for our health, that my children and under the same roof as me again, and that we are fortunate to have food and shelter.”
My father, aunt, and uncle followed in kind.
“I am thankful for my wonderful boyfriend who treats me well,” Marilla said. “And that I just got a promotion at work so now I’ll be the chief intern at the firm.”
Naturally, my family clapped their congratulations and I of course joined in.
“I am thankful for three healthy children,” Martin said as Kathy shot me a wink. “And for my lovely, fantastic wife.”
“I am also very thankful for my wonderful husband and for our four healthy kids.”
Martin gave her a look. “Dear, I think you mean three. Have you already had some wine tonight?”
“Nope, not a drop. And I do mean four,” she said with a smile before pulling out the wrapped-up box.
Martin stared at it in shock as he slowly went to reach for it.
“Though with our luck, it could be five or six,” she continued.
Martin looked about in tears and Kathy was the same as he pulled off the lid to uncover the positive test.
“Are we doing this again?”
“Yeah. We are,” she said with a smile as the tears freely rolled down her cheeks.
Martin laughed through his own tears of joy and the two hugged tightly as the rest of the family clapped and wished them congratulations.
My mom was just about to get up when my sister shooed her back down.
“There’ll be time for hugs later, but I’m eating for two now and we’re both starving. Kids?”
“I’m thankful for mommy and daddy,” Annie started.
“Me too.” “Me three.”
“And I’m thankful for the new baby brother or sister.”
“Yeah, me too.” “And me!”
Now it was my turn. It was hard to think of things to be thankful for when everything feels awful, but things could be worse.
“I’m thankful for a working car and for a loving family.”
Not surprisingly, I got sympathetic looks all around, but I tried to push down the overwhelming feeling of pity.
“What about Greg?” Marilla asked before her mother could unsubtly nudge her.
“Well, I’m sure he’s thankful for the coworker he ran off with. And I’m sure she’s thankful for him,” I responded in poorly disguised bitterness.
There was now a heavy tension in the room before my father broke it with, “Anyway, let’s eat!”
Thankfully, there wasn’t much time for talking when you’re stuffing your mouth with stuffing. Just as I expected and just as it always is, the food was delicious. A parent’s love really does enhance the flavor. Within thirty minutes, dinner was cleared out and replaced with pecan pie slices (the best) all around.
Naturally, the kids demolished their pieces in minutes and we off to play again. Meanwhile, the rest of us adults took our time and nursed our wines, or water for Kathy, along with our slices.
“So, Marilla, what does this new position at work get you?” my mother asked.
“I coordinate with the other interns, essentially liaison between the interns and the big bosses, stuff like that. Less coffee fetching.”
That reminds me, I have to get those reports in by Monday at noon. And I’m still missing part of the information, but if I get there early-
“That’s great, honey!”
“Thanks! And now that I’m moving up, Rodney and I are talking about moving in together.”
Oh! I have to call the mold people soon and see how long it’ll be until I can move back in. Black mold. Because why not? I’m pretty sure there’s more black mold at the hotel I’m staying at than at my house. Will they be open on Black Friday? I could still give them a call either way and leave a voicemail.
“We’re hoping to get an apartment that’s pet friendly so we can rescue a puppy. We always said we would once we moved in together.”
Oscar! Just thinking about puppies stabs my heart like Caesar. Oh, what I wouldn’t give to have him snuggle up with me again or even paw at my leg for a carrot. He was so tiny when cancer took him. Oh no. I can feel the tears coming on. No! Stop! Go back inside!
“Eliana! Maybe our puppies can have a playdate!”
I cleared my throat, not trusting my voice as is. “Oscar died a month ago. Cancer.”
Oh, good. The tension’s back.
“But he’s in a better place now and he’s not hurting anymore.”
“I’m-I’m so sorry, El. I shouldn’t have said anything.”
“It’s alright. You didn’t know.”
“Neither did we, sweetie,” my mom said, putting her hand on mine.
“I know. I didn’t tell anyone. With Greg leaving me, I didn’t want any more pity. I got him cremated and had a private service, which was pretty much just me and the reverend, but it gave me free rein to cry as much as I could,” I said, pathetically joking, trying to ward off the tears that were getting more insistent.
“But we could have helped you, pumpkin,” my father added.
Breathing was becoming harder.
“We could have helped you grieve,” my sister said.
My vision had fully gone blurry.
“Or kicked Greg’s ass.” My brother in law.
The tears are now racing down my cheeks, but I hadn’t fully broken down yet.
“Or made you meals.” Aunt.
“You’re not strong enough to handle all this on your own. I wish you would lean on us a little more.” Marilla.
That was it.
“I am strong enough! I handled my husband’s cheating and him leaving me, my puppy’s death, an infestation of black mold that kicked me out of my house until God knows when because the company is taking their sweet time taking care of it, and fourteen billion tons of stress that come with my job on a daily basis. A job that, if I succumb to those pressures, I could lose in a day because the company is going through budget cuts and I'm not safe. So I’m sorry that I don’t have a great boyfriend or am pregnant with a fourth child, especially when I can’t even have one, but I. AM. HANDLING. IT! Besides-“
That’s when it hit me. Literally. On the ground next to my foot was a little foam dart and on the stairs was Michael looking extremely guilty.
“Michael! Now is not the time!” my sister yelled.
At that moment, staring down at the little foam dart, I realized that now was precisely the time. I need to make all my problems little darts that just bounce right off me. I have to toughen up so when life shoots at me, I don’t fall down, but I shoot right back.
“Hey, Mikey. Toss me your gun.”
He did and I held it in my hand, a thick tension filling the room. I pointed it to my side and pulled the trigger, the little dart hitting my sister in the arm.
“You would hit a pregnant woman?”
To the untrained ear, she sounded mad, but I have known her long enough to know that she didn’t mean it.
I shrugged. “It’s a harmless bullet. Walk it off.”
“You know this is war, right? We haven’t had one of these since two Christmases ago. You sure you’re not rusty?”
“You wish! Or did you forget that we did one of these every year before that and who won most of the time? Oh yeah. Me,” I turned back to Mikey. “Upstairs! Run!”
The next hour was filled with war strategies, dramatic death scenes, and only one spilled glass of wine. When it was all said and done, I was laughing harder than I had in a year. My little soldiers had now crashed in the field of foam bullets that covered the living room floor. My sister was holding her stomach as she leaned her head on my shoulder, laughing right along with me.
We finally composed ourselves before I challenged her to a snowball fight smackdown. In line with her own competitive nature, she agreed and we took the war outside. As I stood on the back porch, waiting for her to get her boots on, I took a look at the backyard. Snow was still coming down, but now it was in beautiful flurries. Even though it was still freezing cold, the warmth of laughter protected my heart from frostbite.
I put my hands in my pocket but was surprised to feel a dart in there as well. It must have fallen in during the war. I took it out and looked at it. Who knew the weight and complexity of a series of huge problems could be boiled down to a handful of darts and solved in a ridiculous battle with my family? I knew that it didn’t actually solve any of the problems, but they didn’t seem quite as brutal now.
I was just about to turn back to harp on my sister for taking forever to put on her boots when a snowball hit me square in the face. I felt the sting fade away and the snow melt onto my coat as I looked up to see my sister with a shit-eating grin.
I bent down and gathered the soft white snow in my hands, already forming it into my perfect projectile. Like I said, when life shoots, shoot back. Life took its shot. Now it’s my turn.