My twin sisters live together. They are single moms and spend every day helping each other raise kids and pay bills .
Our family was having Thanksgiving at their house. As usual, I was eating dinner alone in the living room, content to listen to my family enjoy each other’s company from a distance. I was not sad about being by myself, I feel like ghost when I am around them anyway.
The younger of my twin sisters comes in and sits on the red couch that I had been staring at. I looked at her from across the room and asked, “What should I get my niece and nephew for Christmas?”
She didn’t raise her head, she just stared intently at the floor and politely responded, “Brother. You don’t have to get them anything.”
I couldn’t see her eyes so I decided to talk to the long brown hair that covered her face, “I love you guys, please let me do this.”
It was quiet. I realized she’s not looking at the floor, she’s hiding her face from me.
Unfortunately, I am used to this. My family never looks at me. Not since I went to college. Not since I became a minister. I always feel like a stranger they are hiding from.
To be fair, I’m never around- I am a stranger. When I am around, however, they never see me, because they won’t look at me. Sometimes, I wish they would just stare at me, even if it’s with disgust or hate, just look me in the eyes. I wish they could see me.
I am smiling at her with sincerity, waiting for a response. When none comes, I push the issue, “Seriously, I am going to get them something regardless, it might as well be something they want. Right?”
And then I see her eyes from behind her hair. They emerge like children who had taken refuge, moving slowly, making sure that it’s safe to come out. I don’t know why, but this made me very nervous. Somehow, I believed my response to what she said next was important.
I reasoned to myself, “Maybe this will be my chance. Maybe, if I get the perfect gift,things will stop being so weird between me and my family. Ugh, I hate feeling like this. No matter what comes out of her mouth next, I’m going to make it happen.”
Immediately I began to worry that I would not be able to follow through. What if it costs too much? What if I can’t afford it? I don’t want to disappoint them.
I don’t know my sister well enough to know what she is going to ask for.
She’s staring at me. Well… she’s staring near me: timid eyes, still testing.
“Really” She says
please don’t be expensive, please don’t be expensive
please don’t be expensive, please don’t be expensive
“Ok, I’ve been wanting to get them a Christmas tree since, I think it would be awesome to have something like that. It didn’t really matter before, since they weren’t old enough to remember things anyway but they’re older now. Those are the kind of memories I want them to have, normal Christmas memories with a tree in the house. I know it’s a lot to ask, I know they can expensive.”
Yes! I can afford that!
Relieved, I say, “Wow that sounds awesome! I tell you what, how about I come over next Friday, and we’ll spend the whole afternoon together. I’ll get a tree and everything we need to decorate it, some cookies and hot chocolate. We’ll put some music on, and we’ll have a Christmas party.” I snap my fingers and exclaim, “How’s that for memories!”
“Brother that sounds amazing! Thank you so much!”
I think she looked at me. I think she smiled.
I spent the next week excited about Friday. I daydreamed about my sisters being happy. I saw two sweet children running around, singing songs, hanging decorations, eating cookies. It’s not every day you get to be the hero. I wanted this to be the best day ever. Not just a good day- I’m talking top ten happy memories of your life, best day ever.
I decide that I was going to get a fake tree; so we could make this a tradition. Pre-lit; so we can get to the fun stuff quickly. Plastic bulbs; so they would not feel bad about dropping, or breaking them. The brightest gold star for the top! And the sweetest little tree skirt I could find. Of course, I also got Stockings with glitter glue; to write our names. Hot chocolate, eggnog, sugar cookies, and a ginger bread house!
Norman Rockwell eat your heart out!
I longed for Friday- the perfect day. I told everyone I knew what was going to happen on Friday. I told them about how my niece and nephew had never had a tree, about the decorations and cookies and stockings. I could see the sincere joy they felt for me in their eyes. It made me so happy.
‘Twas night before Friday, and I did not sleep a wink.
As soon as it was reasonable for me to be up, I started making my list. I went to Big Lots, and Wal-Mart, and Target. I spent all morning joyously thinking about how fun this was going to be, thanking God that I could easily afford this joy. What a simple blessing.
I arrived at my sisters, and fumbled the few thing I could carry from my trunk to their door. Both of them answered, I could tell that they were genuinely happy to see me. We hugged. Kisses on the cheek, and from the corner I hear my niece say a phrase that she would repeat many times that day, “ Oooo, what’s that uncle, what’ s that?” I kneel down and hug her, “This is a Christmas tree. Do you know what we are gonna do today? We are gonna decorate it! Does that sound fun?”
She has no idea what I’m talking about, but she’s still very excited!
“I need your help getting the rest of the stuff out of my car.” My stout little nephew follows me and grabs a box of plastic bulbs to carry, followed by my niece and sisters.
We go in and they set up the cookies, eggnog and hot chocolate in the kitchen. I unpack the tree in the living room, doing my best to explain what all this is to my curious niece. Soon the radio is turned on and Christmas music adds the final perfect touch.
I feel so good right now. I can hardly believe that this is me; I can hardly believe I am with them.
I call my sisters back into the living room so they can help with the tree. Immediately, one sister begins handing bulbs out. While the other sits back to observe.
“Uncle, what is this? I like this. What is it?” She says while unconsciously swaying to the music like happy children do. My less verbal nephew just grunts the same question to me while holding a red Christmas bulb to my face.
“It’s a bulb; we hang them on the tree, that’s what we use to decorate. It makes the tree look pretty.”
I get on my knees and show her how to hang them on a branch. She hangs 5 of them in the same place. I love it.
My sister is looking at me. She sees me.
I don’t understand the look on her face, but I am so happy that she sees me. I unconsciously mimic her expression. Immediately, I am taken back 20 years to my childhood. My Body remembers making this face, time and time again. I made this face when people from church brought food so we wouldn’t starve. When they gave us clothes so we were not naked. I made this face to the lady at the food bank, to the man in the bread line who gave us honey, rice, and cheese, and to teachers who bought me school supplies. Time and time again.
The face: gratitude dulled by shame.
My sister saw me. I wanted to hide, but my hair was not long enough to cover my face, so I just turned my head and stared at the tree. I hated what she saw. I didn’t really want to be their hero after all. I really wanted to be their family. It’s not charity if it’s from your family. Why are you looking at me like that. Please stop. I consoled myself, deciding to hold on to the gratitude. I had done a good thing after all, and that matters, that counts.
She says, “Brother thank you for doing this, things are hard right now. This is really something I wanted for them, but it was out my reach. Thank you. I know you were planning to leave at the end of this but can you stay for lunch? Can we feed you please, just to show you how much we appreciate this?”
“Yeah, yeah that would be great.”
She looks to my sister who is handing out decorations, they have an exchange that I don’t understand until one says, “We can use the phone money, we will just pay part of it and arrange to payout the rest.”
“Good! I’ll call Pizza Hut, we have coupon.”
I felt horrible. I was no hero I was the scum of the earth. I wanted to stop them. They order the pizza with all the joy I had when I bought the tree that morning. I wanted my phone ring. I wanted someone to need me so I could leave. It bothered me that they were giving things up to feed me. I wanted to say, “No! I’ll buy the pizza.” I almost opened my mouth. But then I saw me.
I am Peter, and Jesus kneels in front of me to wash my feet, I tell him,”No, you will never wash my feet!” but he says,” If I don’t wash your feet then you don’t really belong to me.”
That’s the difference. That is why I am a hero and not a brother, if I can’t let them love me, then I am just stranger with government cheese. I get it, I understand now. I can’t be a part of them unless they wash my feet.
Everything in me wanted to run. Every second reminded me that I had not loved them the way they loved me. They were kings to me, and I was not worthy to eat at their table, yet they gave all they had so that I could be there.
I looked at my sisters with gratitude and shame, and they loved me.