It was the first Christmas without my husband. One less stocking to hang. One less voice to join me in singing carols. One less person to kiss our daughter after her nightly bedtime story.
The holidays were only a few weeks away, so our house was thoroughly decorated. Even though Freddie was gone, I forced myself to get into the Christmas spirit. For Hannah. I thought, maybe if I decorated the house with nutcrackers and poinsettias and toy trains, then she wouldn’t focus on the fact that her father wasn’t reclining in his chair.
I didn’t put up any of his decorations, though. Looking at them hurt too badly. So I left his stocking in the cardboard box, along with all the ornaments – he bought me one with our names on it every year since we met, from 2004 all the way to 2014.
I thought Hannah was handling it well. I really did. But then I saw an extra stocking with bright purple glitter paint, right in the middle of hers and the dog’s.
At the time, I honestly believed Hannah had hung it up. She was young, but she was smart. She knew where the holiday box was stored. It was perched on one of our dining room chairs, because I was too lazy to put it back in the attic.
Besides, she was the only other one in the house. It had to be her.
Maybe it was easier for her to acknowledge her father’s death than to ignore it like I’d been trying to do. And I always put my daughter first. So I left the stocking up.
About a week later, the ornament incident happened. Our tree had been scattered with colored lights and tinsel and candy canes. It looked like something straight off of Pinterest.
I still refused to put Freddie’s ornaments up, though. And yet there they were. All over the tree.
I’m not proud of it, but I stormed into Hannah’s room and screamed at her until my lungs were ready to pop. Hell, if she wasn’t my own kid, I might’ve even hit her. I’d told her dozens of times that she couldn’t touch those ornaments. They were made of glass. If she broke one, I’d feel like I lost a piece of Freddie. I didn’t have much left. I needed to preserve everything I still had.
Ungrateful brat… She didn’t even have enough respect for me to admit what she’d done wrong. Swore that she hadn’t touched anything. That she’d been in her room, playing with the puppy all night.
Her father was the one she respected. She would’ve admitted it to him.
When Christmas day came, Hannah acted like any other little girl. Like she didn’t even realize anything was different. She tore open her presents and giggled when the dog tried to help her rip apart the wrapping paper.
Everything was going well – until she picked up a rectangular box with bright purple paper that I didn’t remember buying. But the whole holiday season was a blur of stress and anxiety. A lapse in memory wouldn’t be out of the ordinary.
But then Hannah said four words that still make my heart twist. She pointed to the tag on top and said:
This one’s from daddy!
When I was younger, my parents would fill out the holiday tags with names like Santa and Frosty and Rudolph, so I’d believe they came directly from the North Pole. But I didn’t even bother to buy those tags this year. What was the point? Every single one was for Hannah. There wouldn’t be any mix-ups.
“Come here, honey,” I said. “Let me see it.”
I expected it to be blank. Assumed that she was playing pretend – and if she was, I might’ve played along with her. Given her a few minutes of make believe happiness.
But there was a tag. With a curvy snowman smiling up at me. And my first name written across it. But it wasn’t written in Hannah’s messy handwriting or even in her teacher’s perfect cursive.
It was in his handwriting.
“Where did you find this?” I asked, snatching it away like it could poison her.
Maybe she found it in the closet or under the bed while playing hide and seek. Maybe Freddie had bought it last year, or even years ago, and had forgotten about it. Had just left it there to collect dust.
But Hannah swore it came from under the tree. That she had no clue how it got there.
Actually, that’s a lie. What she really said was that Santa must’ve stopped by heaven to pick it up from God and I almost burst into tears on the fucking spot.
“Aren’t you going to open it?” she asked after withstanding a few seconds of silence. I couldn’t think of a reason to turn her down.
So I peeled off the wrapping paper, slowly revealing white cardboard. The type of box you’d put folded up shirts or pajamas inside of.
But there weren’t any pieces of clothing inside. There was a beaded necklace for Hannah. A tiny tug rope for the dog. And a glass ornament that said the current year with my name and Freddie’s name printed inside of the numbers.
As I turned the ornament over in my hands, checking to make sure it was really real, I swore I felt my husband’s kiss against my forehead.
I don’t know how. I’ve come up with a few theories – that my elderly mother (who loves Christmas tags and has a key to my apartment) snuck in to pull the whole thing off or that the gift really was lying around the house for Hannah to find or that I’m just remembering it all wrong — but my mother swore on Freddie’s grave that it wasn’t her and Hannah pinkie promised that she didn’t put the present there. But maybe I just want those theories to be wrong.
Maybe I want to believe that it was him.