It happened the other night. An off-the-cuff remark: “I know you’re really the Elf mom.” Then a pause and, more tentatively, “I know you’re Santa.”
He’s made those casual comments a few times before. But his voice – which is always so resolute and certain when he is making a pronouncement about the leading rusher in the NFL or the way to reduce fractions – shakes a little when he tests the waters of doubt.
I know, in the way that you always know your child, that what he wants is for me to tell him he is wrong. Dead wrong. That the Tooth Fairy flies into his room and Santa Claus shimmies down the chimney and I am not the Elf. I know this because if he didn’t, he would simply ask me point blank, the way he does with everything else. No, what he wants me to do is tell him magic is real.
I have never lied to him. I usually laugh and say something like “Man, you must think I have a lot of extra time on my hands.” And he laughs too and we both move on.
We both still want to believe magic is real. We both need to.
But this time was different. He watched me, silently, get up from my desk, open one of the ornament boxes in the den, and pull out a small Ziploc bag containing an old gift tag tied to a silver ribbon.
I put it on the table and sat down across from him. His eyes were wide and his whole body vibrated as if he knew I was about to break his heart.
“Do you know whose handwriting this is?” I asked.
He shook his head imperceptibly.
“It’s my dad’s.”
And I did what I said I was going to do two years ago when I found this gift tag. I told him the story of how, two years ago, I was exhausted, afraid, and heartbroken. How all I wanted for Christmas was to have my Dad back, even if just for a minute. Of how this Christmas magic landed in my lap. Of faith in the midst of doubt, love in the midst of pain.
And then I let him decide. “Now,” I whispered, “You tell me. Do you think Santa isn’t real?”
A torrent of tears escaped from his eyes as he scrambled into my lap and clutched at my shoulders. His 10 year old legs dangled down but I tucked them under my arms until I could hold him like I once did when he was smaller and empty of doubt.
“I need you Mom,” was all he could manage to say.
“I need you too Bubby,” I whispered back, “We need each other.”
We both still need to believe.
Before he went to bed, he left this letter for our Elf apologizing “1,000,000 times” for his disbelief. The sweetness and love in his heart left me raw.
I stayed up until the wee hours penning a response from Elfie. Just as before, I didn’t want to lie to him. But I also wanted to protect his heart from truths he does not yet want to know.
It isn’t my job to force these truths upon him, to toughen him up for the realities of a world that scoffs at vulnerability, derides magic, and laughs at innocence.
It isn’t my job to break his heart.
No. It is my job to protect it for as long as I can, with all that I can, so that one day it will protect him. He has trusted me with his heart – sometimes blindly, sometimes knowingly – and that is both a gift and a responsibility.
And so I wrote. Through tears, through fear, through doubt. I wrote the truth. That the magic of Christmas is how everyone cares a little more, hugs a little longer, loves a little harder. That just because we can’t see something doesn’t mean that it isn’t real. That not all mysteries have to be solved.
One day he will ask me the question because he wants to know the answer. But not today. Today the world is still magical.
Or maybe he never will ask. Just like his mother never did. Maybe he, like me, will never be ready to let go of magic, because a part of him knows it is real, even if it seems silly or irrational. Even if no one else can see it.
And maybe, one day, long after I’m gone, he will open up a box of bows and ribbons and pull out a tag with my handwriting.
Maybe he will sink to the floor and remember the night I pulled his gangly legs onto my lap and gave him the gift of faith.
Maybe he will remember that love is bigger than anything. Even death. That there are some mysteries that don’t need to be solved. That faith is believing in something when common sense tells you not to.
Love hard friends. And always, always believe.