I didn’t realize how accustomed my daughter was to the Christmas tradition until she asked me why I hadn’t put up a Christmas tree yet.
It was already two weeks into December. They had a tree up at her mother’s place since Thanksgiving, she told me. My house was much darker, less festive in comparison.
“I’m not putting up a tree this year,” I said, and it was the first time I was saying it aloud. It was a quiet choice I was committing to this season. Like how I didn’t dress up for Halloween, or didn’t bother with a turkey on Thanksgiving.
My daughter gasped like I had stolen the gifts, the lights, and all the decorations in Whoville.
I didn’t plan on being a Grinch this Christmas. It just suited my mood— and my mood for the last stretch of 2020 (as I imagine it was for everyone else) was to get through the rest of the year and start over.
Because I needed a do-over. Badly.
Way back in March – back when a pandemic didn’t seem like it could stretch on for another 9 months – I lost a job. It was THE writing position I had been holding out for. Finally, in 2020, I landed my dream job. And then COVID happened.
I don’t know what’s worse, that I lost the job or the way I lost it. First I was relegated to part-time hours, though the work volume remained the same. I was just substantially paid less. Then I was only required to log in for a day or two, with little to no contact from the editors. Even when they notified us that they were downsizing staff, I held out hope that I’d make the cut. I broke my back freelancing off and on for 4 years, so surely I could endure whatever would come of this.
Then came the quietest, most nerve-wracking week of my life. And then I got the email, and I felt something wither away inside. I wept into my laptop.
I gave myself all of April to grieve, to really grieve. Because losing a dream job feels like a breakup. You thought it was the one. It took you, or you let it take you, and then it spat you back out into shards.
In May, I threw myself into the usual “life-changing routines” that we fool ourselves into believing will turn our lives around: exercising, eating healthy, getting my hair cut, etc. (I hadn’t cut my hair since February when I landed the job.) But none of these things got me any closer to finding a new job. I spent the entire summer redoing my résumé, typing up cover letter after cover letter; and applying, applying, applying.
I was largely jobless come Fall. I had restarted my freelancing profile in July, and though the opportunities weren’t enough, at least it was something. Writing, once again, was back to being a side hustle.
If my goal during the summer was to get money rolling in, my new goal for the last quarter of 2020 was to find a job, ANY job that would have me. Though there was the promise of callbacks, few of which led to virtual interviews, nothing coalesced.
Desperate hardly describes it. I started feeling the pressure in October— pressure already exacerbated by everything that’s going on. As Thanksgiving neared, I was in all-out crunch mode. Then came December, and I had to accept the bitter truth that this wasn’t happening. That despite a handful of freelancing gigs that came my way, I would be largely jobless for the rest of 2020.
Across July to December, I applied for 73 positions. And counting.
Christmas, frankly, was the last thing on my mind.
Now, I’m not usually as big on Christmas as others. Ugly sweaters, peppermint, eggnog, and Christmas carols make me gag. (I was in symphonic band for 7 years; I hate “Sleigh Ride” with all my heart and soul.) Neither would I describe myself as jolly or merry, ever—and this has never been truer in 2020. Really, I didn’t feel like I deserved a Christmas.
I don’t mean to sound like I’m nose-diving into self-pity. I’m as fine as one can be in a global health and economic crisis. I’m being carried right now by my savings (good looking out for yourself, past-Adrian!) with some loving help from my family. The moratoriums on loan payments, too, have softened the blow. But when you’re living on a budget, the slightest over-expenditure – like, say, ordering a large meal – now has the power to send me spiraling into self-doubt about future stability.
What stings the most is that this year was supposed to symbolize a new start. In January, I was car-shopping and eyeing down a new place to live across the island. This next phase of my life was supposed to happen, and these plans were instead put on the back-burner. It took 4 years of freelancing and side hustling just to get my foot in the door. I’m now tasked with starting over and I have no idea how long it may take to get back to where I was before it all came crashing down, or if that’s even possible.
So when my daughter asked me why I didn’t want to bother with Christmas this year, it just suited the perpetual feeling of 2020. This feeling of “why bother” that has made a home in my body, that turned me bitter and shrunken like a worn-out tree.
Out of curiosity, I asked her what was the one thing she liked about Christmas.
She paused, tapped on her chin a bit before saying, “I just like the lights.”
I gotta say, it’s nice to have daughter who lives in the moment. I don’t think I could’ve survived this year without her. Because as much as I keep saying how it still feels like March, looking back, I had a 2020 despite everything.
As much as I want to write off 2020, that’s not humanly possible. A pandemic didn’t stop me from getting out of bed every morning, just like it didn’t stop my daughter from turning 9 years old (which we celebrated amongst ourselves) or us from having a summer by filling up an inflatable pool in the backyard. The pandemic might’ve stopped a great many things, but that didn’t mean we couldn’t adapt to continue onward with the routines and traditions we cherish. Like soaking up the sun, and having virtual get-togethers with friends and family, or partaking in Halloween and Thanksgiving. Or putting up a damn Christmas tree.
This Christmas will be a first for a lot of us; a first virtual Christmas, a Christmas spent apart, or a Christmas where Santa’s a little late on delivering the gifts, etc. Weirdly enough, this is the first Christmas that I felt like I truly needed, one I participated in not out of yearly tradition but out of necessity, a need to feel hope. To be hopeful that good things can still happen despite adversity or failure; and that this isn’t the end, that this can’t possibly be the end. That I can get back on my feet and try again.
I have to believe in this. Because no matter how sad or pathetic or broken I may feel, there is still this little girl who calls me dad.
That weekend I stormed through the storage shed, wrestled the Christmas tree out of piles of boxes, and had the festive monstrosity set up in my living room just in time for the 12-day Christmas countdown. When my daughter came home and saw the inside of the house now bright and beaming, she screamed and leapt for joy.
“What made you change your mind?” she asked.
The lights, I told her. I needed to see the lights.