My ex-husband Sam and I spend every Christmas morning together with our two boys. This tradition has lasted through our marriage and divorce, subsequent marriages and relationships and more divorce.
We decide on presents together (well, he does most of the work) and then we combine them and I wrap them all in ridiculously extravagant ways, knowing those pretty wrapping-paper pleats and decorative flairs will soon be shredded. Then I go over early on Christmas and we set it all up while we make the boys stay down in their rooms.
Our youngest, Kid B, is almost 14 and autistic. He can be so sweet that you wonder how he’s going to get through life, and then so persistent with a one-track mind that you want to scratch your own eyeballs out. The autism spectrum is both wide and deep. But one fairly common trait is that empathy must sometimes be taught. It often doesn’t come naturally.
Well, we got our cameras ready and we were about to call up the boys, when Kid B sneaked up the stairs and left five little packages. Four were tiny, and the fifth was slightly longer than the rest. They were wrapped in printer paper. Imagine taking three sheets of plain paper and wrapping up something the size of a walnut, using what must have been eight yards of tape.
He asked us to put them in his older brother’s pile, then he went back down to wait.
Moments later, the two brothers came up with a sparkle of excitement that comes with the anticipation of receiving presents. We filmed them and gave them the usual lecture.
“Now, don’t open everything at once. Don’t tear through it all. Open each present and actually look at it. Maybe a thank you here and there. Maybe appreciate Mom’s wrapping job. But this is not a five-minute deal.”
You know, because we like to be in charge of Christmas happiness. We like to direct it. It’s the parents’ own present to themselves, to have it done their way. We demand it be savored!
When they got to their piles, Kid C (the older brother) noticed the plain paper presents among all of the gold and green foil. Kid B watched his brother in anticipation.
With great care, the older brother carefully unwrapped each little gift. It took a while because of all the tape and the printer paper. The first one was a mini-Twix.
“Oh wow. So cool!” Kid C said, setting it carefully on the coffee table.
Kid B could hardly contain his excitement. He jumped up and down, something he does to exhibit happiness. He wasn’t even looking at his own pile of presents.
Kid C opened the next three small ones. All were mini-Twixes.
Then he opened the final, larger one. It was… a giant Twix. All meted out from Kid B’s candy allowance, which is vitally important to him.
After the five presents were opened, the brothers plopped onto the couch and despite so many instances in 2019 of sibling fights, frustration, and eye-rolling, the two of them sat in this moment together.
Twixes saved one at a time. Computer paper and tape carefully unwrapped. Two brothers on the couch taking in something maybe none of us can put words to, except perhaps author O. Henry: “In a last word to the wise of these days let it be said that of all who give gifts these two were the wisest.”
Sam and I exchanged glances as the rest of their presents remained untouched. We finally had to tell them that we said to be slow and deliberate, but eventually we needed to actually open the presents.
They got up and unwrapped the rest in a frenzy, shredding through the pleats that I no longer cared about, and being typical teenage boys. The rest of the morning was spent searching for batteries, setting up electronics and preparing for the adventures of the day.
We opened many presents that day, but the best present was the one that was never bought, and the one that was never wrapped, and the one that my small vocabulary struggles to describe.
May 2020 bring you all kinds of joy that you never see coming.
Brodi Ashton is a New York Times best-selling author who lives in the Salt Lake City area. She’s also an occasional columnist for The Salt Lake Tribune.