At the end of last year, I closed out 2009 with the ultimate horror, my sister on a gurney getting ready to have a double mastectomy. I was terrified. My sister, who was my idol growing up, was in trouble and I had no way to fix or help the situation. Talk about feeling helpless.
But, while I was feeling helpless, my sister had met this great guy. He was tall, funny, could handle everything that was being dished onto Nan and then some. While Nan went through cancer, the entire time, standing behind her like a quiet guardian was Carl.
Carl reminds me of that line out of "Eat, Pray, Love" when he might as well have said, "You don't need a protector, you need a champion." Carl is Nan's champion.
While chemo went on, Carl was there taking care of Nan, he even went onto my "What I'm thankful for list" for this year because let's face it, he backstopped the entire operation of Nan's recovery. While she fought, lost her breasts, her hair then ultimately began to feel better, Carl was always right behind her.
On Christmas Eve, I spent the night at my parents house. While I was watching the "A Christmas Story" marathon on TBS and remembering the Christmas where Nan had gotten her first BB gun, it was as if a man in a red suit had knocked on the door with a dog large enough to be a reindeer (Carl's dogs Wrecks and Reese are two very large dobermans who could double as horses they're so large) and had gently said to me, "You know, Carl wants to know what Nan looked like growing up..." because Nan had told me a couple of weeks previously at dinner that Carl wanted to see her childhood photos.
Being that we didn't do the whole mass consumerism deal of giving gifts this year (and believe me it's good when you don't, gives the holiday a whole different feeling. Instead of consumer driven greed, it was all about family. And if there was one Christmas that needed to be about family, for me in so many ways, it was this one) instead, we just spent time together, had a gorgeous meal and appreciated each other as gifts sitting next to the tree.
So, as I was saying, on Christmas Eve, after having the Red Suited Man epiphany, I got into the old photo albums to dig out photos of Nan as a little girl. I found photos of us vacationing at South Padre Island, old school photos, prom pictures, the works. I also found one of Nan with REALLY big hair that could only have originated in the 80's. If Carl wanted to see Nan as a little girl, there was no better way to show him than for him to see how she always had held my hand, or had an arm around me, guarding me and making sure I was always safe.
I found photos from Christmases past, but most of all, I assembled a collection of photos that showed Carl not only her as a little girl, but how incredibly special she's always been.
On Christmas Day, as Mom and I were in the kitchen preparing Christmas dinner, a knock sounded at the door, one that Mom and I didn't hear, but inexplicably, my very "selective hearing enhanced" father had heard it and yelled, "Come on in!" as if he knew it was Carl and Nan. Mom ran to the door, and sure enough it was Carl...sans Nan.
Immediately my brain went into overdrive. What was he doing there without Nan? Maybe he had shown up early and was going to visit with us while we all waited for Nan to get off of work, but instead, he produced a box out of his pocket and mother and I both gasped. He looked at us and said, "Can you guys keep a secret because I need y'all to be in on something with me..." it was then that he opened up the little box he was holding to show us Nan's engagement ring. Mother and I immediately started crying, only for Carl to answer, "Stop, y'all are going to make me cry..."
I jumped up and down. Literally. I looked at him and said, "You're really applying to be my real big brother?" Then it occurred to me, Carl is just a big of a technophile as I am...and then the real meaning hit me, I was getting a geeky big brother, something I always wanted! He's like Mr. iPhone, he's so technologically fortified, it's like he's a big box of the most nutritious geekified cereal ever created! I cheered, doing my usual hippiefied, "Yeah, man!" I always do when I'm really thrilled with something.
So, after calming down, Carl put us in on the big moment, having us help him hide the ring in the Christmas tree so he could surprise Nan. Now what Carl doesn't know is how the communication lines between my mother, my sister and I work. What one knows, the three of us know. There is not one amongst us that can hold in a secret worth a flip. Mother and I looked at each other quasi-panicked, but she and I knew we had to hold this one in. But, with the ring securely hidden in the tree, Carl left us to go home to wait for Nan to come home from work. After he left, Mother and I stood looking at each other with looks of happy disbelief on our faces and the one sole quandary that can leave us debilitated, we had to keep a secret. How on EARTH were we going to hold it in? We were so excited for Nan neither of us could breathe as we stood in the kitchen, eyes constantly darting towards the Christmas tree.
That was at around 4pm. Nan wasn't going to get off of work until 6pm. The anticipation was mounting. So at around 6:30pm, Nan and Carl finally arrived for dinner. My brain was doing everything it could not to blurt out the secret. My shoulders tensed, and my teeth found their way to incessantly biting my lower lip. My mind was a constant mantra of "hold it in, hold it in, hold it in."
Mother did far better than I did, she was very "business as usual," as she focused on getting the buffet line set up in the kitchen for everyone to help their plates. I was buzzing back and forth too, first, because it gave me an excuse to pace frantically under the disguise that I was helping out. When Mom finally called for everyone to help their plates for a third time, I grabbed the plates off of the beautifully set table and jabbed one into Carl's stomach saying, "Come on dude, let's eat," which was code for, "Oh my god, let's just hurry up and get this over with because it's killing me! I can't hold this in forever!!!!"
My mother had set the table with my grandmother's silver set. That's right, gorgeous antique knives, forks and spoons which had been used at family dinners since time immemorial. Before dinner, Mom and I had carefully washed and dried the antique tableware, but being that it's old and had spent the last 30 years in stasis in god knows where, it had a particular smell about it. Oh gods it smelled old and the kicker was, I washed that stuff with a ton of soap and scalding hot water before it got placed on the table. All it took was one bite and my father got up from the table went to their silverware drawer and pulled out more recent dinnerware. Yeah, I took a bite and let out, "Hey, I think Aunt Sissy left something on this one..." after finding out that my grandmother's silver had been used at every Christmas dinner at the big people table at my grandparents house (remember me telling you about those big Christmas dinners? Yep, you better believe it, the same silverware sitting on the table last night was the exact same cutlery that was on those tables of old some 30 years ago). With more "fresh" silverware, we finished our dinner with Mom vowing for it to never see the light of day or be eaten off of again.
But, the time was creeping up for the big surprise and wouldn't you know it, Nan just had to step up and wash dishes. Gods, the dishwasher had already ran six times that day as Mom and I cleaned as we cooked. Nan's standing in the kitchen visiting with us and remarking how Christmas dinner takes days to prepare and is demolished in a matter of minutes. Truth told, inside of me, I was thinking, "Good god woman, if you knew what was in that tree, you'd stop flapping your gums and get in there!" I tried in vain to get her away from that sink. I tried the whole, "Hey, you've had a long day, why don't you let me do that," only to be told that she was fine doing it, I went on the offensive and said quite bluntly, "You're tired, get the hell out of the kitchen." Oh no, Nan just wouldn't hear it. I walked out of the kitchen to where Carl was sitting and said, "Dude, I've tried everything to get her out of there and she won't hear it." That's when Carl looked up at me and channeled my Uncle Bill when he said, "Don't worry, I'm patient." Great, he was patient, I sure as hell wasn't! I'm the one who had heard from my sister just weeks earlier a phrase that stuck in my throat like a lump as she looked at me with a sad face saying, "I'd like to grow old with Carl." So now you can see why I was going out of my skull! Nan's in the kitchen washing dishes while I knew that Santa Carl had come to town and was about to give her the Christmas wish she wanted! I was ready to pull my hair out.
So, finally, the dishes are done, I hand Nan the photo albums for her to share with Carl and finally, after much prompting, we get her to look in the tree for the ceremonial "pickle". A few years earlier, my Aunt Bonnie had told us about the tradition of the ornamental pickle. That's right, it's a pickle ornament that's hidden in the tree that people have to find. Don't ask me, I don't know where the tradition came from, but as soon as Carl and Nan hit the door, I was immediately on her to find the pickle. Ok, here's the secret, we had hidden the ring box behind the pickle ornament. I nearly gave the whole thing away right there as Mom and Carl shot me looks of "shut up!" but Nan replying, "Oh I already found it." Gods, getting through dinner up to that point was an exercise of extreme tongue biting as I had already nearly given it away, I was sulling up because I didn't know how much longer I could restrain myself from just grabbing her by the hand and dragging her kicking and screaming to that tree to show her what was behind that damned pickle!
Ok, so now you're up to speed, I'm freaking out, Nan's FINALLY gotten into the living room and we're almost to the big moment. Everyone is on Nan's butt to find that pickle. She must've thought we'd all gone nuts. She walks over to the tree, points at the pickle and says, "It's in the same place!" Heads went into hands as Carl got up and dragged her back to the tree. It was then that she found the box and as Carl went down on one knee to propose, I realized one simple thing...he was giving her a wish she had only told me about and I looked up eerily wondering if there really was a Santa Claus.
I guess there is, his name just happens to be Carl.
So, it's my proud little sister moment that I can scream at the top of my lungs...
WAY TO GO NAN! You might have fought cancer and won, but you got something even bigger out of it, and so did the rest of us.
My sister and Carl are engaged. Forgive me if I'm selfish but I'm so tickled to death to say four words...
MY BIG BROTHER ROCKS!
Bar none, it was the most special Christmas I've ever had. Thanks Carl!
Then I came home and spent the next six hours on Skype with KP, a guy I'd like to grow old with...um Santa, are you listening?