Christmas. It almost seemed like it wasn't coming this year. They had barely celebrated Thanksgiving. The wedding and telling the kids about his cancer seemed to kill any desire to celebrate a holiday. All the holidays had been hard since their mom and dad died. They always tried, but it was different and there wasn't really anything they could do that would change that. Charlie lay down on the couch. He was pretty tired from the trip back from Kirsten's great aunt's house. Within a couple moments he was sound asleep.
Julia came into the house only to find Charlie asleep on the couch much like Claudia and Owen had been in the shed when she and Griffin had gotten back from the party. She moved to cover him with a blanket, but he stirred and opened his eyes.
"Hey, how was the party?" he asked.
"Illuminating," Julia answered.
"What do you mean?" he responded pulling himself up into a sitting position.
"Well, let's just say Justin and I were sharing the rose-colored glasses version of our current situations. I definitely had tried to put a positive spin on the whole living in a shed concept, but he wasn't completely honest about things at Yale. I guess we both just thought everything was going so good for the other person," Julia said as she sat down in the easy chair next to the couch.
"Yeah, it's funny how things work out. Who would have thought two months ago that I would spend a weekend with Kirsten, it would be the greatest time and there was nothing more than just being really great friends involved?" Charlie said.
"The whole weekend? Didn't you come back yesterday?" Julia asked.
"No, we ran into every kind of problem, and ended up staying at a little inn up North. I don't know Julia, but things are different for us. I can count on her as my friend, all of those things that we had when we were together, but none of the bad stuff. I'm really lucky with everything that's going on that we can be friends now. I need to have some friends I can count on." Despite his protestations, Charlie had keenly felt the loss of Nina as both a lover and a companion. Her inability to handle his diagnosis had left a pretty big wound on his psyche. "The tree looks nice. Did you get it at Swenson's lot? It looked like they had some good ones when I went past there last week."
"Actually, Griffin and I just got home too. Someone spiked the egg nog and Sarah's tree-trimming party kinda turned into a big slumber party. We found Claud and Owen asleep in the shed. They had decorated the whole place into a fairy land. I guess they must have put this tree up too?" Julia said turning to look at the tree in the window.
"Wow. I wonder who helped them. I can't imagine Claud could get Owen and two trees back up the hill in the wagon," Charlie said with a chuckle. This was becoming a bit of a mystery.
"I don't know, maybe she got that Reed guy to help. You know, he has been around here a couple times the past couple of weeks and I know he takes her to the grocery store sometimes. Actually, we're pretty lucky. With all the stuff that's going on, this wasn't exactly the best time for Bailey to have a suspended license," Julia said.
"Yeah, I guess I have seen him a couple of times. So what was the deal with the party? I'm glad to hear you guys were smart about staying there. The last thing we need is any more drunk driving incidents."
"Not to worry. Actually, it was a lot of fun. Bailey and Annie got into some big argument, but he disappeared before the end of the night with her, so I guess it must have worked out. I just don't get that relationship. Bay seems to feel so responsible for her. I just would have thought he might want to take some time for himself after last year," Julia said. The memory of Bailey's drinking and the intervention they had staged would stay with all of them.
"The thing is, Bailey always feels more in control of himself when he is responsible for those around him. I think that was part of the problem last year. I mean, yeah, he might have had a drinking problem under other circumstances, but I think distancing himself from the responsibilities here made him feel out of control. Being with Annie he can feel like he's in charge of something again, kind of like he used to be here," Charlie said looking of into the distance. "It's like him coming over here every morning when I started my treatments. He thought that by being here he could make everything better. But, I wasn't ready to do let him do things and anyway, what it ends up I need is having him at the restaurant. Hopefully he'll be able to work out some of his control needs there."
"Yeah, I guess you're right. Do you want something to eat? Griffin made some soup yesterday and I thought I'd heat it up. I'm sure Claudia and Owen will be hungry when they get up," Julia asked as she got up from the couch and headed toward the kitchen.
"Actually, Jule, let's go to the restaurant. Kirsten and I ate at the inn we stayed at last night and I think my appetite might be back. I want to take advantage of it while I can and I'd kind of like to see everybody down there. I haven't been in for almost a week. I just got the roof fixed, I want to make sure the rest of the place isn't falling down. Why don't you go get Griffin, Claud and Owen and I'll call Bailey," Charlie said as he got up and headed for the phone.
"That sounds like a great idea. I'll go round up the troops," Julia said as she headed out the back door.
The maitre'd, Bill opened the door to welcome the Salinger family in. They were a welcome sight. It had been almost two months since they had come in for a meal. Charlie had only come in once or twice over the past couple weeks and everyone at the restaurant was worried. They were quickly ushered over to their table set for the expanding group of eight. Bailey had invited Annie and Natalie to join them. With Charlie getting sick, they hadn't had a chance to see the family since Julia and Griffin's wedding.
"I told the chef you were here and he said you should order whatever you want, even if it's not on the menu, special treat. What can I bring everyone?" asked Susan, the server.
They each placed their order for their favorite dishes. When Susan got to Charlie, he took an extra moment.
"I think what I would really like is filet mignon. Good for the white blood cells. And can you bring me a cut up orange and about ten packages of saltines. I've learned that being prepared is half the battle with food," Charlie said with a chuckle.
Susan went to place their orders. The talk quickly turned to the Christmas tree and plans for the holiday. After some pointed questions Claudia fessed up that Reed had been their partner in erecting the trees in the house and the shed. Griffin and Julia thanked her again for the transformation of their new home.
"So, I was thinking about Christmas. Do we want to open gifts on Christmas Eve or in the morning?" Charlie asked.
"Santa's coming?" asked Owen.
"Of course Santa's coming. I guess we should wait for him to bring the presents before we open them. Christmas morning it is. Annie, will you and Natalie join us for dinner? I already asked Kirsten and Paul. We would really like to have you as a part of our family," Charlie offered in a sincere tone. He knew that this woman was important to Bailey and his experiences the past couple months had offered him a clarity he had not formerly had.
"That would be really nice, Charlie. Thank you for thinking of us," Annie answered taking Bailey's hand in hers.
"Thanks Charlie," Bailey said, the look in his eyes saying more than his simple words.
They finished dinner and returned home to decorate the tree. Christmas was only a few days away. As they decorated the tree, Claudia reminded them about the year before when Grandpa Jake had gotten a tree for them. They hadn't heard from him for a couple of months. Charlie hadn't been able to reach him before Julia's wedding and he hadn't really wanted to burden their grandfather with their troubles. Jake had problems of his own.
Charlie started to feel the fog that seemed to flood over him at the most inopportune times. The fatigue was incredible. He looked over and saw Owen crashed on the floor holding an ornament. It was time to take them both to bed. He picked the little boy up, trying not to groan. Between Owen growing and his physical condition, he wasn't going to be carrying his brother around much longer.
"Good night everybody. Thanks for a great day. The tree looks great, I'll expect a finished product tomorrow," Charlie said as he carried Owen to the steps. He was tired, but the weekend had exceeded all expectations. First the trip with Kirsten and then a family day unlike they'd had for a very long time.
"He looks better, don't you think?" Claudia asked.
"Yeah, I really think getting away helped. I guess we just need to try to help him, but still let him keep things as normal as possible. I swear, he's going to be better before we figure out how to let him be sick," Julia answered hanging a glass ornament on the tree.
"I hope so. He is going to get better isn't he?" Claudia turned to look at her sister. They didn't ever talk about what could happen if Charlie didn't get better. It seemed like if no one mentioned it, they wouldn't have to face the possibility of him dying.
"He's going to get better Claudia. Please don't worry about that," Julia said as she crossed to where her little sister was standing.
"Charlie's strong. Yeah, he's sick now, but in a couple of months it'll be like it never happened," Griffin added.
"But what if he doesn't? We never talk about it. What would happen to Owen and to me?" From the tone of Claudia's voice it was obvious that she had thought about the possibility at length.
"Then Julia and I would take care of you. Don't worry. Nothing's going to happen to this family. We would figure out how to take care of things," Griffin said as he embraced Claudia. He could feel how scared she was. "Now, let's finish decorating and then we all need to go to bed. We have a big week up ahead."
They finished decorating the tree in silence with only the sound of the Christmas album playing on the stereo.
Charlie was glad Kirsten was going to the medical center with him. He had to have his blood work done, meet with Dr. Rabin and then have the radiation treatment if his white cell count had improved. He couldn't think about the possibility of having to delay treatments.
The hematologist took the blood out of his left arm. They were starting to have trouble getting a vein each time and the doctor had mentioned putting in a portacath in his chest. He wanted to put it off unless it was absolutely necessary. It was an hour until his appointment with Dr. Rabin, so Charlie and Kirsten took the chance to do some shopping.
"I can't believe it's the 22nd of December and I don't have any gifts bought yet!" Charlie exclaimed. "I am never going to get everything taken care of."
"Why don't we divide the job? I'm done with my shopping as usual and I think it's fun. Do you have any ideas?" Kirsten asked as they walked down the street. Store windows were decorated for the holidays and people seemed to be in good spirits.
"I want to get some small things for Bailey and Julia. I know what they and Griffin need most is money, so I thought I would give them each some cash. Owen is pretty easy, practically anything in Toyland catches his eye. Claud is hard. She's so grown up, but at the same time still my little sister and she has really been out of sorts with this whole cancer thing," Charlie said.
They entered the small jewelry store on the corner and looked at the cases. It reminded Charlie of their trips to find the perfect wedding rings. He hadn't ever admitted it to Kirsten, but he still had both rings in his dresser drawer. Sometimes, more often actually, he would take them out and wonder what would have happened if he hadn't . . . That was all the further the thought would ever go. Kirsten and Paul seemed very happy and she seemed so much healthier than when she had been with Charlie. It was too bad that this happiness came at a personal cost to him.
As the thoughts continued to cycle through his mind, he saw it. The perfect gift for Claudia lay nestled in amongst the other charms. He signaled the clerk and had her pull it from the display case. It was a charm for her bracelet. They had traditionally bought Claudia charms for her birthday, but this one needed to be given now. It was the infinity symbol. This little piece of gold would say what Charlie had been trying to tell his sister: that no matter what he would be with her forever.
The most difficult part of his shopping completed, Charlie and Kirsten headed back for his appointment with the doctor. They were quickly called into Dr. Rabin's office where Charlie introduced her to Kirsten.
"I'm pleased to see you have brought a friend with you, Charlie. I sense that it has been hard for you to share this experience with those around you. Friends and family can be very important at times like these. You should take advantage of those who are willing to help out, both with the day to day things and with the emotional things," Dr. Rabin said as she opened his file.
"So, do the numbers look okay? Can we keep going with the treatments?" Charlie asked anxiously.
"Things look good. You must have followed my directions, because the white blood cell count has rebounded nicely. The numbers are still low, but we can continue for now. We'll do treatments through the 24th and then take the 25th off. I will expect to see you on the 26th for our weekly appointment. Do you have any other questions?" the doctor asked.
"No, I guess if everything looks okay, we should just get to the treatment. Thanks again Dr. Rabin, and Merry Christmas," Charlie said as he and Kirsten got up.
"Merry Christmas to you as well."
Kirsten helped Charlie at Toyland. They found so many things that Owen would enjoy, it became a game of attrition rather than searching for the perfect thing. One trip to the complimentary gift wrap (with nice tips for Julia's compatriots) and they headed home. The weekend really did seem to have helped Charlie. His appetite had remained and his energy seemed to be up.
Christmas morning dawned as a perfect northern California day. The sun burned the fog off the Bay earlier than usual. Charlie sat at his desk looking toward the Golden Gate Bridge when he heard Owen behind him.
"Is Santa here yet?" the little boy asked.
"I bet he has come. Do you want to wake up Claudia and we'll go see?" Charlie asked as he got up from the chair. As Owen ran down to Claudia's room, Charlie walked downstairs. He was surprised to find Griffin in the kitchen making breakfast.
"Hey, you didn't need to do this," Charlie said as he watched Griffin pour the pancake batter on the griddle.
"My mom always made pancakes on Christmas morning and Julia has told me that your dad was the chef in the family, so I thought it was my job to keep up the food traditions," Griffin said as he pulled the plate from the oven where it was warming.
Claudia, Owen and Julia all converged on the kitchen simultaneously. The room was quickly filled with the family eating breakfast. Griffin had put blueberries in the pancakes and had found a bottle of maple syrup in the cupboard. It was truly a Christmas morning feast. They ate the pancakes as fast as Griffin could cook them until each member's appetite was sated. When they had finished, they moved into the living room where the Christmas tree was surrounded with gifts. Owen ran up to the tree nearly shrieking with joy.
"Santa came! Santa came!" he shouted as he began pulling packages out from under the tree.
"Wait a minute, Owen. These aren't all yours," Claudia said as she tried to maintain some sort of control over her brother's enthusiasm.
In the midst of separating the gifts Bailey, Annie and Natalie arrived with another bundle of gifts. Any semblance of organization quickly disappeared into gift opening craziness. With each box he opened, Owen shouted out with joy. Charlie found himself just watching his little brother, trying to remember if he had ever felt the same way. He was so absorbed he didn't notice right away when Claudia sat down next to him.
"Thank you," she said quietly holding the box with the charm in her hand.
"I wanted to find something that might make you feel better. I know this has been really hard to you, but Claud, I am always going to be here for you, no matter what. You can count on me," he said as he pulled her into a hug.
As the gift opening winded down, Claudia got out her violin and began to play. Bailey lit a fire and sat down with Natalie between him and Annie. Claudia had played several familiar Christmas songs when Griffin got up and sat down at their mother's piano. No one had played the instrument since she died. He sat for a moment and then began playing. Charlie looked over at Julia. She just shrugged her shoulders. She had no idea he played and well. Claudia adjusted her tempo slightly and they played together in perfect harmony.
The room grew warm from the fire and Owen snuggled between Charlie and Julia on the couch. Charlie ran his hand over the little boy's hair. It had been one of the best Christmases they'd had.
As they sat there, he noticed one more gift under the tree. It was still in
its mailing wrapper. He leaned over and grabbed it. There was no return
address. He carefully pulled the wrapping off and opened the box. Inside
was a Christmas ball. It looked as if it had been decorated by a child. It
had "Daddy" printed on it with silver glitter that was starting for fall
off. Inside the box was a note that said from Jake. It said, "I've kept
this many years, but I think your mother would want it to be on your tree
now." Charlie pulled the ball out of the box and hung it on the tree. They
might not see him again, but the ball would remain a memory of the
grandfather they never thought they would meet. Now Christmas was complete.