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Father Christmas

by Wendy Shreve

Until four years ago, I was the Christmas cheerleader of the family. I rallied the troops, usually our limited extended family, and spread holiday cheer either in person or far across the world.

For my father, the holiday had often been centered around family, tradition and gift-giving, and when we had lean years, he’d be withdrawn and depressed.

In those days, no one had heard of SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder), but my Dad would have been the perfect guinea pig. However, I’d never let him wallow for too long. My mother would be busy juggling meals in the kitchen, a place off limits to everyone, she called it her version of an office.

So I’d decorate the tree, play the Christmas music, and sit on my father’s lap singing Christmas carols. As I grew older, if I was home the ritual would be the same, sans the lap sitting.

In 2002, I returned home to Cornwall, New York, to help my mother, as my father had been diagnosed with early stage prostate cancer. I had meant to leave once father’s health improved, but accidents and several joint replacements for both parents led to my staying longer than expected.

I settled into a routine, worked as a temp or for local companies, wrote a novel, and became the family mediator as problems surmounted and tensions rose. Then one day, years later, after months of my father’s now regular abusive tirades, I’d had enough.

Both parents were physically healed. However, mentally, my “Dad” had become another person. Not a father, a stranger. I’d later learn that his pain had been due to physical and financial stressors that had yet to be diagnosed or addressed. Still, it was time for me to leave.

After securing a place to stay on Cape Cod, I left for the first time without any well wishes, loving comments or hugs from either parent. In their eyes, I’d abandoned them, though my mother later confessed she knew inwardly the move had been for the best.

The estrangement lasted through my first Christmas. Slowly, the lines of communication opened on both sides. I was fearful that my relationship with my father would never be the same.

With time, the healing began on both sides and as I found work, a place to live and a new life, my father began to live vicariously through my new adventure, as he often did.

We had come to Cape Cod as a family for summer vacation for years to visit dear friends in Orleans, where Dad loved swimming at Crystal Lake and eating seafood; my Mom walking Nauset Beach and playing Pink Fink.

Dad began to recall happier times as we talked on the phone. Eventually, he and my mother would come for short visits.

Looking for an alternative to a typical Christmas in New York State, my father suggested he and my mother visit the Cape for the holidays. We all agreed it would be a fun change. Orleans being so beautiful, with the Snow Library’s snowflakes; fairy lights of different colors; the music of local church concerts or carolers singing familiar Noels invited holiday dwellers.

And with the imminent arrival of my family, I suggested and made plans for dinner reservations, holiday events, and decorations. I bought a small, albeit artificial Christmas tree with decorations for their hotel room as a surprise.

On Christmas day we all exchanged a few gifts under the tiny tree lights and votive candles, then headed off to a main meal in Barnstable, savoring every moment of our time together.

Christmas had returned to our family, more importantly, to my father. He beamed at our being together again and didn’t want to say “Goodbye,” days later.

Thrilled that we had established a new tradition and were together once again as a family, I could hardly contain my tears. Nor could my Dad, who somehow knew this holiday, his and my mother’s visit with me, and that Christmas on Cape Cod, would be his last.

We stayed in touch, but I never saw the happy father I loved again. Five months later, when I’d heard what his diet had been for the last week, his behavior, shoulder pain, etc. I knew.

I called my father’s doctor’s office and demanded they see him in the morning (they had wanted to postpone the visit for a week). The next day, my father went for an MRI and collapsed. When I heard, I packed my bag and drove to home.

Dad had already begun to fade in and out. We held hands. We talked about the Cape and how happy I was and how happy he was for me. He even reminisced about our Cape Christmas. He understood that would be his last.

Then he made a remarkable comment, “I wish I had something in the bank to leave you {the family}.”

“You’ve already given us so much that money can’t buy, Dad.” I said.

That moment became my lesson about the true meaning of Christmas.

Photograph courtesy of Wendy Shreve

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Wendy Shreve

Wendy Shreve, a native New Yorker, grew up in the wilds of the Lower Hudson Valley, climbing trees, connecting with nature. With New York City at her doorstep, she found a launching pad to new horizons.

Whether teaching ESL in Singapore during the Persian Gulf War, taking a school group across ravines in the jungles of Belize, going solo in Bali, or drinking a toast to Picasso with a taxi driver in Provence, Wendy has never settled for the ordinary.

She received her BA at Smith College and MA at University of Montana. Along with teaching ESL at schools and universities in Europe, Asia, and the United States, her professional experience has included working as a freelance consultant, publicist and copy writer.

Cape Cod has inspired her to write the short story, Lamentations, published by Hamilton Stone for their Quarterly Review, and her novel, SHADOWWATER. For more information visit

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