Dear Man Whose Name I Forgot

Dear The Man Whose Name I Forgot,

My parents called a family meeting in early December. They wanted to discuss an idea for the coming holidays. A neighborhood family was having a hard time and would probably not have a traditional Christmas with presents or fancy dinners.

“Would you be willing to give up half of your Christmas, so the children could also have presents and candy?”

My siblings and I each became a Secret Santa for one child from your family. Your oldest daughter, maybe a year older than me, became my responsibility.

I don’t know if you remember me, but I spent the entire summer of 1989 at your house. She and I lip synced or sang the entire Tiffany album before going to the mall in hopes of being discovered. We’d agonize over outfits and hair styles. Each day she made me lunch – always exotic foods like canned shrimp and Nutella. Your large home seemed a palace and, although we drifted apart as friends, I was grateful to your daughter for a summer of dreaming and escape.

I chose a boombox for her. I struggled over which cassettes to buy for days. I was far less cool and knew she had all the Tiffany albums. I chose Amy Grant’s Lead Me Onbecause I loved it and I hoped our shared musical tastes for one artist meant she would also enjoy it. Also, it was on clearance at the grocery store, so I could buy a few more presents.

I got her a Richard Marx record, hoping she still had the record player we wore out. Then I got her a sweater, keeping in mind the style tips she had taught me about shape and color. Her stocking was Lisa Frank pencils, plastic bangles, a variety pack of sparkly Lip Smacker, and imported candies from the expensive aisle. I wrapped each present carefully and insisted I use new bows – not the ones my mom made us reuse each year.

On Christmas Eve, we loaded the van and drove to your street. We parked at the bottom of the hill and hiked up to place the packages on your door step. Then, we hid in the bushes to make sure you brought them inside. We walked back to our van and I don’t remember the cold or the slush on the street that I hated. I remember smiling. I remember the high.

Christmas Day, our family enjoyed our celebration with your family tucked somewhere between our hearts and our minds. Church services were right after presents. You were usually there – I looked to see if your daughter was wearing the sweater or bangles. Would her lips sparkle a bit? I didn’t see you guys come in, but at the end of the service, when the pulpit was open to the congregation to bear testimony of the season, you were the last to stand.

Because of my dad’s position in the church, he sat near the pulpit. You handed him a paper when you approached the stand. While he read it, the nerves in my stomach knotted. Did you figure us out? I waited not so patiently for your turn to speak.

When you got to the pulpit, I saw your face clearly for the first time and felt the trembling emotions it showed. My dad began reading the paper, explaining you were too overcome to speak.

You’d just experienced the worst year of your life. You felt like a failure. You had lost hope and had crept into the dangerous territory of apathy towards life.

My dad paused. An exceptional speaker, teacher, and actor, he still stumbled over the words of your letter while tears choked his voice. You wanted whoever had helped you to know they gave you more than packages and treats. They had given you back your hope.

While I would love to say that this Ghost of Christmas past was always close to my memory every holiday season, it had hidden itself in the bushes until I too had the worst years of my life. Until I was a failure. Until everything was literally breaking, crumbling, and dying around me. Hope was a distant memory. Darkness and apathy had come and gone and then morphed into a numb regret. I couldn’t see a Ghost of Christmas future and didn’t care. The Ghost of Christmas present didn’t even have the energy to visit me.

Then, inexplicably one cold, rainy evening, you popped into my memory. Without a trigger of smell or music or even a taste of exotic candy, your daughter’s bedroom and her smile and friendship knocked on the door – gifts to open and cherish. I hadn’t thought of you or that Christmas in decades, but there it was, and I cried. I remembered the high.

My own secret saviors and cheerleaders, scattered around my life, began to pop into my head. Your memory the leader in a parade of joy. I opened each memory, each act of kindness, and I remembered hope – even if I couldn’t feel it yet. Over a few short days, my smile returned, and the darkness receded-some. Love won—or was at least winning.

I went shopping and picked out gifts for my sons. I smiled at strangers. I wrapped presents and sang irreverent Christmas carols. I even laughed. Every moment thinking of you and your family. You were with me somewhere between my mind and my bruised heart.

So, I wish I remembered your name. The letter my dad read that bright December morning so long ago ended with your hope you could repay the kindness. I just want to let you know—you did.

With gratitude and love,

Kristi Rabe

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Kristi Rabe is a freelance writer and construction project manager in dreary Moreno Valley, California. She is also the adoptive mother of a child with serious mental health issues and special needs. She received an MFA from UCR Palm Desert, Low-Residency Program in 2014 and mainly writes about the challenges facing those who are experiencing the crisis of the broken American mental healthcare system. Her work has been published by Bank Heavy Press, Verdad Magazine, and Manifest Station. Most recently, she was featured on the Writer's Resist literary website.