It was well past midnight last Christmas Eve, and I was sweaty and suffering.
While my daughter, Jellybean, was tucked snuggly in bed, dreaming of American Girl dolls, I was hiding in the garage, pacing the cement floor in a panic having realized that the giant inflatable ball — the kind so big that kids can climb inside — which I’d spent the better part of two hours blowing up, wasn’t going to fit in the house.
Santa needed a backup plan.
As in similar instances, the cooler head that eventually prevailed belonged to my former wife ("ex-wife" sounds angry and bitter), who suggested we write a note telling Jellybean to simply "look outside."
A little after 1 a.m., with the remainder of the presents laid out with care, I skulked home for a little sleep. My phone rang a little before 6 a.m.
"Dad-e-e-e-e-e-e-e-e-e!!!!," Jellybean squealed. "Momma won’t let me out of the bedroom ’til you get here, so hurry!"
Hurry I did.
True to her word, The Lovely Mother of My Children held Jellybean captive until I got there, so that we could all enjoy the excitement that makes Christmas as special as it is maddening.
Jellybean stared at the ridiculously large ball in dumbstruck awe. She literally rubbed her eyes as if it were a dream. It’s one of those memories that gets better with age and retelling.
It’s the kind of moment that couldn’t be captured in text-messaged pictures or an iPhone video. Facebook doesn’t have the right emoji, and no silly meme could do it justice. I had to be there.
I get "the look" a lot this time of year, that "oh, bless your heart" smile and down-cast eyes from friends who know I’m divorced. They assume that Christmas is especially hard, like I booze my way through Christmas Eve listening to Coldplay and crying over Jellybean’s baby pictures, mourning the things I’ve lost.
I mean … I could do that, but how depressing would that be? Besides, I hate Coldplay. If I want to be sad, I’ll crank up some old Tom Waits, but that’s not the point.
It’s been four years since The Lovely Mother of My Children and I got divorced. I’d be a liar if I said that first Christmas wasn’t excruciating. There might have been a sappy song or two and a six-pack of stout.
But since then, Christmas has been nothing but stress and great memories — making me like every other parent, single or otherwise, trying to swim upstream with an Amazon Prime anchor around my neck.
I’m the luckiest divorced guy I know. I’ve got too many friends who won’t see their kids on Christmas, mostly because they’re pig-headed and let their egos get in the way. Although to be fair, some of their ex-whatevers are terrible people.
But that’s not what makes me lucky. I’ve got about the best former wife a guy could ask for. (And she’s newly remarried, so I’m not trying to cook up any brownie points.) We get along and cooperate the way grown-ups should when they don’t want to one day watch their kids sit down for a finger-wagging session with Dr. Phil.
It’s not easy, and sometimes it sucks.
Holidays require planning and more choreography than a Paula Abdul video, but when the end result is a sweaty night spent in the garage blowing up the "Greatest Christmas Present Ever," it’s totally worth it.
When it comes to Christmas memories, assembly is required.
Contact Brett Buckner at email@example.com.