Samuel Rafael Barber is an M.A. candidate in English at Columbia University. Recent work has appeared in Puerto del Sol, DIAGRAM, and The Fanzine. According to life expectancy tables, he will live another 52.7 years.
WISDOM IN PAIN
Every day is a gift my mother would always say last December when we returned home from the Christmas tree lot with the tallest and thickest of the bunch and she said we need enough gifts to cover the dispiritingly stained carpet beneath its lowest branches, that stain for which Gary is responsible, not that we resent him for his weakness. She estimated that there would be a gift a day for at least two months, if things all went according to plan. Since we returned home from the Christmas tree lot with the tallest and thickest of the bunch in the middle of the month, this meant every day would be a gift until Valentine’s day, or so. Fitting, I thought.
She sent letters to our extended family, long-lost friends from both high school and college, peripheral figures whose holiday cards litter our mailbox year after year with distorted depictions of recent accomplishments. The letters insisted that under normal circumstances such a request would be totally out of the question considering my mother’s expertise regarding these matters, these social conventions informing one’s ideal rhetorical approach when it comes to interpersonal entanglements of varying intimacy. But that this year called for extreme measures. You see, she wrote in her exceedingly neat script easily identifiable as the work of a woman (something which has perpetually befuddled me as it would seem handwriting would be an element of schooling unsusceptible to social conditioning, and yet, with little deviation, gender is instantly known to me in almost all cases and, I suspect, to virtually all others who have expended even the slightest time examining the handwriting of peers in school or co-workers in a professional context), we really have no choice but to plead for an influx of gifts from our extended family, long-lost friends from both high school and college, peripheral figures whose holiday cards litter our mailbox year after year with distorted depictions of recent accomplishments, for our Christmas tree is exceedingly tall and thick and we need enough gifts to cover the ground beneath its lowest branches. For the sake of closure we must cover that stain for which Gary is responsible, not that we resent him for his weakness, not that we will ever forgive Julie for hers. We are at the mercy of those we care about to varying degrees in seeking to enact a Christmas miracle comparable to any such thing seen in movies or books or even lower arts such as what might be found in the typical television program.
And wouldn’t you know it, the gifts started arriving not days later. They just kept coming and coming, filling not only the ample space beneath the tree, but beginning to encroach upon our own territory as well. They covered our couches our beds our tables our carpets our hallways our bathtubs our stove. Our doll collections our stamp collections our baseball card collections. Our light reading material our challenging reading material our journals in which we sought to generate reading material for others. In no time at all, our home was bursting with gifts covered with wrapping paper of all kinds and colors. It eventually became so difficult to squeeze in and out the front door without sending packages flying in all directions, that we agreed to not leave the premises until each and every gift had been opened one at a time, one day at a time, every day a gift.
They came from Uncle Roderick and Aunt Patty and Uncle Jonas and Grandma Margerine and Cousin Freddie and Father McKenzie and Father Gibralter (from when we briefly flirted with switching parishes after a particularly fallow period of quality homilies back when Father McKenzie was dealing with the sudden loss of his cherished soccer team, tragically killed in a plane crash) and many, many more. So many more that the complete list goes on and on in this way for so long I cannot motivate myself to finish reading from it, now, in the aftermath of the weeks spent writing thank you cards on the family’s behalf, the task given to me on account of that gift you have with words, my mother said, though in all likelihood merely because I supply free labor as a daughter of hers (and because of my implication in the staining of the carpet and Gary’s subsequent breakdown, presumably).
I will acknowledge that the first gift-unwrapping was exciting. Its shape was confounding, its paper unusually glossy in an altogether pleasant sort of way. When I discovered it was a remote-controlled helicopter, well, I just about jumped for joy. And when I say just about jumped for joy, I mean to contextualize the nature of my internal emotional reaction, which was quite joyous, but in choosing that particular expression I also seek to convey that I quite literally jumped for joy, as in jumped up and fell back down to the earth due to gravity’s influence on my person about three or four times. I was so full of joy I cannot recall with complete accuracy. And yet, it was not the gift I needed most. It was not the gift I would dream of happening upon night after night, as gift after gift was unwrapped day after day, every day a gift after every day a gift.
The second gift-unwrapping was almost as compelling as the first. Its shape, while not as original or mysterious as that of the RC helicopter, was still reasonably intriguing. When it was revealed to be a set of dish-towels expertly contorted into the shapes of various adorable animal creatures, well, I deeply appreciated the practicality exhibited by Cousin Vitto in recognizing our kitchen’s need for a fresh crop of dish-towels and going about its replenishment in such an assertive manner while equally valuing the artistic ingenuity undertaken for no ulterior motive except its own sake in making figures pleasant to me, the only member of the family to care about such things.
The third gift-unwrapping followed the established precedent in piquing my interest slightly less than the unwrapping immediately prior, because as my mother liked to say during these winter months while witnessing the gradual but unabating loss of enthusiasm congruently displayed by all members of the household but most evident in Leela, whose precise relation to us was (is) sort of unclear but is pleasant enough to be around and so has moved into the guest bedroom until she can find an apartment with an affordable lease that is suitable for the lifestyle she seeks for herself, every day is a gift, but not all gifts are exciting and pleasurable. Some are even quite disappointing and upsetting, for example Aunt Gertrude’s gift to my mother of a knife with her name on it. And when I say Aunt Gertrude’s gift to my mother was a knife with her name on it, I mean to convey that the knife had my mother’s name emblazoned on the blade in red cursive that could very well have been Aunt Gertrude’s script (yet the mailing information on the package was typed so calligraphic comparison seemed out of the question) but was undoubtedly written by a woman as evidenced by the looping and rounded letters, there being even less uncertainty in recognizing its menacing intent. Just as how not all days are exciting and pleasurable, since some days are quite disappointing and perhaps even upsetting as when Gary caught us engaging in amorous congress and you were sent away, or when the knife disappeared under mysterious circumstances and the family decided that the best course of action was to begin locking bedroom doors at night.
While it was the cause of great alarm within the household, the missing knife didn’t excessively worry me, busy as I was with the still-month-and-a-half-long wait before me in determining whether your gift had been received, whether your gift lied beneath the lowest branches of the tree obfuscating my complicity in a devious and unnatural act I have come to understand, whether your gift was still to arrive, whether your gift wasn’t to come at all.
Day passed after day, gift passing after gift, some better than others but the novelty having dissipated considerably since the day I jumped for joy at the appearance of the helicopter. Oh how I longed for that excitement, oh how I longed for that feeling as I would wrap the helicopter in the dish towels given to us by Cousin Vitto and unwrap it again in a desperate attempt to capture the magic that now eluded me but had been powerfully felt not so long ago. The tree was in a rough shape itself having lost its tallness and thickness, now relegated to a tree of mere respectable height and respectable thickness. I didn’t exactly blame it for these changes knowing the tree as I did, having spent sufficient time in its company to understand that it merely wished to be an excellent Christmas tree, aware all the while that its tenure within the home was a tenuous one.
Mostly, I would think about the sorts of things Father McKenzie said during the period when we briefly flirted with switching parishes after a particularly fallow period of quality homilies back when Father McKenzie was dealing with the sudden loss of his cherished soccer team, tragically killed in a plane crash, as he wondered aloud how the club would adapt to the stringent financial and tactical considerations expected of them in England’s top flight without their entire training staff and crop of players. He relied upon metaphors, but they lacked the spark of my own, especially the one about every day being a gift, and the one about not every gift being created equal just like not every day is created equal, my mother would say as I now remember. I’ve never much liked metaphors anyway, nor have I relished recollecting the name on the tag of that last gift, the unwrapping of that last gift, either.