I can’t believe I said yes, the one word I had been determined not to let pass my lips, but I guess I was weak. That one word — yes — meant a five hour trip with four people I had never met before on a day that should have been spent with my family. To understand it, though, you would have to know my dad.
See, my dad is the kind of guy who is spur of the moment not because he enjoys it, or that he is naturally spontaneous, but because he doesn’t really get that other people have things they’re doing, that we’re not just waiting around for him to contact us at his whim. He had recently moved to Richmond, Virginia, to be with his wife and two young daughters. In fact, I had helped him pack up his stuff that spring and sent him off with salutations for the half-siblings.
So it was a week before Christmas when I got the call. Well, my mom got the call, but she passed it on. My dad said a friend of his was heading down to Richmond to spend the holidays with his family, and somehow my dad had convinced this man to let me ride down with them. On Christmas. Now, I am all about tradition, but I was honestly torn for several reasons. First, I missed him, although I never would have said that out loud back then. It had been ages since we had spent any quality time together. On the other hand, though, I had never spent a Christmas away from my mother. Then there were the strangers to factor in.
I honestly have no idea how my dad convinced this man to take a tag along, but he can be persuasive and I think that had something to do with it, but it was a whole little family (dad, mom, and two young children) and I knew the trip would be awkward for all of us. I still said yes, though, because I had a feeling it would be the only time I would make the trip, that it would really be the last time I would be able to spend quality time with my father while I was still a child, at that tipping point. So I packed my bag and my mom dropped me off early that morning. For her part she was being really cool with my whole decision and the suddenness of it all, but I knew she would miss me, and I knew my choice hurt her on some level.
But then I was in the car, between two kids who seemed lost in their own worlds, and the scenery was going by a bit slower than I thought it should be (it turns out my dad’s friend was a very conscientious driver). I had my headphones on, though, some cheap five dollar ones from the pharmacy, and I tried to tune them and everything else out. At some point I even forgot it was Christmas, although the roads were testament to it with so little traffic besides us traveling either way on the interstate. Every little bit they would try to make small talk, and I played a few road games with the kids in the back seat (they were about five and six years younger than me), but it was decidedly awkward sharing that most precious of days in close quarters with people I didn’t even know.
We stopped for lunch about halfway there and dragged out slightly soggy sandwiches and apple juice boxes, a feast for kings indeed. But by then we had momentum on our side as we piled back into the car to the sounds of Christmas music pouring from the stereo. It was definitely beginning to feel a lot more like Christmas, even though we were traveling from cold into warm temperatures. And I was excited to see my little sisters, and to see my dad, and to spend a little time in their world. It would prove to be the first and last time I did make it down there, but I will always have the memory of those five days to hold close.
We pulled into their driveway at a quarter to three in the afternoon on Christmas day, and I remembered my manners long enough to thank the not-so-strangers before they left. I hadn’t realized how much energy the long trip had taken from me until I got inside the house and flopped down into the nearest chair while my dad, his wife, and my sisters crowded around me. And I smiled because the trip had definitely been worth all that I had endured to get there. Now, as I look back, I realize just how odd that Christmas truly was, but also how much I got out of it, and the following four days.