Instructions for Putting Up the Xmas Lights
Sorry if I’ve unsettled you boy, leaving this note on top of the bundles of colored lights and garland. But unless Dr. O’Brien is way off, I didn’t make it to December, and it’s fallen on you to come home and put up the decorations for Mom. I realize Christmas is a busy season at the restaurant, but I also know this–sure as I know anything in my life–you’re a good son.
I wonder if it surprises you to know I feel that, given how things were the last few years between us, since Casey.
First things first, if you’re reading this at least you’ve found the bins. Well done. I figured between the grey duct tape and the Sharpie, XMAS ALPHA!! would be a sign you couldn’t miss in the basement. (Did you see the old weight bench is still there? You should take it—the weights, all of it–for Gary. He’s close to the age now you were when we worked out for a few months; then you and your friends joined the Y. It was fun while it lasted. God how you hated my 80’s workout music.)
I had all the decorations in a bunch of mismatched cardboard boxes I’d accumulated over the years as your Mom brought home stuff, but in March, after the second scan, I drove straight to Home Depot the next day and bought a bunch of these big Tupperware deals. I wanted to make it easy on you, spare you the hassle, and Mom really likes the lights you know. She always wanted a grand holiday for you and your sister when you were little. Maybe it seems odd that Christmas was the first task I tended to, in the wake of that ugly word, “pancreatic.” Maybe that morning I just woke up thinking about my impending absence, chores to be handled after I was gone. Now, with a summer starting I won’t see the end of, I’m thinking a lot about unfinished business.
Over the years I’ve discovered a secret I call the rule of 6. From outlet to end you can have six exchanges in the flow of electricity. Doesn’t matter if it’s an extension cord or a timer or a splitter or a set of lights. Six is the number. Thou shall not attempt seven. Eight is right out. God that movie made you laugh when you were a kid.
OK, Step One: start in the garage by plugging in the square black timer next to the beer fridge and the green round one on my work desk (you had to stand on a stool when we shaped that soap box derby car from a brick of wood). From the round timer, you’re going to run two extension cords (cabinet next to the work bench), each green, out the side door and along the mulch bed—one north and one south. Each cord gets capped by a three-way splitter, leaving you with six outlets for the six inflatables from the Island of Misfit toys (XMAS BAKER, XMAS CHARLIE). Your mom got those one year on clearance. 30% off or something. All through the years, each Dec 26, her menagerie grew. When she brought these home a few years back and asked me to find space for them, I noticed she was crying, and she said they were Casey’s favorite. This must’ve been our first Christmas without her. Looking back, there’s a sad sort of logic to her attraction I guess. Your big sister never quite felt like she fit in, you know. A Jill in the box. Is that why she started drinking? Anyway, in the bottom of XMAS CHARLIE is a Ziploc bag with a dozen yellow plastic stakes. Each inflatable gets 2 stakes, or they’ll tumble ass over tea kettle into the Watson’s yard at the slightest breeze. Set both timers to kick on just before 7—Mom’ll check before she turns on Wheel of Fortune. She’s goes to bed about 10, so have them kick off at 9:45, okay?
From the beginning of her troubles, you and me didn’t see eye to eye when it came to Casey. You thought I was hard on her. Unforgiving. Later, when I wouldn’t visit her at Clintonville after her third DUI, you told your mother I was being malicious. Do I get any credit for the rehab—Silver Shadows? Autumn Meadows?—down in Philly that I paid for after her first? Or after the second, those Monday night family sessions in the basement at Mount Calvary, all of us on unsteady fold out chairs clutching Styrofoam cups of bitter coffee and sharing our precious feelings? You’re right Mike, I didn’t visit her when she was incarcerated like you and your mom did. I wanted her to face the consequences of her actions, to feel punished so she could emerge exonerated. But I did write to her, every Sunday when your mom and I came home from mass. I prayed for Casey. What you said in the parking lot at the funeral home, that I abandoned her, that was out of line.
We’re in XMAS DELTA now. From the black timer, run three orange extensions chords out: one to the cherry tree (chunky colored lights, 4 sets), one to the azaleas under the front windows (one tiny white set for each bush), one to the railing around the front porch (white icicles, set to “sparkling brilliances”). Turn the juice on and plug the lights in as you go to be sure they still work. Every couple years one kicks out. You’re welcome to try and find the bulb that went bad and replace it. I wasted enough time on that pursuit, and even though I’m cheap as hell, I’d simply run down to the CVS by Taco Bell and pick up a new string. Run you $3.99.
Your mother says you and I both deserved some grace, that the whole situation was impossible to deal with. I don’t know. I regret the fights you and I had about how best to help Casey, those shouting sessions over the phone, and I regret the space that opened up between us after she passed. I thought that rift would close. Following her funeral, it was good of you to have Samantha bring Gary and Rita around, especially for your mom, but I missed seeing you, son. Your mom and I enjoyed taking your kids for walks, down to Cedar Terrace, the same swings we used to push you and Casey on, the same metal slides, roasted in the sun. I walked barefoot in the same cool streams with your kids as I did with you and your sister, turned rocks, captured the next generation of crayfish to delighted squeals. But you not being there made it incomplete.
XMAS ELVIS is mostly garland for the black railings out front, the wreath for the front door, the electric candles mom likes in the windows. XMAS FOXTROT and GANDALF contain the nativity and the ornaments/lights for the tree. Mom will want to do all that, but maybe Gary and Rita could help. That’d mean a lot. Those ornaments include a lot of handmade gifts you and Casey made in grade school—handprints on construction paper, popsicle sticks glued to form snowflakes. It could be dicey. No matter what, Mom will need assistance getting that angel on top. Gary could reach it, I’ll bet.
I wasn’t sure I was going to write this last part, but now that I’m almost done, I feel the need. When you came by the house to see me, just before I went into hospice, I pretended to be asleep. As you entered our bedroom, I rolled on my side, away, curled up like a shrimp. But I was awake when you said what you did. I heard you crying son, and I heard everything you said, and I feel the same way. You and I, we’re good. We were always good. Maybe we’re both to blame for Casey. Maybe you should’ve listened to me and let her stay in jail that Christmas instead of posting bail so she could get leave Covington. Maybe I should’ve listened to you and paid for one more stint at Seven Acres. I don’t know. Either way, had she stayed in jail or been in rehab, she wouldn’t have ended up in that river. That can’t be argued. Did she stumble in drunk? Did she stroll in sober? We can never know. But you’ve got to lay your burden down, son. You were right what you said in my room, when I was turned away pretending to sleep, that it was our individual guilt, our inadequacy to help Casey, that fueled the cross feelings between us. Your sister, she was a long time falling, and neither of us could catch her.
I wish we’d talked about the different shades of love. With the kids in their teens now, you must be feeling it, the distinctive aura of a father’s love, how it’s different than the love of a sibling or a spouse or a parent. Being a father is more complicated than being a son or a husband or a brother. You’re done now, being a brother, and I know you still care for Samantha and your mom. But most of your energy has to go to Gary and Rita. They are the ones who need you most, and above everything, need is the thing that shapes our love.
Remember that first night in the basement at Mount Calvary? Some guy with pockmarked cheeks in a secondhand suit gave a PowerPoint? I think his name was Victor. Victor talked about addiction and the 12 steps, and one thing he said really stuck with me. He said addicts had to acknowledge that they were powerless in the face of their addiction. That in an essential way it controlled them. And having loved as I have, I understood this right away, for there’s no greater addiction than love.
I loved Casey—no better and no worse than you–and I love you, and I love your kids. Tell Samantha I said thanks for letting you come over.
P.S. If you blow a fuse, you know where the breaker box is. And I’m sure you remember how to find the blown one. It’ll wiggle like a loose tooth. I taught you that, same as my father taught me. Be sure to tell Gary.
Neil Connelly has published 8 books, along with short stories in journals including Yalobusha Review, Grist, and Southern Indiana Review. Before returning to his home state of Pennsylvania, where he now teaches at Shippensburg University, he directed the MFA Program at McNeese State.