6 a.m., still dark. A winter sky’s red haze. A sharp black tangle of branches etched against the red.
The sky is heavy with snow, bow-bellied, nearly breaking open with the weight. The house is drafty, cold. I see my breath. I stand at the window and study the intricate patterns of crystals of ice on the glass. I turn, creak down the stairs, and stop at the foot.
Oddly, no God.
Instead, a towering tree, lit up in the dark, glittering gold. I went with gold this year. Hung each thin-glass orb in its place. Strung the strings of fragile glass fruit. Stood on a ladder, carefully set the angel at the top. A triumph, this tree. The guests all said so when they came. We lazed around, half-drunk, fattened as the Paschal lamb, and laughed wildly at the tacky crèche. Porcelain, probably expensive. I don’t know where I got it, not being begat of overly Godly folk. A bookish bunch, Christmas more of a classical music
affair. They herded me to church from time to time, because they vaguely thought they should; I liked my patent-leather shoes. I had a semi-hysterical passion for all things Christmas, flung myself into it face-first. Went to see the J.C. Penny Santa, made my earnest Christmas list. They let me talk them into buying a stunningly garish flocked tree, let me spray all the windows with foam snow. I’m five, sitting at the table,
swinging my feet: My father and I sing Handel’s Messiah while we play cards. He took the melody; I sang the alto part an octave up. We sang it all day long, during dinner, in the car. I looked out the window and sang as we drove, watching the larger world fly by. My father’s booming baritone rattling the Datsun,
the ever-present voice of god. Omniscient. Never-ending. Everywhere.
It’s six o’clock, still dark. I pour a cup of coffee, sit down in front of the tree. Upstairs, a husband snores. We have done the thing where we stuff each other’s stockings. Mine’s full. I feel the same surge of excitement I did as a kid. Santa really came. Incarnation. The waited for thing arriving, the glorious morning, the payoff, the joy.
Christmas morning. Advent’s over. The waited for thing’s finally here. My favorite part,
the waiting, is done. I loved the Advent calendar—punching out each day on the way to Christmas before I went off to school. Crunching through the snow. I used to sing, walking in the dark. I sang the more cerebral carols, ones my father taught me, ones with a couple of parts. I was an alto even then; no dulcet tones for me. I sang,
imagining the soprano I would never be; the blond serene soprano, the halo of her open mouth, easily hitting high C. I could hear her in my head: I sang the second part, half hating her, half-thinking I was the only thing that made her stupid melody interesting anyway. The one who got to belt.
In my red boots, I belted out “O Come O Come Emanuel,” noting smartly that I knew the Latin, and the Latin was Veni, veni. I heard an entire choir in my head, an orchestra. I conducted it and sang all the parts and played the violin. The expectation was enormous. The thrill of what next overwhelming, awesome, my life
reeling above me like the endless prairie sky. O the future when you’re nine! Almost a decade old! Though you’ll dread the later O’s, the forty, fifty, on through life, when life is smaller, insufficient, plain. And yet you grieve its passage and still fear the dark.
And I liked the baby Jesus story that my parents said was myth. I made them read the book again and again, burning with a secret faith. I held my breath: the trek to Bethlehem, through the curiously Middle Eastern snow. Meek and mild Mary swaying on the donkey, hugely pregnant, Joseph looking incidental, as a first-time father will.
Them arriving at the inn and being cruelly turned away and stuck in the barn with the cow. And then, in the second-most miraculous thing ever, Mary doesn’t even give birth: Our Little Lord shows up there in the hay all at once,
clean and blond. Mary and the cow aren’t even surprised. Only the wise men and the little drummer boy are wowed. Then a couple of pages where the world is glad. The good part’s over. As soon as he’s born, I’m done. The whole point was the waiting: Jesus always almost coming, never there. I got out of bed and stood by the window, breathing on the glass. Praying hard that the thing I knew was waiting in the wings would come.
Something enormous, the single, ultimate moment that would arrive and arrive. An answer. An Omega, all in all. Some real for sure actual thing. Some comfort. Of some kind.
You stand by the window for years, knowing for a fact the thing is on the way. And then it’s now. You’re lying in bed, wanting it back: the absolute faith that this isn’t it. Just wait. There’s something next. You pray out of habit, knowing for a fact you’re talking to the dark.
My father did find God, when he got old. He’s good about it, doesn’t push. Yesterday, on Christmas Eve, he called. Not to push it, he said, but are you going to church today? I said no. Say, I said, do you ever get really maudlin and morbid this time of year?
Sure, he said. I lie awake in bed all night, thinking of the ways I’ve failed. All the things
I haven’t done, and how I haven’t saved the world. I was impressed; my maudlin thoughts aren’t noble. I lie awake at night thinking of all the ways I’ve failed, and all the ways life isn’t quite what I expected it to be. Who I didn’t love enough or loved too much, who’s dead, who I should have married, or married and really shouldn’t have done that. Then again, why not? What better way to reassure oneself that just in case there is no God to greet you, you will still go out hand in hand? You’ll stand together at the edge, eyes screwed shut, count to three, yell Jump! And fall, and not let go.
I ask my father, What’s the point? My father is supposed to know these things; this is what fathers are for. He says, I don’t fucking know. I say, sometimes I want a point. It’s Christmas Eve: I want to wake up tomorrow and be excited that it finally happened. Like
the day I got married that first time. Finally here! And I fly out of bed and put on the gorgeous white gown. That day, as my father’s just about to walk me down the aisle, and all the guests are turned expectantly to look at us as we stride by, my father says, Well, kid, it’s always good to get that first marriage out of the way. And
sets off down the aisle as Ode to Joy plays. I want that kind of day. With the white dress and the white garters underneath. The shiny too-young husband waiting, grinning madly at the end of the never-ending aisle. I want that kind of day, with the Advent calendar, and me singing on the way to school, grasping, for a second, God: reeling above me like
the red prairie sky. Veni, veni. I marched in time to my breath, a procession of white gusts that bloomed from my perfect virgin Mary mouth. On cold days, the snot froze in my nose, and the wet breath made ice crystals on the inside of my scarf. The hugeness of it all. The overwhelming Is. The thing beyond my tinyness,
red jacket bobbing down the winding snow-cloaked streets, in the dark, on the way.
Marya Hornbacher is the NYT Bestselling author of five books, including Madness and Waiting. Her books have been translated into eighteen languages, and her essays, journalism, and poetry have been published internationally, appearing most recently in Gulf Coast, Fourth Genre, and Vestoj (Paris). Her sixth book, Wally's Sparrow, is forthcoming in 2016.