The last of the kids, slowly but with purpose walks down the red carpet and past the plastic reindeer and miniature log cabin. He takes the steps confidently but also with deep reflection, his mom and dad standing near the white wooden picket fence, smile with pride. The photographer dressed as an elf stands in position waiting eagerly to take the picture so that she could go home to her kids to celebrate Christmas before they go to bed.
As the kid reaches my knee, I lean down, squishing the padding and red polyester suit and pick him up. His blue bright eyes lock onto my green exhausted eyes and I become transfixed, locked into a state of reflection and surprising hope.
"Sorry Brad, but I have to let you go. The restaurant isn't doing that good and if I have a hope of making any money this year I have to let you go. I am really sorry."
And with that I went from a solid comfortable employment to being jobless, money-less and hopeless. Cooking had become dull and repetitive, I wasn't enjoying it anymore and it showed but I was trapped. It was the only thing that I was good at, the only thing that I was trained for and sadly there was no hope of anything else. Friends of mine had gone into the construction industry, something that I had thought of doing myself but now it's November, the construction industry is laying people off, not hiring. So I sat in the Chef's office, unemployed at Christmas time, both knowing that at best I could get a temporary gig catering but that would dry up in January and I would be back trying to find a job at a time when no one in the food industry is making money.
I left the restaurant, the cold pulling my shoulder up to my ears and the first of the Christmas displays being lit and kids being excited at all the new toys and candy. I walk into the liquor store and grab a bottle of bourbon and walk to my apartment, each step leaving a indentation of sadness and loneliness. The next few days become a blur of bourbon and video games as I slowly become the worst version of myself; while, the world tells me that I should be happier. I had heard that this time can be a hard time for people but I hadn't really know what that meant until this moment. Crying would have been a joyful feeling compared to what I actually was feeling, which was nothing, a void of anything, where all I wanted to do was drink and get caught up in a world of video games and imaginary people.
The phone began to ring, my Chef, the one that just fired me. I had hopes that he needed me, that there was more money then he though and that once again I was alive. I pick my cell and swipe to answer and realize that for the first time since that moment I have something very special, hope. "Hey, I wanted to check in and see how you are doing? Do you need a reference or do you want me to make some calls and see if there is anything that I can do? Look, I know that most likely you will say no, but my wife runs the mall on 45th street and I know that they are looking for a Santa for Christmas. It pays pretty good and it is an everyday sort of gig at least that is until the 26th. If you are interested I'm sure that she would hire you?"
For some reason in that moment; instead of answering no like I had wanted to, I mumble sure. And just like that, the next day I am walking through the mall looking at the Christmas display with the Chef's wife as she goes over what is expected of me and taking me to see if the Santa Claus suit fits. As I am strapping on the fat padding to my already wobbly stomach, I see the most beautiful woman I had ever seen before. She was walking towards me, lightly tanned skin with dark hair and holding a large shoulder bag, her eyes were a mixture of laughter and sweetness as she reaches out her hand and introduces herself. She is in fact the elf and camerawomen and the person that I will be spending most of my time over the next few weeks.
And soon the days come and go, each day a reflection of the previous and every day, staring all
day at this powerful smile as she takes the picture. I soon find myself enthralled by the children, too. The stories and the hopes that the share with me, the excitement as I shake my belly and laugh, even the crying kids become a joy and every moment I get to share it with her. There was just something about being near her that was so perfect and I became so happy to share these experiences with her. At the end of the most nights we would take a moment and laugh about the day with coffee and cookies but some nights, I would just sit back in the chair with exhaustion but also with joy and happiness.
And now, this kid locked onto my eyes offers me something of a hope. The innocent look that only children can muster. I ask him in my deepest Santa voice, what he would like for Christmas. He looks at me with so much love and hope and answers, a puppy. It wasn't the first time I had heard this but there was something moving about this kids answer, a hope and belief that I was real, that I would be able to deliver this puppy that he wanted and all that he needed to do was tell me. I smiled at him and told him I would see what I could do, I give him a candy cane, as I lift him off of my lap and he quickly runs away into a giant hug from his parents. I sit a moment staring at the scene, tears filling my eyes but refusing to give me away by falling down my cheeks. I almost didn't notice as she comes to stand behind me with her hand resting on my shoulder. Quietly we both stare as the scene unfolds and the last of the shoppers disappear.
We exchange email and phone numbers and give each other a hug and while we both had things we needed to go do, neither one of us wanted to leave. As we start to separate, she tells me that her ex has the kids for Christmas and if I wasn't doing anything maybe we could meet up for a coffee. My heart pounds and the sweat becomes a danger to breach my brow, I smile and say of course.
The next day, I arrive at her house, the Christmas tree blinking brightly with lights and bulbs and we sit down next to the tree with out coffees and talk. There was never going to be anything romantic between us, she doesn't have the time and is still not over the break up of her marriage. But it didn't matter, she was amazing, strong and proud and we sat there talking and drinking coffee. Life never seemed so complete as in those moments, there was nothing wrong, no judgements and no failures. We both had struggled in life at moments and so there was no embarrassment or shyness about this. We talked until the sky darkened and the lights got brighter. We just sat cuddled under a blanket and watched the tree lights blink but like all perfect moments, time seems to catch up and soon I realize that I had to leave and as I go, I give her a present. It was something that I we looked at all the time when we were sitting having coffee at the mall, and it was one of those extra's that she felt was necessary. She looks at me, and says she has nothing for me. But as I walked away, thinking about where I was when we first met to where I am now, I know that she gave me the best present ever, a sense of peace, a sense of pride and sense of hope. For that is what this season is all about, hope.