BY PEG GRAFWALLNER, M.ED.
Yes, VIRGINIA, there is a Santa Claus. He exists as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist, and you know that they abound and give to your life its highest beauty and joy. Alas! How dreary would be the world if there were no Santa Claus. It would be as dreary as if there were no VIRGINIAS. There would be no childlike faith then, no poetry, no romance to make tolerable this existence. We should have no enjoyment, except in sense and sight. The eternal light with which childhood fills the world would be extinguished.
I brought Ani home from a Bulgarian orphanage on August 11, 2001. She had spent her entire life in an orphanage; unaware of the things that most children take for granted, toys for example. She had never played with toys or more specifically, dolls except when she was allowed in the “toy room” when there was a possible adoptive parent. When I met her for the first time, she was far more interested in pushing the doll in the stroller than she was in the visitor who stood before her.
She had never celebrated her birthday or holidays. While we were given a birthdate for her, to this day, we don’t know if it’s correct. During her first dental visit, her dentist confirmed her age by her teeth, “Yes, I think she’s about six years old” he said. As a result, we accepted her “birthdate” as accurate.
As Ani was settling into her new life with us, we wanted to familiarize her with the traditions and customs that the holidays were soon to provide.
Her first Halloween costume was that of a hockey player. Her brother, Max, played hockey, and Ani attended all of his hockey games. Therefore, she knew what a hockey player was and wanted to emulate her big brother.
Her first Thanksgiving was spent with extended family – aunt, uncle and assorted cousins. Ani had never learned to chew so her food was pureed at home and brought to my cousins’ house. Her therapist suggested that I take pictures of Ani with each family member and make a photo album for her so she could connect names to faces. In that way, we hoped that by Christmas, Ani might be able to correctly identify family members.
As Christmas grew closer, I became more anxious and overwhelmed. My dream of the “perfect” family had been dashed when Ani was diagnosed as autistic and cognitively impaired. I knew early on something was wrong with her. We weren’t prepared for her delays, tantrums and outbursts that made her so different when compared with her peers. We hoped and prayed this “autistic” thing and her inability to process would get “better,” she would get over “it” and our family would be “normal.”
In addition, within two months of arriving home, Ani and I were identified with PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder).
But, Christmas was coming! I wanted it to be the same festive holiday it had always been; I wanted our family to enjoy the same traditions we had always appreciated. I hung up our homemade decorations hoping the joyful atmosphere would hide the awful truth that my family was falling apart. I baked buttery, sugary Christmas cookies that year, but the kneading and rolling were merely diversions of the awful frustrations we were feeling. I bought Christmas presents and wrapped them in glitter and shimmer with jingly holiday bows; realizing that no thought had been given to any of them.
“It’s okay to create new traditions and it’s okay to make new memories. Allow the holidays to come as they are instead of trying to dress them up to be what you envision.”
We practiced our “ho hos” with Ani and showed her pictures of the jolly fat man in the red suit. We explained, as best as we could and as much as she could comprehend, that Santa Claus was coming and he would be bringing presents. She smiled and nodded while sitting on the “ho ho” man’s lap, but there was no excitement or eagerness in her eyes.
We snuggled up on the couch and watched the traditional Christmas programming: “Charlie Brown’s Christmas,” “Santa Claus is Coming to Town,” and “Frosty the Snowman,” hoping that these family-favorite cartoons would create a sense of anticipation. But the shows held no interest for her and she would look at us wonderingly as if to say, “What does all of this mean?”
The night before Christmas, Uncle Jim, Uncle Leighton, and Aunt Amy came over. We ate ham and rolls, drank egg nog with brandy and enjoyed delicious, buttery Christmas cookies. Ani smiled and laughed, but was unable to grapple what was going on around her. I helped her open her presents, thanking everyone for the gifts they had given her. She looked up at me and started to cry. She was exhausted. It was too much and she had enough. I put her to bed knowing that the child-like joy and wonder that most families experience, “the night before Christmas,” wasn’t going to happen at our house the way I had hoped.
Ever since we brought Ani home, her mornings had been the same. She would stay in bed until one of us would go in her room and get her up. We’re not sure if that was the pattern she was used to in the orphanage; perhaps she wasn’t allowed to get out of bed without permission; perhaps she had to stay in her space until someone approached her. Either way, she stayed in bed and waited for us to come to her.
As she lay in bed that first Christmas, Mike, my husband, and Max, our 10-year-old son, were in the living room ready to start Christmas. Max had already “played Santa” and distributed the gifts to their rightful owner. Ani’s presents were heaped in a pile waiting for her.
We sat in the living room and waited. I turned on Christmas music, made hot chocolate and waited.
I was certain that she heard the music, our conversation and the jingle of the bells on the wrapped gifts.
We looked at each other and I decided we would open presents without her. I wanted the Christmas we use to have, without the delays, without the tantrums and without the outbursts that constantly penetrated our lives. I wanted us to laugh when we opened presents. I wanted us to share memories of past Christmases. I wanted us to make new memories.
After our presents were opened, I went into Ani’s bedroom. She lay there, looking up at me. I took her hand and we walked into the living room. I helped her open her presents. She didn’t understand and truthfully, I don’t know if she cared.
That first Christmas was 15 years ago. Ani understands what Christmas means now; well, at least what it means to her. While she never really comprehended the concept of Santa Claus, she certainly understands presents, and no longer needs help to open them. Now, she hangs up the green paper wreath she made in first grade and puts the gingerbread houses her brother and she made in kindergarten on the dining room table. Next week, she’ll be rolling out the buttery cookie dough and decorating them with holiday sprinkles. This year, her first year of employment, she will buy her family presents, wrap them in glimmer and shimmer, with jingly bows and put them under the tree. She will be the first one up on Christmas morning and will play “Santa,” a role she’s been playing for many years.
The idyllic memories I so desperately wanted that first Christmas with Ani didn’t happen. She wasn’t able to fulfill the part in my Christmas picture that I wanted her to. My expectations for that first Christmas were so impossible; I realize now that not Ani, not anyone, could have created what I was hoping for – perfection.
Soon the holidays will be here – don’t feel you have to hang up every decoration, bake every cookie or buy every present. It’s okay to create new traditions and it’s okay to make new memories. Allow the holidays to come as they are instead of trying to dress them up to be what you envision. You might be surprised at the new joy you discover. •
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Peg Grafwallner adopted Ani from a Bulgarian orphanage when she was five years, 11 months. Not knowing what to do or where to go for assistance, her family began a journey to learn, ask and eventually educate. There were extremely dark times when they felt completely alone. But, Ani’s inspiring smile and beautiful spirit has kept the family grounded.