Christmas in Suburbia

It’s almost Christmas and I’m sitting in the exercise room. It used to be my brother Michael’s room. Then I think it was the sewing room, but now the room that used to be my room is the sewing room, unless John’s old room is now the sewing room. At some point, everything was the sewing room.

I’m menaced by an assortment of enormous machines: a folding treadmill; a Bowflex, which resembles a medieval torture device; a "Power Ramp" which is sort of like an overgrown stairstepper; and the "Pilates Performer" which looks like a bench that slides on giant rubber bands. There’s also a big inflatable green ball in the corner. In front of me is a book on how to use this ball. And there is also a video about how to use this ball.

I slept on an air mattress. I don’t actually like air mattresses. Sitting on them makes me feel nervous, like they are going to pop, and they have the wrong kind of squishiness for my back to be happy when I get up in the morning. Honestly, I think I would be happier with a pad on the floor. But somehow I end up on the air mattress anyway.

My parents have a big house. Two stories and both of them have more square footage than the house Paul and I rent. In our house, I got rid of a similar inflatable ball simply because it took up too much space. In this room I barely notice.

This room has two empty cubbyhole shelving units that look like postboxes, for storing shoes I think, although I don’t know why you would have them sitting out like that without anything in them. This room has one bookshelf which is full of books, and one bookshelf which is not full of books. It’s not full of anything. It contains a small silver boombox and a few exercise and travel videos stacked on their sides.

Somehow it makes the vast empty spaces of my parents’ house seem more fundamentally empty, to have these items which merely carve up the empty space into smaller units of emptiness. It makes it seem as if the emptiness is not a conscious design choice, but a transitory state.

Everything in my parents’ house is in a transitory state. My Mom is always redecorating — not just repainting, refinishing, and buying a whole set of new towels and accessories because the bathroom colors are now blue and brown instead of peach and pink, but serious remodeling of the kind other people pay contractors for. The kitchen floor was vinyl, then tile, then vinyl again in the space of less than ten years. The downstairs bathroom had a cabinet sink, then a pedestal sink, then a cabinet sink again in the same period of time. The living room and family room have been recouchified probably half a dozen times in the last twenty years, maybe more. My Mom redecorates like she’s setting up a furniture store showcase, where you don’t just replace a couch or a recliner, you replace everything. You buy a new living room "set" where the couch, the loveseat, the recliner, the sectional, and the ottoman all match. Then you need new pillows. Then you need new little blankets of the kind you wrap up in to watch television. Then you need a new television.

My Mom has a funny habit when she redecorates, she’ll show me around and point out something new she’s done and say something like, "I greedled the sparkle, doesn’t it look better now?"

Doesn’t it look better now?

What a world of assumptions is packed into those five words.

First, it assumes that I can even remember what it looked like before, which usually I can’t. It assumes that I like the new look, which often I don’t, if I care at all. It assumes there is some kind of hierarchy involved, some kind of objective measure of "better" and "worse." And it’s a very pushy phrase, a phrase designed to strongarm consent, agreement. Doesn’t it? Doesn’t it?

In fact, I try not to ever get emotionally involved in my Mom’s redecorating schemes, because if she accidentally does do something I particularly like, I know she’ll just do something different later. She’s given me a few major redecorating traumas already, like when she got rid of Grampa’s recliner, the one she bought for him when he came up to visit us the autumn before he died, the one he watched the World Series from. She got rid of it because it was the wrong color, I guess. She said it was for some reason like that, but maybe it was for a different reason. I don’t know.

Anyway, she did remember my trauma about that, at least. Now, when she wants to get rid of something like my Dad’s fabulous old mission style desk that he spilled acid on when he was in high school, or the slightly goofy end tables that she had all the time I was growing up that originally belonged to her Mom, or the dresser that she bought unfinished for me when I was a baby in 1966, she offers it to me first.

And, she did put the correct angel back on the Christmas tree.

All the time I was growing up, my Mom had this stock phrase she used to refer to our Christmas tree, a "happy hodgepodge." She would always deliver this phrase as if it were in contrast to some other, less hodgepodge-y, possibly less happy, sort of Christmas tree that she imagined was the norm. And I never knew what she was talking about. I never had the faintest clue. Our Christmas tree always looked exactly like every other Christmas tree I had ever seen.

Then, one day, long after all the kids had moved away, I came home for Christmas and discovered what she meant.

She meant that she wanted a tree like they have in department stores.

She wanted a tree with a THEME.

The year I discovered this her theme was, maybe, birdhouses? Anyway, she had bought an artificial tree. I am against artificial plants of all kinds on general principle, but I don’t know, there’s some case to be made environmentally for artificial Christmas trees so I was willing to let it go.

(Note: I make an exception for really obnoxiously fake Christmas trees, like the ones that are silver or blue or some other color not found in nature, and I actually come round to liking those again.)

The tree was all covered in, I think, birdhouses, and red velvet ribbons. That was it. All the ornaments that we had accumulated over the years — the ones given as gifts, the ones made by us kids, the ones inherited from grandparents, the last surviving glass bauble from what had originally been a dozen of that kind — all gone. And the top of the tree had something like another red velvet ribbon, or a bird, or maybe a star, whatever it was, that became the flashpoint for my fit.

My Mom: See my tree? Doesn’t it look better than the happy hodgepodge?

Me, dumbfounded: You got rid of the ANGEL. The angel that goes on top of the tree! You got rid of it!


Anyway, I guess she hadn’t tossed it out yet, and ever since then she’s continued to use the angel that has topped the tree ever since I can remember.

So it’s not like my Mom never listens to me.

My Mom is not happy this Christmas. She’s fragile, brittle, like the crust of ice on the snow outside, breaking with each step. There’s been a lot of adult/child role reversals, as we kids are the ones comforting her, trying to tell her that everything is going to be all right, and if it’s not all right, we’ll figure out how to cope.

And everything is going to be all right. Probably.

But it’s no fun for anyone when Dad is in the hospital over Christmas.

It’s probably just complex complications from gallstones, which, did you know, can cause not only pancreatitis but also problems in the gall duct from the liver, which might lead to infection and also scary jaundice? And did you know that the liver is the second largest organ in the body, after the skin? And that you can safely cut rather large parts of it out, but it is very easy to accidentally snip the main gall duct which is only a millimeter or so in diameter? So sometimes they do a pre-operation that involves sending a camera through the digestive system and a shunt into the gall duct so that the surgeon can feel where the duct is?

Anyway, until they actually open him up with knives and everything they don’t know if the liver nodule things clearly visible on the MRI are pockets of pus from infection related to gall bladder attacks (the most common and least scary cause), or benign nodules, or cancerous nodules. (There was a long scientific name for the nodules that I cannot now remember.) The operation is supposed to happen sometime today. After that he will be in the hospital for about five days of recovery time. He has been in the hospital already since last Thursday night.

It’s snowing again outside. We might or might not visit my Dad today, depending on when the surgery happens. I came down on Saturday and since I got here we have gone in to visit my Dad on Saturday, Sunday, Monday and Tuesday. It takes an hour to get to Seattle from my parents’ place when the whether is normal, but for the last ten days it has been snowing. The ice on the roads is turning into deep and terrible potholes.

On Tuesday we finally got to bring the grandbaby in, little Sophia McGalliard, first grandchild, ten months old, half Javanese and all princess, the cooing, humming, smiling, toddling, dancing angel on top of the family tree. Mike and Madrim and Sophia were delayed for a full day coming up from LA because of the storm, but they did get here, safely, eventually. (Although without Madrim’s luggage.)

Dad had one arm around Sophia while she sat in a corner of the hospital bed and drank a bottle and he ate Jell-o. I didn’t have my camera and made Mom give me hers so I could take a picture of them together. "Why are you taking so many pictures in the hospital?" she wanted to know. "I don’t want to take pictures in the hospital."

I didn’t answer, I just took the pictures. But the answer is this: because the hospital is where we are.

Addendum: The doctor called. Dad is out of surgery and recovering well. The liver nodules were from infection and now that the gall bladder and the highly damaged part of the liver are removed, he should be fine.

Thanks for your good wishes, everybody.


  1. I’m so glad to hear that things are working out. My mom had terrible complications related to gall bladder issues last year. It was really scary, but at least it wasn’t at Christmas under a foot of snow. Let’s hope a lot of this nasty bumpy ice goes away before tomorrow.

  2. I wish you and your family the best. I am glad to hear that your dad’s chances are really good.

    I was in the checkout line today and one checker was complaining to her manager that her mom wasn’t getting anyone presents this year. They went back and forth for a bit on that and as I left I said I was happy that I still had parents alive.

    On a lighter note:

  3. I’m really glad your dad’s doing better. Have as merry of a Christmas as you can and a Happy New Year.

  4. I’m delighted to hear your Dad is recovering.

    I’ve been operating without my gall bladder for over a decade, so he’ll be fine when he gets that sucker removed. Sometimes, they cause more trouble than they’re worth.

    I once spent my Christmas in hospital (not the gall bladder incident) so I know that it’s a crap time to be separated from family. Hopefully, he’ll be out soon.

    Love to you, Paul & family!

  5. I’m glad your dad’s doing better. Wishing the best for all of you.

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