I’m six years old, and my family is at a toy store somewhere along I-95 between Winston-Salem and Jacksonville. While my parents search for the intended target of their errand, I wander the aisles until I am brought to a screeching halt in front of a life-size stuffed golden retriever. My eyes widen in wonder, and I don’t even reach to pet it at first; I just stand in petrified reverence. I didn’t know I could love something so much in an instant. For the rest of the time we are in the store, I take her everywhere with me, and when my father tells me I have to leave her behind, I am inconsolable. Weeping, I watch the toy store fade in the distance through the windows of the Ford Explorer.
By December, I have all but forgotten about the dog, as my parents no doubt knew I would. I am completely unprepared for Christmas morning, when I patter down the stairs holding my brother’s hand only to be greeted by a life-size stuffed golden retriever with a red bow around her neck. Squealing with glee, I christen her Lady and spin circles around the living room all morning clutching her. Later I will hear the story of how my mother drove over an hour to return to the toy store and hid the dog in the attic for months to give me the best surprise of my young life.
When we left the toy store that day, I thought my mother would forget about the dog. She didn’t.
For someone who loves to write (and talk), I’m not that great with words when it counts. I’ll get texts from my friends asking for advice or encouragement and forget to respond for hours, or respond with just a few words rather than the paragraph they were looking for. I’m terrible at responding to letters. The last time I wrote a thank-you note was at least three years ago. I’ve sat on countless couches and stumbled over myself, pouring out a calculated, long winded explanation only to have people I care deeply about stare at me, shake their head, and say “I just don’t understand.”
It hurts not to have the right words sometimes. It hurts more than just me. Sometimes words don’t cut it, no matter how hard we squeeze them together, trying to make them fit.
My first semester of college, I am lounging in a dorm room with friends when I see one of them putting some mysterious clay in his hair. I think of my brother. “What is that?” I ask.
“Hanz de Fuko,” he replies, combing the putty through. “They’re a great company; all their stuff is organic. It’s the only thing that works for my hair.”
He shows me how much product to dispense to achieve various desired styles. I nod and take note. Later that night, I go on the website and order mini pack of various hair clays, hoping my brother, who since starting high school has become overly conscious of his hair, will like them. I realize it’s a bit of a gamble, so as a backup I order a second gift.
Christmas morning, he opens them and is surprised to receive something he didn’t explicitly ask for. The next day, I pass the open bathroom door to see him painstakingly applying one of the hair clays in the mirror. He even puts their sticker on his phone case- the ultimate display of brand loyalty. I smile, victorious. To this day, they are still his hair product of choice. I don’t remember what my other gift to him was.
I’m not sure how to respond when friends say they’re going ‘gift shopping’ like it’s a chore. “Gotta get all my Christmas gifts today,” they sigh laboriously, as though knocking them all out in one go is the financial equivalent of ripping off a band-aid. I nod and try to sympathize: “I have some left to get, too.” I get it. End of the year, it’s cold. Money’s tight. Everyone’s running around a little faster, it seems. We notice how many parts of the world are broken. Now you’re telling me in the middle of this chaos, I have to go spend a bunch of money on other people, just because we’ve decided as a society that now’s when you’re supposed to show your loved ones you care?
Hey girl how are you??? I miss ya
I stare at my Facebook message from months ago, sitting like a dinner plate gone cold. She read it and never responded. I tell myself she meant to and never got around to it. It’s finals, she’s busy, she’s got that project. I scroll through our previous months of occasional catchups, noticing each bubble get smaller as time passes. I check her Instagram and see new glasses, friends I don’t recognize, a boyfriend I’ve not met.
No matter how tightly I cling to friendships cut short by distance, this always happens. None of us mean to, but our worlds keep spinning without each other. We need a person’s face across the table from us to keep us planted in the here and now. Without something physical, the same words that once warmed us inside start to feel hollow, echoes bouncing off the walls of selves we’ve outgrown.
I stare at the screen for a minute and try again, reach out one more time; one hand in the past, one in the future.
What’s your address? I want to send you something.
I announce my plans to shop for Christmas presents like the big game is on TV this afternoon. It’s my sport, and in my sport, everyone wins.
London, 2016. I’ve been planning this day for weeks, and it dawns like bread rising. List of ideas tucked in my pocket, I ascend from the gloom of the Tube to see the twinkling lights of Harrod’s stretch upward like a palace before me. The soft British voice of Natasha Richardson floats through my head: “I thought we’d go out to lunch, and then spend the rest of the day getting lost in Harrods, hmm?” When I pass through the glassy doors, I realize what she meant. Room after room of exotic furniture, diamond-encrusted watches, pens carved from oak branches, delicately boxed stationary, and life-size stuffed giraffes wash over me until I am dizzy. Thirty minutes in, I have lost all sense of cardinal direction and time. After averting my eyes from another case of jewelry that’s worth more than my college education, I arrive in a room full of golden light and my mouth drops open. The Chocolate, Coffee, and Tea room.
For a few minutes, all I can do is stand there, awash in the glow of the lights from the fudge cases and the spicy-sweet smell. I didn’t think a place like this could exist. Suddenly, I am a kid frozen in front of a life-size golden retriever again. I circle the room a dozen times before picking out a Christmas tea sampler for my mother. When the cashier bags my purchases, I thank her twice.
“You’re very observant,” has been a popular comment my whole life. Sometimes it’s a compliment, sometimes a critique. (“Bright as a button Abigail, but a bit busy behind the eyes.”) I see people. I see the things they want to be seen, and I see the things they didn’t know were visible. A friend will tell me a story about their grandmother, and I’ll hear the way they wish they knew their father better. Another tags us all in so many Facebook pictures that we roll our eyes, but I see the way she needs to collect things, needs to keep us all in one place permanently.
I’ve been seen like that, too. I know, because I can remember every time. The book of letters from mentors when I graduated high school. The identical moon lamps that my two best friends accidentally bought for me one year. Lady the golden retriever. For me the deepest form of love is feeling seen. Known.
I don’t always have the right words to say. And unfortunately, more often than not I can’t be there in person to make someone feel my love. I can’t always be present. The best I can do is show them that I see them. So gifts are what I do. When I am not enough, the right gift is a piece of myself, sent out into the places I can’t reach.
When Christmas comes around every year, it’s not that I have to look for gifts. It’s that I finally get to. I get to finally reach toward people I’ve drifted from and say, in case you didn’t know that you matter to me, you do. Even if I can’t be there or say it right, here’s a piece of my presence anyway.
If I’ve ever given you a gift, or wanted to, know that it’s because it’s the only way I know how to tell you that you’re important to me. Every other way I’ve tried has fallen short somehow. Know that big or small, it’s a piece of myself, sent out into the dark toward you. It will keep traveling forever, whether or not it lands.