I see a man reflected dimly in the bathroom mirror, a gray ghost emptying a warm glass of milk into the sink. I think I know this man. I’ve seen him in this same mirror every Christmas Eve for the last eight years or so. He looks different now, a little older, maybe a little less hair, but it’s definitely him. He wears a different expression tonight, one that I do not recognize. It’s not quite sorrow and not quite resignation. It is the expression of a man finishing a long race, a race that he does not want to stop running. No one has told him that this race is over, but in his heart he knows. This will be his last Christmas Eve as Santa Claus in the heart of a child. The child has grown too clever now, and too full of questions. She is faster and more analytical than ever.
This year in particular was a challenge. My daughter has memorized the story I told her so many times, the story about my brother and I growing up in Macedon, New York. I was not much younger than she is now.
My parents are downstairs....I can hear glasses clinking, my father laughing his boisterous laugh, the sound of a man still years away from divorcing his wife.
My window shades are drawn wide and the moonlight streams into our bedroom. I crawl quietly down from the top bunk and approach the sill. I look down into the yard.
“Rick, Rick....” I whisper, waking my little brother.
“I’m awake.” He joins me at the window. I knew he wasn’t sleeping.
We can see the yard, the snow illuminated by a brilliant full moon. There is the swing set and my uncle George’s toboggan propped against the garage. But there is something else- something I can’t quite identify- just around the corner of the house.
“Do you see it?” I ask my brother.
“What is it?”
“I think it’s the back of a sleigh.”
Suddenly in the sky there is a red light, clearly a sign of some sort. There is a noise on the stairs.
“It’s Dad!” Rick says under his breath, and we both scramble for our bunks. The feet of my pajama bottoms whiff against the ladder of my bunk and he hears.
“Hey! Back into bed, the both of you! Don’t you know that Santa is coming?”
We both erupt into excitement.
“Dad we saw him we saw him! The sleigh is by the side of the house and it’s....”
“Shhhh....it’s almost midnight. Both of you go to sleep. He won’t come if you are still awake.”
“No buts!” He draws the shade and darkness takes the room. “Sleep! I mean it....don’t make me come back up here.” As he closes the door I see his face silhouetted against the dim light of the hall. He pulls the door closed with a soft click. As I lay awake I hear them downstairs, talking. Why aren’t they in bed? Don’t they know Santa is outside?
This is the story I told my daughter. I have told it so many years that she now tells her own version of a personal Santa encounter at her own window, with a few minor embellishments. She tells of her experience with great enthusiasm, thoroughly convinced of the concrete reality of Santa’s head leaning in her bedroom door. She only peeked for a second, you see, just long enough for a glimpse of a red suit. It’s her story now....and she tells it well. In many ways, her story is better than my own.
As I look at the man in the mirror holding an empty milk glass, the truth occurs to me. This the last time I will see this man. In the shifting shadows his features swirl and then come into focus. My eyes mist as I prepare to say goodbye to the man I now recognize.
It was me all along.