All the channels were forecasting a classic winter storm. A true Nor'easter posed to drop deep blankets of snow all along the eastern states starting late on Christmas Eve.
Two days before that, my worrying had already begun. My wife and I were converting our usually beautifully decorated home, you know the kind of house with a place for everything and everything in its' place, into the family catering hall. The traditional Italian Christmas eve calls for a dinner of seven different fish dishes, and all the preparatory work for those had been done to try and limit the actual cooking just before the 35 or so family members and guests arrived. For those two days we worked side by side to accomplish the many tasks that needed to be done to pull off the annual event. On top of that, Christmas day itself was going to be yet another dinner and house full of guests. That added several more dishes and more prep work to serve another 20 on Christmas Day.
This year I was really trying very hard not to let the Christmas spirit be stolen by the burden of all the tasks that needed to be accomplished and my effort was paying off. I had been able to break the historical depression that haunted me every year during holiday season. In fact in the midst of all the commotion of preparing I bought home a white rose and stopped everything so just my wife and I could go out for a nice lunch together. I prayed hard that this year I would not be distracted by stuff and things and focused on the meaning of Christmas and the joy of the celebration.
In the course of the hubbub my two youngest sons informed me that they were coming to be with us on Christmas Eve and return to their mothers' house in the morning, a trip of some 250 miles, one way. Ordinarily the news would be wonderful, my kids with me on the holiday, but with the storm building down south and headed our way I started to calculate the odds of their chances for a safe journey. Of course I wasn't so sure that it was the wise thing to do. I explained to them that we better keep a close watch on the weather before they committed to the drive.
On the 23rd they called and informed me that they would arrive at our house around noontime on Christmas Eve day. I held my breath and hoped for the best. They wanted to be here and I just couldn't object, I wanted them here too.
Sure enough they arrived right around the appointed hour. The rest of the day was consumed with the final work before the rest of the crowd arrived. We visited together, laughed and worked. At around 5 PM people started arriving. The house filled up quickly. Everyone talked about the possibility of a white Christmas and that we were really fortunate that the storm was not arriving until after midnight.
Dinner was an overwhelming hit, there would be very little leftover to send home with the departing guests. I even had the opportunity to sit for a while at one of the two tables we had set and enjoy some of my wife's culinary treats. The ladies handled the clean up in record time, set up for coffee and desert and then we all adjourned to the family room to await the arrival of Santa Claus. We happen to have a Santa to beat all Santa's. A friend of the family who is a big as a mountain and built just the way St. Nick is supposed to be. He dons the suit with great aplomb, sneaks around the back of the house and on cue enters through the back door directly into the family room where all the kids have been waiting anxiously. A great ringing of bells and joyful exclamations fill the room. Santa takes center stage, calls each little one by name and extols the fact that they have been very good this year rewarding each with a present from his sack. He departs quickly before any of the slightly older kids catch on to his real identity. All chaos breaks out as soon as Santa leaves with gifts being given to and from everyone there.
This was shaping up to be one of the best Christmas'. I was actually enjoying all the commotion. Everyone seemed to be in the spirit and those who weren't I was able to over look. Even our Jewish friends, who had been introduced to Christmas Eve last year, were back again and appeared to be enjoying them selves.
In the back of my mind was Andy and Roberts' return trip upstate. As the appointed hour of their departure approached I admonished them to caution and deputized each to watch over their brother. With great hugs and kisses I watched them pull out of the driveway around 10 PM. My emotions which are usually torn whenever we take out leave of each other were overridden this night with the gratitude and warmth I felt just having them be with me, especially on this Christmas when I was trying so hard to stay focused and appreciate the meaning of the birth of Jesus.
Over the next two hours the family and friends filtered out. One brother-in-law and his brood, always the last to leave, had helped return to house some semblance of order and departed at the stroke of midnight. I stood at the front door waving as they departed but really thinking of how welcoming my bed would be.
No sooner did I reach the top of the stairs than the phone rang. "Hello, Merry Christmas" I answered, thinking maybe it was someone starting their own holiday greeting phone calls early, or maybe one of our family letting us know they got home safely and also because I was in the spirit. "Hi, Dad", it was Robert. Before my heart could drop through the floor with worry and visions of at least a hundred forms of catastrophe that had befallen them he said "....we're okay, but".
Within 30 seconds I heard that they were almost exactly half way on their trip, a distance of 125 miles, traveling on the Thruway when a deer jumped across the road and they struck it doing about seventy miles an hour. The car was now "totaled" to use Roberts' word and they were waiting for the troopers and tow truck to respond. My immediate response was "I'm on my way". I hastily made sure they had my cell phone number so they could let me know where I would be able to meet them and hung up. I quickly informed my wife of the event and my need to go and began getting myself ready to leave. My stepson insisted that he ride with me. At first I resisted because his girlfriend (soon to be fiancée) was staying over and I didn't know how long this trip would take or when I would be back. I acquiesced and we left within ten minutes.
As we pulled away from the house the snow had just started to fall. Oh, boy this would be interesting I thought. A major road trip in a snow storm. I've made this drive a hundred times before. For years, when they were younger, I would pick them up almost every other weekend, driving round trip on Friday and back again on Sunday in all types of weather. So I knew that is could be a dangerous time consuming journey.
Miracle of miracles. Ten minutes into the trip the snow fall dissipated to a manageable non threatening level. More annoyance than a serious storm. In fact the further north we traveled the better conditions got. The storm must have been holding to the south.
The first leg of the trip was covered in just under two hours. Several phone calls had kept me abreast of the developments and the boys were waiting at a Denny's just off a Thruway exit. Joe, my stepson dosed periodically, between snippets of conversations. Much of what he talked about was very personal and private. This helped keep me calm and attentive because it is rare that he is that open, so I wanted to make sure I was listening. Snow fell on and off in varying degrees with no real affect. At this point it was just a ride, with lots of miles to cover.
Just before reaching the exit, we passed the scene of the accident and although there were no visible skid marks of remnants of the deer itself we did see part of bumper and a single headlight still cased in the housing on the shoulder of the road. Undoubtedly, it was from my son's car.
2 AM on Christmas morning in a 24 hour roadside restaurant is a glimpse at the surreal. As I entered, I was struck by the strangeness. There was a decidedly Steven King ambiance. Smoke hung in the air, the few patrons that were there were seated at tables along the wall, lots of empty booths between each of them as if they wanted to keep there distance. None of them appeared to be enjoying life. The elderly black lady in a yellow waitress uniform looked tired and disaffected. She stood behind the cash register directly across from the front door, as if standing guard over the receipts. Seated on stools at the counter were Andy and Rob, the remnants of several cups of coffee strewn before them. The ash tray between them was overflowing. They had turned towards the opening of the door anticipating the arrival of the calvary. When they saw us a sheepish smile spread on both of them. I embraced both of them tightly and examined them to make sure they were in fact "Ok". Andrew had a slight bloody nose. "the powder from the airbags dries out my membranes and I get a little nosebleed" he said. I thought to myself that he really shouldn't know that and promised to talk to him about his driving record at another time.
The event was recounted in more vivid detail as we collected their belongings (which included the Christmas presents they were taking home). Robert said that he was dosing in a reclined position and had raised his head just in time to yell "DEER!" and watch the animal impact across the entire front of the car. Andrew added that the deer flew clear up and over the guard rail and landed at the bottom of the ditch that ran along side the Thurway.
The car had been taken to a tow yard that was just down the street from the restaurant so we went over to take a look. As I stood looking through fence at the wreckage snow began to fall. As I looked at the car my heart filled. The hood and bumper were pushed back half way to the windshield and the front tires were standing at a funny angle. It was in fact a miracle that both of my boys were standing next to me virtually unharmed. The accident could have gone bad so many ways. They could have lost control and hit another car, or flipped over, or ran off the road in the ditch themselves. I could have gotten the call, not from Robert, but from a trooper or the hospital or worse. I was living the best present, Christmas or otherwise, that I had ever received. I said a quick prayer of thanksgiving, ushered everyone back into my car and headed north once more.
I didn't make much sense to return to my house because I would then only have to take them back this way again. At 4:14 in the morning I pulled up in front of their mother's house, kissed and hugged them once again, watched them let themselves into the house and headed south.
The storm had made it's way north and was beginning to become a driving problem with about 200 miles left to go to make it back home. Somewhere after one hour of driving south my stepson informed me it was time for him to drive "Your going further side to side then you are forward". He was right my eyes were slits. I had been up since 5 AM the day before and it had been a very full day. I nodded on an off for awhile and awoke completely with about 90 minutes left to go. Thankfully the temperature had risen and the snow had turned to rain. The forecast hadn't called for that at all. The weather men had been pretty adamant that we were supposed to get an all snow event and that hadn't materialized.
At 8:10 AM we returned home. The house was still quiet and didn't start stirring until we walked in. A nice cup of coffee and hot shower and I was ready to begin the day. My mother-in-law and my stepsons soon to be fiancée went to church with me, while Joe fell into his bed.
I was buoyant. Nothing at all could bring me down. Although I had been up for virtually 30 hours I was not the least bit tired. By noontime the Christmas Day contingent arrived. Another outstanding dinner was had, presents exchanged and the joy of this wondrous holiday lived.
There were many other reasons to be thankful this Christmas and I'm sure that helped but this adventure, the before, the event, the during and the after are and always will be the best and most unforgettable present I have ever received.