12/28/2014 11:42 am ET Updated Feb 27, 2015

Lessons From a Solitary Holiday

This is not a holiday story of a fancy Christmas dinner, gifts under a tree, or glee on my children's faces when they open their stockings. This is a story of getting comfortable with lack of control, which isn't exactly my strong suit.

In the spirit of self-care this year, I booked a tiny one-room place at Folly Beach, SC, where I would eat cheese and crackers, drink smoothies, and work on a deadline without interruption, while my children traveled to Chicago for Christmas with their father.

"I hate to ask this," a friend whispered on the phone, "but are you looking forward to NOT having to do Santa?" She was searching online for a discontinued Lego set, the only item requested by one of her children.

Indeed, I felt deep gratitude for a holiday of solitude, especially since my two girls live with me in a 900-square foot duplex for most of the year. I'm also blessed with aunts and uncles across the South -- from Mississippi to Virginia -- who would have welcomed me into their homes -- but I was ready for the gift of time alone.

After spending my first day of the holiday anchored to the couch with books and hot coffee, I finally donned a slouchy wool hat, coat and running shoes for a long sunset walk on the grey and rainy beach. I'd been wearing the same faded jeans and hoodie since I left my driveway in Asheville, NC.

Pondering take-out options for supper, I returned from the beach to unlock the door by clicking on a sequence of four numbers, which I had practiced the day of my arrival - 1-3-4-1. No luck.

So I tried - 1-4-3-2. The red light blinked on the lock. Then I tried another combination - 1-2-4-2.

The lock had frozen. The sun was setting.

My phone, car keys, credit card, and computer were inside. The windows were locked shut. And I didn't even know the name of the person from whom I had rented the place.

Somewhere my reptilian brain recalled the name Marilyn Niemeyer as the owner of the property. With only 30 minutes until sundown, I felt an urgency to act, rather than berate myself for a significant lack of judgment. (To be clear, I also recognized that my plight was not the same as someone without resources like friends who would drive four hours to rescue me.)

So I ran to an open real-estate office in downtown Folly Beach, and the lady at the desk tried to look up "Marilyn Niemeyer" on her computer. No such person existed. Next we googled the address for the apartment, and the owner's name and phone number appeared as Marilyn Naughton, not Niemeyer.

(Within seconds, I realized "Niemeyer" was the last name associated with Niemeyer Real Estate in my hometown of Fairhope, AL. One week after my 16th birthday, I'd backed into Randy Neimeyer's car at the 7-11, and his last name came back to me on this night).

So I called the correct owner, but there was no answer. Considering my rather limited options, I sat on the white linen couch in the real estate office, surrounded by glossy magazines. My first idea was to beg the staff at the nearby Holiday Inn to give me a room, hoping for the appeal of a Christmas metaphor, but realizing that corporate policy wouldn't rule in my favor.

As Advent teaches us to do, I waited. After about 20 minutes, Marilyn returned my call, and I explained my dilemma. Since she was traveling for the holidays, she gave me the correct combination and wished me the best.

"You could always call Lowe's," she said, "I think that's where we got the lock, or call a locksmith. Good luck!"

With the new code, I ran to the rental unit in the rain, tried the combination, and like magic, the door opened. To express my gratitude, I called both Marilyn and the real-estate office, and then went to Rita's for a take-out fried shrimp basket.

As I took a long swig of an IPA, my teenage daughter Maya called from Chicago to say she'd been throwing up all day. In response, I was empathetic and loving but secretly pleased that I wasn't cleaning up this time.

When I hung up the phone, I wrote down the code on two different pieces of paper, slipping one into my jean pocket and another in my hoodie. And just in case, I kept the door unlocked for the rest of my stay, except when I was sleeping.

* * * *

Perhaps as a mother, there is never true solitude, even when we plan an escape.

When the phone rang Christmas Eve, Maya asked me for her insurance information, never a good sign.

"The next door neighbor came over with his dog for a doggie play date with Grampa and Tommy Sue, and he thinks I have appendicitis and should get a CAT scan," she said.

A CAT scan? Seriously? I tried not to overreact, while she put the retired doctor on the phone to speak with me.

As I typed the insurance info into an e-mail, I squinted my eyes to read the tiny text:
Out-of-network hospitalization, $1,000 deductible. Yikes.

I sent a second e-mail: First try Urgent Care, $20 deductible.

Christmas eve, the holiest of nights, unfolded with phone calls every hour or two, as Maya made the rounds with her dad from Urgent Care to the ER, from one ultrasound to two.

By midnight, I told my daughter, "I need to speak to an adult," and she handed the phone to her dad, who explained that the next step was a CAT scan.

"Couldn't she go home with antibiotics for 24 hours? What if she's just getting her period?" I asked. (While they were in the ER, I actually read studies from the U.K. about avoiding an appendectomy by dosing up on antibiotics, but a long-distance advocacy campaign seemed ill-advised at midnight on Christmas morn.)

At that moment, I had to let go of any illusion of control I felt as a mother. Indeed, the neighbor's prognosis of appendicitis had come to pass, despite my willing the situation in a different direction.

So I prayed, in one way I know how, which is to say I unfriend my racing mind and ask God to make the next status update. The strategy works best when there truly are no other options.

At 3:30 a.m., her dad called to let me know she was groggy but out of surgery. And at 6:30 a.m., my daughter called to wake me up on Christmas morning and tell me she couldn't sleep.

Somehow the order of the world felt restored.

As Anne Lamott says, our sense of loneliness can sometimes be a "desperate plain," where we feel stripped down and sometimes just a wee bit cuckoo. This is a story of a holiday different from our expectations, when we are called to enter into the difference with as much crazy grace as we can muster.

* * * *

Most every restaurant on Folly Beach was closed on Christmas Day, except for Bert's Grocery, with its mantra: "We doze but we never close." To celebrate Christ's birth, I bought more juice and beer, staples for this holy day.

After three days of rain and freezing temperatures, the sun came out. The thermometer soared to the high sixties, as if the baby Jesus himself had flipped some switch on Christmas Day. While I spoke to no one, except my daughters and sister on the phone, the mood on the beach was downright jubilant.

From my outpost on the tiny deck, I watched several Santas jogging on the beach, their red hats bouncing with every step. Extended families walked what looked like entire flocks of dogs, many also dressed in Santa costumes.

Arms outstretched, toddlers ran toward seagulls, as if the birds were positioned for their sole joy. A grandmother flew a kite, holding the kite string from her throne on a beach chair. A teenage boy did five backflips -- one after the other -- in the sand. Once grey and dull, the blue water now glistened with sunlight, transformed overnight with jewels on whitecaps, the sun cast wide from above. I kid you not: it was like a winter carnival on the beach.

As Thomas Merton said, "Life is this simple: we are living in a world that is absolutely transparent and the divine is shining through it all the time." The whole darn world was on display, simply busting out with beauty.

As I walked from the beach to downtown, I passed a middle-aged man -- probably my same age -- with brown moles all over his face, moles on his forehead, his ears, his nose, and even his neck. Standing outside a beach shop that sold trinkets and T-shirts, he was holding an energy drink and leaning his torso to the left, as if he expected to find a lamppost or a wall for support.

I was wearing the same slouchy knitted hat that I'd put on when I arrived four days earlier. (The condo didn't have shampoo, and I decided to experiment with the supposed benefits of not washing your hair for a week. Christmas was not a good hair day to cruise for men, to say the least.)

The man with the moles confronted me and asked, "Honey, can I tell you Merry Christmas?"

I paused, unsure if I had heard him correctly. He repeated his question, saying each syllable with intention: "Can I tell you Merry Christmas?"

Despite my silent appreciations of the splendor of the day, he was the first person to wish me Merry Christmas. So I turned to face him and responded with a smile: "Yes. I would love for you to tell me Merry Christmas."

When he offered me a simple "Merry Christmas," I felt like I was accepting communion from a stranger. And from a close-up perspective, all those moles looked beautiful, like adornments to his weathered face. In his wrinkles, for just a moment, I saw my own sun-beaten face of half a century.

"Can I give you a hug?" he asked. So I hugged him (a definite side hug), and he offered me a sip of his energy drink, which I now realized included alcohol mixed into the 12-fluid ounces.

When I declined the energy drink, he continued: "You know, I've been so lonely, trying to meet people, and I don't know if you're single or married, but I'm from Chicago and just wanted to say hi," he said.

With the link to the Windy City, I told him that my daughter had surgery in Chicago this morning, and I had been worried for her. But she was going to be okay - it was only appendicitis, and she'd be fine.

And we hugged again, a full embrace this time, one that lasts a second longer than it would on any other day.

So we open our arms for a moment, long enough to unlock the back door of our expectations, and find the real story, lodged behind how we thought it all should be.