I was smug at Thanksgiving when I didn’t get the bug going around. The kids puked onto me liberally, they spiked 103 fevers. I handled it calmly, even pleasantly, and I didn’t get sick. We had a nice Thanksgivikkuh! But if you believe in retribution, karmic payback came today. I got it, possible punishment for arrogance. 101 temperature, swollen lymph nodes. My volunteer duty at my daughter’s Pancake Breakfast tomorrow ruined.

Christmas is a fever dream anyway: shiny, exciting, but treacherous. This is our second Christmas together, but the kids remember others, before. We set up the tree, the kids were elated, then Shayla’s mood turned dark. Sometimes I’m clueless but somehow I got this one.

“The holidays have all kinds of feelings with them. Happy memories, and sometimes sad or scary things too.” She started to weep and weep, and while I never heard the exact story, the blister was popped: a blast of grief, then she was great, back here with her new dads, her new last name, her new life. Two years ago she was pulled from daycare, never to live with her mom again. Moved to a foster home where a jealous girl ripped the earrings out of her ears. Her memories come in little vignettes, heartbreaking, matter-of-fact.

Our Chanukkah seemed so pure, at least as we celebrate it, a half-and-half family. It’s the dinners, the candles. Shayla was old enough to help light the menorah, say the prayer. We did no gifts.

Christmas is more tricky. I adore Christmas: Jesus in the manger, High School Madrigals singing carols in the mall in Austin, Texas. Our church doing a live nativity, on the roof!, that would make Bob Fosse proud. Mom laughing it off when the cat climbed up the Christmas tree and it fell onto Dad, typing on his Radio Shack computer. But for every bright bit, there’s a gross “gotta buy it” panic that tips generosity, forgiveness, and love into icky consumerism and hollow neediness.

In 2007, in December, as I was headed into the nervous breakdown that would change my life forever (the best thing that ever happened to me, before Jay and the kids), I had a late-night drunken online shopping spree, and I bought a Hamid Karzai hat.Karzai-usaid You know, that iconic lambskin hat, Russian inspired. Of course the full disaster of Afganistan is now clear, but at that time Hamid seemed to me like a hopeful statesman, a man who might bring things from the brink. It seemed like the hat a bold, hopeful man trying to create a future would wear.

Googling Hamid Karzai hats was as easy as looking up recommended suicide prescriptions, and a few days later there it was, proof of my longing and desperation, but also a glimmer of hope. Who orders such an absurd, fabulous hat if they’re going to die? It was a sign of how bad things would get, but also a symbol of some spark deep down, some part of me ready to emerge from shame and guilt and my tightly wound self, into the full member of society, the partner, and father, I despaired I would not be.

The rest happened, of course. I found my way to someone I could really have kids with, and we made a family. The law even changed; incredibly, I’m a legally married man!

But I find my memories of desperate, unhappy times help me with our kids. I want only beautiful, sparkly holiday memories for them. Yet I know they live in the world, which is beautiful and tragic, hopeful and crushingly unfair. I hope I can help them through it, to their own sparkly holidays, safe, true, and sound.

Merry Christmas everyone!