Somehow, the phrase "getting a divorce" makes it sound like an intentional act. For me, it felt more like something that happened to me. Like Hurricane Katrina.
My marriage blew apart when my daughters were ten and five. Suddenly, half the days I would ever spend with them were lost forever. That was all I could think about for weeks. It felt like the end of the world.
When the time came to negotiate a parenting plan, I dug my heels in and held out for shared custody – a 50/50 split. It was more than most dads get, and I worked hard to make it happen, but somehow it seemed like a hollow victory. It was like King Solomon's infamous solution: share the child by slicing it in half. And it never seemed more that way than on our first Christmas after the divorce.
To avoid unnecessary bickering, our schedule was laid out in excruciating detail. In odd-numbered years, I'd have the kids on Christmas Eve and Christmas morning, and their mother would have them for the rest of the holidays. On even-numbered years, we'd switch. It sounded pretty straightforward. It wasn't.
First of all, there was the problem of presents. Or, more specifically, paying for them. Having refinanced our home to make the money issues work, I was strapped with a huge mortgage and only half as much income to cover it. Cash was tight. Really tight.
I pored over my kids' Christmas lists trying to figure out what I could afford. Eventually, I came up with a plan. Every night, after the kids went to sleep, I got on the computer. I spent hours scouring eBay for items in good condition that might pass for new. If the price was still in my range, I made a low-ball bid. Then I prayed.
Somehow, I managed to make it work. By Christmas Eve, there was a pile of presents under the tree. The girls put out a plate of cookies and a glass of milk for Santa, and went to bed early so Christmas would hurry up and arrive. It almost felt like normal.
The next morning, they rushed downstairs and found two bulging stockings, a fully lit tree, and Christmas music on the stereo. Santa had left a thank-you note by a plate of crumbs and a half-empty glass. We opened our presents one at a time, from youngest to oldest, just like we always had, trying to ignore that there was one less person taking turns.
The morning flew by, and I had to rush to get them out of their PJ's and into the car by noon. When I dropped them off at their mom's, they thanked me profusely for their presents – a little too much so, I thought, for kids who were supposed to be lost in excitement on Christmas Day.
I managed to hold it together as I drove back home. But when I walked in the door, with Dean Martin singing "I'll Be Home for Christmas" to our empty house, I lost it. I sat down on a pile of empty boxes and sobbed.
A few days later, my daughter was overheard comparing Christmas loot with her best friend.
"It's more than I usually get," she said. "I think my parents felt guilty about the divorce."
She was partly right, I guess. There may have been some guilt involved. But for me, it was mostly wishful thinking. It was that awful moment, right after you break something you really love, when you grab the pieces and try to fit them back together. Deep down, you know it won't work, but you have to try.
Right now, some of you are going through the first holidays since your own private Katrina came roaring through. I want you to know something: it gets better. When the floodwaters pull back, the river finds a new course, and life begins again – much quicker than you imagined. That searing pain you feel when your kids are away from you will fade, because it comes from the same bond that holds you together in the end. It's like that old song says: "Love heals the wound it makes."
Meanwhile, it's okay if this time of year brings both grief and joy. In a way, that's why we celebrate. It's the reason so many cultures mark this point in our yearly loop around the sun. A babe in a manger, a lamp in a temple – these are stories not just of hope, but of hope rising up from despair.
This is the season of the darkest night of the year. It's the night when the light begins to return.