THE CHRISTMAS MISTAKE
By John Thomas Tuft
It is hard to imagine not being wanted. It does not take a clinical psychologist, however, to imagine the walls that one would build to protect yourself from further harm. If no one ever asks you what you want from your life, you do not make great plans. If no one ever touches you out of love, seeking the intimacy of affection is being handed a map of the heavens without ever having seen the moon. If you never have had your own bed, being told that you will always have a roof over your head, food to eat and new clothes to wear just because you exist, is being told men walked on that moon when you have never seen an airplane. Being given rules and consequences for ignoring them when you have fended for yourself since you were ten years old, is being told there is a door that will lead you out from behind that wall you built around yourself. Because someone wants you. Wants to know you. Wants to enjoy being with you. Wants to encourage you. Wants you to believe that you are not a mistake.
This is not a story of heroes. “I believe in you” is not a charm, a Lifetime movie Christmas miracle, a greeting card, nor a meme on social media. It is the story of a fifteen-year old girl being invited into the home of a young childless couple. We’ll call her Denise. She arrives bearing scars, visible and otherwise. She is very quiet, speaking only when spoken to, with the trace of a speech impediment when she does talk. Denise is extremely distrustful of men, perhaps a clue to the source of the scars, visible and otherwise. She has been trying to support herself by waitressing in a greasy spoon, looking for places to crash for the night, skipping school because when no one believes in you, why try to do better? If no one wants me, why should I want me?
The People, as Denise’s refers to the couple, Sam and Ella for our purposes, who welcome her into their home are both clinical psychologists. Now, as we all know, clinical psychologists get into their field because of a sneaking suspicion down deep, that they too, may be a mistake. And if they can discover that they are not, then they can damn well prove to the rest of us… that they are not. Social Services handled Denise’s case with mandatory counseling, which consisted of sitting in silence, daring the psychologist to attach…or not. Made no nevermind to Denise. Until she was living in their home.
A bed and food, offer of companionship, expectations and rules with consequences. But for Denise, the challenge is not the latter, but the first few on the list. Always insisting that she is not hungry, The People can only smile as they hear her in the kitchen at night crushing cereal into a bowl just right. On the way to Little Rock to shop for school clothes, Sam offers to stop at a roadside stand selling homemade cookies in support of Razorback Pride. Denise is appalled. “I don’t know who made those!” “Well,” Sam proposes, “we can follow the next car that buys some. If they go off the road, dead from the cookies, we’ll know not to eat them.” She accepts this bargain, and they go on to buy many new outfits for the school year.
Denise wears the new clothes for a week or so, then packs them away. The People ask her about it. “I don’t want you to try to change me,” is her honest reply. Sam drives her to school every day and picks her up to bring her home. Ella teaches her to ride a horse. And insists she clean her room before going out. Clinical psychology is not all smoke and mirrors, after all. One day, she breezes out the door with assurances that the room is indeed clean. And, wearing the new clothes. Ella looks in. The bed is made. The floor is clear. She opens the closet door. Stuffed to the ceiling. Because fifteen, after all.
Sweet Sixteen comes and goes. The attendance at school is good, the grades are showing signs of studying. But still the “don’t touch me” rule. The People wonder at the changes occurring within themselves, as well. Is this what parenting is? Can we really have such an impact on the life of another? Christmas is approaching. There is a boyfriend, a football player. Because Arkansas, after all. They are going out Christmas Eve. The curfew is still in effect, however. The time to be home comes and goes. The People look at each other. It is not unexpected, because clinical psychologists are nobody’s fool. They get in the pickup and go to where she is supposed to be. No Denise. Her friends tell The People that they went up to The Mountain.
The People drive out of town, all the way to The Mountain. They spot Denise with the football player. The People insist that Denise join them in coming down off The Mountain. To their surprise, she runs to them. Throws her arms around The People, holds them tight and with tears in her eyes says, “Nobody ever came looking for me before!” And so, if you find yourself this Christmas thinking that you are a mistake, know this. Someone is looking for you.
Denise now has four children of her own…and they are hugged on a regular basis.
Words are magic and writers are wizards.