It's Christmas Eve and, for the seventh year in a row, we're on our way down Lakeshore Drive, headed for St. Clement.
Technically, we live in Queen of Angels parish, and we're registered members at Our Lady of Mount Carmel. But while the regular family mass is being held in the sanctuary, St. Clement offers a childproofed Christmas Eve mass downstairs in the chapel, for noisy families. For seven years, we've started Christmas in St. Clement's basement.
For the first few years, I entertained visions that we, like the other families in the chapel, were temporary visitors, passing through during our family's 'fussy infant' and 'unpredictable toddler' phases. Eventually, we'd move on to a regular 4:30 Family Mass, and then one day, when my children towered over me in their grown-up holiday clothes, we'd graduate to midnight mass. Sitting quietly in the wooden pew, I'd finally share with my almost-grown children the indescribable experience of being carried away by the haunting choral music, surrounded by hundreds of twinkling lights covering rich, dark evergreens, watching the white-and-gold-clad priests' majestic procession with awe while breathing in the pungent smell of incense.
My son Noah turned ten this year. He's tall for his age; the top of his head already lines up directly with the exact center of my pupils. This Christmas Eve, he'll be wearing his first blazer. My eight-year-old daughter will wear the pink velvet she selected all the way back in August, promising she wouldn't grow, and insisting that red was passé. "Little kids wear red because it's like Santa," she opined, trying to convince me to purchase the dress with which she'd just been smitten. "I'm not a little kid anymore, Mom."
But we're still spending Christmas Eve in the basement.
Again this year, I'll pack a large diaper bag with toddler toys, drawing paper, board books and Tupperware containers of gluten-free finger food. We'll drop crayons during the quietest parts of the service, and they'll roll audibly down the aisles, stopping just short of the makeshift basement altar. My son will sing too loudly, including while the priest is giving the homily, in a voice that's higher, louder, and arguably more angelic than any of the ten-year-old boys upstairs at Family Mass. We'll leave crumbs behind as we exit, merrily exchanging Christmas greetings with the strangers of St. Clement. Because Noah is severely autistic, it's very unlikely that we'll ever graduate from toddler mass.
Noah loves Christmas. In fact, our attempt at a Waldorf lifestyle ended the first time he saw a claymation Christmas classic at age two and a half: he was hooked. He'd toddle over to the TV and bang on the screen at precisely 2:30 each afternoon, without fail. He wanted to watch "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer." He couldn't speak a word, much less read a digital clock, but something deep inside drew him to the story of the Christmas reject-turned-hero, compelling him daily for almost three years. He listens to carols all year on YouTube now, so he knows the standards by heart, including second and sometimes third verses. He doesn't really understand that there's a time and place to sing them, however. He loves music, but hates confined spaces. The chapel at St. Clement offers wide, spacious lines of padded wooden chairs instead of narrow pews. He can't really be silent for any significant length of time, like more than a minute. When it's Christmas, he wants to sing. At the basement mass, the pressure to show up with well-behaved children who can sit semi-quietly for a little under an hour is non-existent: that's why we're there. It's freezing; in fact, this year, it's sleeting, and the balding tires on our ancient Cavalier scare me on the icy roads. But I'd make a pilgrimage to Rome if need be, to ensure that my son has the chance to sing carols on Christmas Eve.
As we exit Lakeshore Drive at Belmont and turn east, crossing Broadway, I see families heading into Our Lady of Mt. Carmel for their - should be our - family mass. A tear spills over, and I hastily mop it up with my scarf. Sometimes, my heart aches to be the mother of a son who will someday be able to sit quietly through a choral mass, become an altar boy, go alone to buy a gift for his sister, head off to college, or bring a girlfriend home to meet his mother one Christmas Eve. My throat catches again as two boys, both in navy blazers, dash up the stairs ahead of their parents, dodging between the heavy oak doors of the sanctuary. When I sang for Mt. Carmel's First Communion service three years ago, I had to step down from the podium and take many sips of water before I could begin the entrance hymn. Thankfully, the congregation's gaze was turned toward the marching children, so no one really noticed the handkerchief, or the cantor pretending to be moved with joy. It hadn't occurred to me until I saw the solemn procession of second graders clad in shiny satin and stiff white, beaming with happiness, followed by a proud stream of priests, parents and godparents, that this would have been my son's First Communion year, too.
It's not just holidays that bring these tears: they fall, or threaten to, at random times, sometimes for almost unfathomable reasons. If there was a word for the opposite of a sports fan, that would describe me; yet each time I drive by Wrigley Field, a familiar lump fills my throat. The Rosenquist family's long line of diehard (read: moronic) male Cubs fans, notoriously populating each generation for a century, will end with Noah, who can't even identify a baseball, much less follow a league team. In October, we take extended trips to the park on each warm weekend day with picnic snacks, sidewalk chalk and several changes of outfits, trying to prolong the illusion of summer. Despite the fact that my greatest relief in adulthood is having been spared the role of soccer mom, the fluid lines of brightly colored jerseys as boys' soccer and football teams run drills in the adjacent fields can still, after all these years, elicit easily a dozen searches through the picnic fare for tissues, in the course of a long sunny Saturday.
Thankfully, the light changes, and I turn left on Halsted, south to St. Clement. We park in the lot at Alcott School, where I enrolled my son for preschool when he turned three, hoping that if he was were around normally developing children for twenty hours a week, he'd catch up. The adults were warm and inclusive, but the other children talked to my son as if they had a baby brother in the room. "What does he like?" another three-year-old asked me at the end of Noah's first week. "Well," I replied, "he likes computers." The little boy turned to Noah with a too-broad smile. "Com - pu - ter, Noah! Com - puuuu - ter!" The reality was obvious to preschoolers who had spent all of five days with my son; I couldn't deny it any longer. We were on a different path.
As we cross Wrightwood, families approach St. Clement on foot from every direction, and the bells begin to toll. "Christmas!" Noah says, his face lighting up. "Hi, Christmas!"
There was a time, not long ago, when Noah couldn't speak at all, and didn't really know what Christmas was. He can identify both Jesus and Santa now, and is expecting presents; not only expecting, this year, but asking in advance for what he wants: a Star Wars-Clone Wars Mr. Potato Head, and a disco dancing Wubbzy. When Noah was the age of the toddlers filing into the basement alongside us, he could sit in front of a wrapped present for hours, touching the ribbon over and over, watching the light reflect in different patterns depending on the angle at which he held it. He was six years old before he had the impulse to take off the wrapping paper, and it was another two years until it occurred to him to play with the item inside.
We take front row seats, Noah on the aisle, sporting his navy blazer over a preppy turtleneck, the look completed by shiny black loafers and a handsome haircut. We've been able to go Supercuts for half of his life now, to get real boy haircuts instead of dreadful Mommy jobs. He waits restlessly, singing quietly to himself and sketching an elaborate, eerily accurate Thomas the Tank Engine. He draws with more skill than most adults, albeit primarily PBS characters and movie production company logos; his Thomas prompts whispered accolades from the families seated in our row, between ministrations to their similarly squirming, chattering companions.
My back is turned to Noah temporarily as I help his sister remove her coat. This results in a loud "MOMMY!" and then, "Mommy! Christmas at?" He's asking, "how long until it starts?"
"Christmas at 4:00," I answer.
"Phone, please," he requests loudly. He's going to watch the minutes tick by on my cell phone.
"Phone," I whisper, handing him the phone. "Quiet voice."
"Thanks," he whispers exaggeratedly, an echolalic response. He says "thanks" after everything; but it's closer to actual conversation than we've ever been.
"You're welcome," I say, completing the requisite sequence.
Earlier this year, after just about a decade of having been his mother, Noah began calling me "Mommy." It's not just that he finally learned to identify me with a name, either: he actually uses it. One of his favorite Saturday activities is searching for treasures in the toy department at resale stores like Salvation Army or Village Thrift, rich with unusual and vintage puzzles and toddler toys. This past summer, Noah temporarily vanished somewhere in the aisles of a Unique Thrift Store. I methodically paced the aisles, listening for loud singing; he's almost impossible to actually lose. My heart nearly stopped when, for the first time, I heard a piercing "MOMMY!" in Noah's voice, sailing across the store.
Before I could figure out what direction it was coming from, I heard it again: "MOMMY!" and then, as I arrived at the puzzle aisle, he appeared, running towards me, arms outstretched with his find: "Humpty Dumpty puzzle! Yes!" he exclaimed, dancing wildly with happiness. Humpty Dumpty was the object of his recent affections, to the point that he'd begun acting out the story on the side of the tub, or the edge of his bed, frequently throughout the day. We'd had to institute a new family rule: "No 'Humpty Dumpty had a great fall!' 'Humpty Dumpty had a great fall' is finished!" There are "Mommys" more often now, sometimes hourly. I'm beckoned to find a missing puzzle piece, read Eric Carle and Kevin Henkes classics, heat up a plate of French fries, or, after his sister has gone to sleep, sit on the side of his bed and accompany him on guitar while he sings all the verses of "Jingle Bells."
Lost in reverie, I'm unprepared for the loud "3:59...3:59...4:00! Yes!" that comes just as, thankfully, the piano begins to play, drowning out most of the outburst. The pre-service caroling starts, and Noah's pure, angelic tone draws double takes from all around us, as his height and apparent age are taken in. A half-second of confusion is followed by a longer, warmer, knowing glance, and then, sometimes, a look of admiration and respect toward the boy-soprano's mother.