The Gift from Santa
Gabriel peered into the bedroom to check if the little one was asleep – and indeed he was, lying on his sides and hugging his bolster tightly against his chest. Gabriel treaded softly to his son's side and covered him with the blanket that was lying on the floor. He sat himself gently beside the peacefully sleeping boy, remembering a similar scene that had occurred this day the year before. Then, his wife Lydia was sitting at the same spot, stroking Ashwin's short blonde hair as Gabriel stood by the door, watching as the loving mother turned her attention from their son to him. Her sapphire blue eyes that gleamed in the dark fixed themselves upon Gabriel's and she nodded at him, knowing that Gabriel would understand what she'd meant even without any exchange of any word. She had then given him her signature smile – one that Gabriel missed badly. One that Gabriel would never see again.
Gabriel could still remember the first time when he saw that smile; that was when he first noticed her. Fate must have played a part in pulling the two of them together. Although the two of them worked in the same building, their job scopes were completely different (Gabriel was a marketing executive and Lydia an accountant) and there was little chance of them meeting since their working shifts differed and their offices were on different levels. However, they still happened to bump into each other, and ironically, away from the building in a suburban restaurant, The Quad. It was raining elephants and dinosaurs, as Lydia always said whenever they recollected details of the day when they first met each other.
Gabriel had gone to The Quad for dinner after a horrid day at work. His boss had rejected the idea that he'd spent nights working on. Lydia on the other hand, was there as she had a sudden craving for their specialty crème brulee dessert. After he was done with his meal, Gabriel had walked out of the restaurant, only to realise that he hadn't brought along an umbrella. Not wanting to get home so early – and remember how he had slogged the previous nights away at his computer table – anyway, he decided against running in the rain and risk falling ill at this crucial period of his career life. An unlucky day it had been. But at that point of time, he hadn't thought that this unlucky day would actually lead him to finding the lucky woman of his life. He hadn't noticed when a slender young lady stood at the other side of the entrance, staring at the pelting droplets just as he did. When he finally saw her, the lady turned to look at him, her lush brown hair beating against her milky white collared shirt. She wasn't exactly a stunning beauty, but Gabriel didn't know why he felt a certain attraction to her. After an awkward few seconds of exchange of strange glances, Lydia tried to break the silence. What a lousy weather, she had said. Gabriel replied with a simple 'yeah', and there was the awkward silence once again. He knew he had to say something else, since he had a feeling that the rain wouldn't stop anytime soon and he'd be stuck here with someone who was as unwilling as he was to move away from her current position. This place has good cordon bleu, Gabriel then said randomly. After a moment of hesitation, Lydia replied with a simple 'yeah', and there was the awkward silence once again. I was just trying to break the awkwardness over here, but as you can see, I'm lousy at initiating a topic, Gabriel finally said in a fit of embarrassment at his own randomness. That was when Lydia broke into the smile that made Gabriel's heart melt. And everything began from there.
Gabriel stood up and walked towards the door of Ashwin's bedroom. He held the blue-and-green Christmas stocking that hung loosely on the knob, just as he had done the previous year following his wife's gaze that told him that it was time to check what their son had written in his letter for Santa. The year when Ashwin learnt how to read and write, Lydia told him the story of Santa Claus – On the 24th of December every year, Santa Claus will climb through the chimney and give out gifts for children who were well-behaved. All that Ashwin needed to do was to put on his best behaviour for the whole of the year, write down his wish on a note and leave it in his treasured stocking just a week before Christmas, and wait for Santa to bring the gift to him on Christmas day itself. The young boy innocently believed in the words of his loving parents who did everything to make sure that his wish every Christmas was fulfilled. Lydia and Gabriel thought it cruel to crush a young child's dreams of Santa and made sure that they put the gift into the stocking on the eve of Christmas so that Ashwin would excitedly tell them about how Santa must have climbed through their chimney and put the gift inside. His wishes varied from as simple as a blue pencil case to a limited edition toy car. Gabriel remembered how he and Lydia had to hunt online for the limited edition toy car that Ashwin saw on a certain television programme. Gabriel finally found it at an auction site on the internet and imported it all the way from Japan at a price that made Lydia wince when she heard about it.
Wiping away a tear that unknowingly found its way to the corner of his eyes, Gabriel took a deep breath and reached his hand into the stocking, feeling for the piece of paper that Ashwin should have put inside. Usually, Gabriel would be excited whenever he unfolded the letter, and Lydia would peek at it from behind it, trying to find out what challenge their son had set for 'Santa'. But it was different this year. Gabriel did not feel the rushing blood through his veins. As he read the letter that Ashwin had written, Gabriel's heart sank. He felt a painful sensation that tugged at his insides, making him feel sick all over.
Please bring me Mommy for Christmas.
If there were six words that could make Gabriel experience despair once again, it would be the ones that stared straight at him maliciously. Gabriel quickly folded the paper and put it back into the stocking. At first thought, disappointment crept upon him as he wondered if he hadn't done enough for his child to make him comfortable with their current situation. But then again, he realised that if Santa really existed, he would have wished for the same thing as well.
The next day, Gabriel went straight into the study room after tucking Ashwin in for a good night's sleep. He climbed onto a stool and took down a dusty chest from the top of the book shelf. He never imagined being able to look at the neglected chest again anytime so soon. But for the sake of Ashwin, his only kin left, he had to do so. As he swiped away the dust particles that attached themselves to the chest and opened it up, a vivid image of Lydia flashed across Gabriel's mind. Her beautiful eyes, her flushing cheeks, her lustrous hair, her glossy lips… They were all still so clear that Gabriel started to doubt if she had really left him. Gabriel took out a photo album with pictures that captured the happy moments the couple had spent together. There was one that they took at their workplace, right in front of the man-made pond where they spent numerous lunches together eating sandwiches prepared by Lydia, another where they took together at The Quad sharing Lydia's favourite crème brulee. And the other one at Italy where they had their honeymoon. It was a year and a half later that Lydia was pregnant with Ashwin, and they took many family photos thereafter, from Ashwin's first birthday to many others in the later years. Holding back his tears, Gabriel put the album aside and decided to just concentrate on his initial reason for opening this chest. He fished out a pile of letters that were addressed to him from Lydia. The first one on the top of the pile was the letter that she had given to him on the day when they got married.
Today must be the happiest day of my life! Do you still remember that five years ago, we were here outside The Quad waiting for the rain to stop? I thought that you were an interesting guy and as we continued to chat, I was deeply intrigued by the way you speak. When the rain stopped and we had to part, I'd actually felt an emptiness that couldn't be explained. When I saw you at the office again the next day, I almost couldn't hide my excitement, though I think you were too excited as well to realise that. And today, we're back to The Quad for our wedding. You're the love of my life, and I'm so glad that I've met you that I can die without any regrets.
Your wife-to-be in a few hours,
How would anyone have guessed that Lydia's last sentence would actually turn to reality? Deep inside, Gabriel chided his wife for writing that sentence, convinced that if she hadn't written that, such a tragedy wouldn't have happened. He tried in vain to ignore the content of the letter, but as much as he wanted to, he couldn't help but read through the letter a few times before getting on with his task. He doddled on a rough piece of paper found on his writing table and tried to imitate his wife's unique handwriting. He made sure that his 'a' and 'n' were joined together in that particular cursive writing manner Lydia always practiced. And he noted how Lydia's words never touched the lines of the writing pad. There was also the way that the right tip of her 'w's was longer than the left one. For the next few days, Gabriel practiced Lydia's handwriting on rough pieces of paper. He always checked on Ashwin to ensured that he was already deeply asleep before going to the study room to make another attempt at imitating Lydia's writing. On the 23rd of December, Gabriel decided that he'd had enough of practice and went on to write his letter. It took him twelve unsatisfactory attempts before he finally settled on his thirteenth letter – it was already 5 a.m. in the morning and if he had wanted to continue with his perfectionist attitude, he would not make it in time to prepare Ashwin for his piano lessons. He stared at his completed piece of work and read it a few times. If you looked at it closely, you'd realise that the writing was slightly different. After all, no matter what he tried, he couldn't take his wife's place (and that applies to almost everything) or so he thought.
Merry Christmas! I'm so sorry that I couldn't be here to spend the Christmas with you, because
I need to go somewhere far far away. I only have a very short time to return home, so by the time you see this letter, I'd have left. My dear son, remember that your mother loves you dearly and wants to see you happy. Take care and please stay happy.
When Gabriel read that, he tried to imagine Lydia standing by Ashwin's bedroom, watching him as she leant against the door, sobbing silently alone. Startled by the realness of his own imagination, Gabriel rushed over to Ashwin's room hoping to see her there, only to be assailed by a painful reality that she was dead and won't come back again.
On the eve of Christmas, Gabriel tucked his son in as usual. "Sleep well son," he said, "and Santa will drop by tonight." Ashwin smiled at his father with a hint of excitement and closed his eyes, the smile still imprinted on his face. As Gabriel left his room, he shut the door his son's bedroom and walked to the study room. Again, he opened up the chest and started rummaging through the contents. As he did so, he wondered if this would be the last time he'd ever look through the chest again. He pushed away the thought for a moment as his eyes caught sight of the thing that he wanted – the Christmas Log Cake recipe.
He looked at his watch; it was 12a.m. and he had to bake something he had never baked before (in fact, he knew nuts about baking) by the next morning. He held the recipe to his hand and walked into the kitchen, staring at the equipment that he had laid out earlier, wondering where he should start from. Don't worry, you can do it darling, Gabriel could almost hear Lydia say in her sweet and mellow voice. He stuck the recipe onto the fridge using a magnet and took a deep breath. If Lydia said that he could do it, he can do it.
Gabriel felt as though Lydia was guiding him as he baked the cake. As he read through the procedures written on the recipe, he could almost hear Lydia telling him what his next step was, showering him with encouragement as he proceeded on. Yes, she would say, whip the egg whites just like that, till soft peaks form. Then, add in the sugar, and whip it further, till stiff peaks form. That's right; no wonder you're my darling. You can do everything! Now, let's move on to the next step, she would then say.
When the cake was finally done and he was done with all the decoration, it looked exactly like the cake Lydia had baked the previous year. Gabriel looked at his watch once again, and it read 7 a.m. He was both shocked and relieved upon realisation of how time passed so quickly. Lydia never took more than 3 hours to bake the cake, yet he took more than twice the time. But then again, at least he had made it in time. He went upstairs and pushed open the door leading to Ashwin's bedroom slightly. Ashwin was sitting on the bed, holding onto a piece of paper with a mixed expression of joy and pain. His face was covered with tears, and Gabriel figured that he must have read the letter that 'Lydia' had given to him. He hurried down the stairs and sat on the couch, pretending to read the papers like what he always does in the morning.
"DAD!" An enthusiastic voice resounded about the whole house, as Ashwin came running down the stairs about 10 minutes later. "Santa was here last night!"
Gabriel pretended to give a shocked look, then waited for Ashwin to continue with what he had to say.
"Santa brought Mommy back last night," Ashwin said in a trembling voice. He paused for a moment, then sniffed the air. Not long after, he broke into a run and dashed into the kitchen. Right on the table was a beautiful chocolate-coated Christmas log cake with 3 reindeers and a miniature house, just like the one his mother made the last Christmas.
"Well," Gabriel began to say, trying not to choke on his words, "Since Mommy went through the trouble to make us this wonderful cake, let's…"
Gabriel swallowed back a tear as Ashwin took out two forks and passed one to him. "Let's tuck in."
Father and son sat down and cut themselves a piece of cake each. As Gabriel took the first bite, all the memories of the last Christmas came back to him. The same day last year, the three of them were seated on the same table, and Ashwin was sharing jokes that he had learnt from his friends in school. Lydia laughed so hard at one of his jokes that she spat out a whole mouthful of water. The family of three looked at each other, then broke into a series of contagious laughter. Gabriel smiled in spite of himself and took another bite of the cake, reminiscing those happy times they had together.
"Dad, you finally smiled," Ashwin started to say as he took another bite off the slice of cake, "I asked Santa to bring back Mommy. I want Mommy to come home."
The next sentence that Ashwin said caused Gabriel to break down completely.
"Because you'll only smile when Mommy is around."