This story is by Abigail Brooks and was part of our 2018 Summer Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
“Jules! Merry Christmas!” my father exclaims as he opens the door. His smile is warm and open like always, and I can’t help but embrace him.
“Hey dad,” I muffle into his chest.
He pulls back to look at me, meeting me with his warm, brown eyes. “I’m so glad you came! Here, come inside where it’s warm. Everyone, Jules is here!”
The warmth he gave then turns to ice. I knew seeing my dad would be easy, but navigating the different temperaments of the rest of the family would be like playing a game of chess. One that I feel I’m certain to lose. I shake off the snow from my boots and leave the peace of the entryway.
My last Christmas was a little more bleak than the warm greeting I was now receiving. I was huddled up in a filth-ridden house, too high to even really notice the cold. Heroin was the only gift I had asked for that year, and Santa didn’t exactly leave that under the tree. Thoughts of my family were fleeting. The drugs definitely helped to forget and reach a state of pure and untethered bliss.
If you had told the eighteen year old me, fresh and dewy eyed, excited to start college, that I would end up an addict, I would have laughed in your face. I was unscathed by the harsh realities of the world. But the fun of drinking and casual use of party drugs would morph into something much uglier, the hands of addiction grabbing me by the ankles and dragging me deep into its depths before I even had a chance to gasp for air.
I have been sober for 342 days. The journey has been long. Some days, I don’t think about heroin at all. Other days, it’s all I think about, marveling at the seemingly innocent looking liquid that has the power to flip my entire life upside down, but still craving it nonetheless.
One of the more difficult aspects of recovery is assimilating back into familial life. At my lowest points of addiction, I had lied and cursed and stole. I had morphed into someone neither my family or I could recognize. My parents took the tough love approach, not helping me out in anyway financially, which only fueled my anger. I selfishly believed they owed me.
In the end, they were the ones that saved me, offering to pay for my treatment. My parents had dealt with me differently. My mother was distant. I think she was still afraid that the daughter she knew would be possessed by her evil twin again. My father was the exact opposite, pretending nothing was awry, like he was visiting me at science camp. I appreciated his effort at normalcy. It gave me some hope that things could return to the way they were.
“Come on sweetheart, don’t just stand there. I told them to promise me they won’t bite,” my father says with a wink, snapping me out of my reverie.
Pushing all hesitation aside, I enter the living room and the smells of Christmas hit me. The pine of the tree, the savory smell of dinner, and the sweetness of desserts and cocktails. The awkwardness of my arrival hits me, as my sibling’s faces stare at me. I sway a bit.
“Jules!” My younger brother Tom breaks through the silence.
“Long time, no see, eh?” he says as he walks over to give me a hug. His glass of wine sloshes a bit as he embraces me, almost like he is just as nervous as I am.
“Hey Tommy, it’s so good to see you!” I respond thankfully. He had never come to visit me when I was in rehabilitation, but he made a point to call every week. We didn’t ever really talk about my recovery, but he made a point to keep me looped in with things going on in his life. Back then, I was grateful for the small connections I could make to the outside world.
“Come on, let’s get all the hellos out of the way so that we we can go back to partying!”
My older sister Megan is sitting on the couch, picking at an invisible fleck of dust on her sweater. My uneasy feelings grow. Her hatred of me these past few years is no secret. Anytime I saw her during my battle with drugs, she would scream and yell, telling me that I was tearing mom and dad apart. I always fought back, noting how it was easy for her to say, since she has always been the smarter, prettier, more successful sister. Our relationship has always been strained. Since we were children, I have tried to claw my way up to the upper echelons where she has always resided.
I haven’t seen or talked to her since before I went into rehab, but she looks the same as remember. Long, auburn hair, a sharp nose and jaw, and piercing blue eyes that match mine. She is staring at me, arms crossed.
“Hey Megan,” I say with a half smile.
“Hi Jules. You look well.” Short. Sweet. To the point. Message received. But I catch a flicker of something in her eyes. Hesitation perhaps.
“Thanks, you look great too. Well, I’m going to go find mom.”
My exit is awkward at best. So much hangs between us, and I don’t know how to begin to change that. Pushing that from my mind, I walk into the kitchen, greeted by more savory smells. The longer I’ve been sober, the more I’ve seen my mother’s icy exterior melt. I’m hoping that the first family holiday together would be another stepping stone towards the relationship we used to have.
“Hey mom,” I say quietly as she bends over a counter, tossing up a salad.
“Oh Jules! You’re here!” she walks over to me, grabbing my face between her hands. Not saying a word, she plants a firm kiss on my forehead, smiles at me with her eyes, and walks back to the counter to grab the salad. “Well don’t just stand there Juliette! Grab a dish and help me set the table!”
Her demand has no bite, and I welcome the normalcy of her loving, although sometimes short, demeanor. I break into action, glad of something to do. The table is laden with food in a matter of minutes.
“Dinner is ready!” she yells into the living room.
All six of us sit down at the table and I find myself fidgeting with my napkin. I know what is coming next.
“Okay everyone! Before we eat, let’s go around the table and say what we’re thankful for,” my dad chimes.
“Come on dad! We’re getting too old for this!” Tom groans.
“Stop it Tom, your father likes to do this every year, so we are going to do it,” my mom chimes.
Every year it starts with this exact argument, and I can’t help but smile.
“Since you’re so whiny Tom, you get to go first,” dad retorts.
“I am thankful that the New England Patriots are doing extremely well this season, and will probably make it to the superbowl,” Tom quips.
Everyone at the table rolls their eyes, but lets it slide.
“Okay, I’m next,” my dad says, “I’m grateful that I get to spend another Christmas with all my children and my beautiful wife. Jules, you’re next.”
What I was going to say has been gnawing at me. It is hard to put into words how grateful I am for being welcomed into my family’s lives again. Everything I have thought to say is either underwhelming or too over the top. But I am officially out of time.
“I am grateful that, even though I have done some hurtful things, all of you have welcomed me back home. So I just want to take this moment to say sorry for all the pain I’ve caused and thank you for all being forgiving, even though I may not deserve it.”
Five pairs of eyes stare at me. Some watery, some loving, but all soft. Even Megan’s eyes have lost a touch of their icy blue.
“I’m also grateful for the wonderful year we’ve had and all the blessings we’ve received,” my mother says, voice thick with emotion.
It is Megan’s turn, and my heart drops a bit. I shift a bit in my seat, preparing myself for a possible blow.
“I am grateful that Jules is with us tonight. Christmas here last year wasn’t the same without you, and I’ve missed you very much.”
I’m met with watery blue eyes. She offers a small smile and I return with a full one, getting a bit watery eyed myself.
“Now that’s enough teary eyes for the night! Pass the potatoes! I’m starving!” Tommy exclaims.
Everyone can’t help but laugh, and I can feel the tension I have been carrying dissipate with each giggle that escapes my lips.