Great Britain

My father waited 10 years to open my Christmas present. Then he died in 9/11

We didn’t know that Christmas morning would be my father’s last. We sat around the tree in our Staten Island home, my mother, sisters and I in pajamas, while he wore jeans and a sweatshirt, his breath fresh and his salt-and-pepper hair neat. 

Even when we were small and impatient, my dad brushed his teeth and combed his hair before we opened presents. We’d sit on the top of our steps and beg him to hurry, but he’d refuse to go downstairs without freshening up. 

Download the new Indpendent Premium app

Sharing the full story, not just the headlines

Now, we were women. At 19, I was the youngest and on break from my local college. One sister was home from her dorm; the other was engaged. Next year, this morning would be different. We knew we wouldn’t be sitting together by our fireplace, but we had no idea how much would change. 

My mother had a nightmare once about that fireplace. It was just after they bought the house, a side-hall colonial that she loved for its farmhouse feel before it was trendy. In the dream, my father stood leaning on the mantle when a spark flew from the fire. Orange and blue flames swallowed him up, and he melted away. 

Fifteen years later, he got up before the sun and pulled on his khakis and polo in their bedroom upstairs. Though she doesn’t remember, I’m sure he kissed my mother before leaving for work. He always wanted a reason to kiss her. 

We don’t know exactly where he was when the plane hit the tower. We’re not sure if he was sitting at his desk five floors above the impact, but we know something — the fire, the smoke, the building itself — swallowed him up that day. 

It didn’t matter that we couldn’t live without him; that at 21, my mother lost her fiancé in a car crash; or that my grandparents had already buried their only other child after a terrible battle with multiple sclerosis. None of the hypotheses we concocted while we waited for news mattered. He was gone anyway. 

But that morning as we opened presents, he was still here. Even before he died, I knew I’d remember that day because of a gift I’d given him as a child. 

In 1990, my class made a time capsule yuletide craft — a crudely decorated glass container with a tag marked “Don’t open until Christmas Day 2000.” A paper on which I’d answered questions was tucked inside. I wrapped it and gave it to my father. He waited a decade to open it.  

Each holiday season, we placed it in our tree. There it sat as my Italian family gathered a room away and ate the seven fishes on the eve. It stayed home the next day when we visited my father’s parents and sister, who couldn’t speak, eat or even sit up due to her MS. We spent every December 25th at their house until my aunt died in 1997. 

As a mother now, I can’t imagine how these celebrations felt for my grandparents and cousins. But for me, they were wonderful. I loved the semi-homemade antipasto, the tiny, tinsel tree, and the mashed potato-covered whisk they let me lick before dinner. These details are as much a part of my holiday memories as my mother’s threadbare Santa doll, “gingerbread” houses built with graham crackers, and that small glass jar. 

When that last Christmas came, it took my father 20 minutes to remove the paper. The bottle’s mouth was too small for his thick fingers. We laughed and snapped pictures while he used tweezers to finally pull out the crumpled sheet. 

He recited each answer out loud. The fourth question asked for a special wish. My father’s cheeks reddened when he saw my response, and as he spoke my words aloud, his voice broke.

“I wish my Aunt Michele would get better.” 

My father sat there and cried for his sister, who had already died. My siblings, mother and I cried too, for our aunt and her brother who loved her. 

“She’s better now,” he finally said. 

So much sadness is attached to that trinket. When I take it out of the attic now, I should feel depressed. I should ache for a woman whose life was worn away by disease and my father who should be here with me. 

And I do. But I also smile at the thought of his giant hands on that tiny bottle and the hug we shared. I smile because inside are not only the tattered corners of a piece of paper, but also all the Decembers it was a part of our traditions. All the times we waited for my parents to untangle the lights or I stared at the glowing candle in my bedroom window before falling asleep. It’s every time we grabbed our stockings off the mantle. When my sister fell on the floor in happiness from her Rangers tickets and I dressed my new Victorian doll in red velvet. 

Time capsules are meant to bring us to a place and time that have passed. This one really does. Despite its shabby contents, it helps me reach out and reach back, and find my dad. 

Last year, after my suggestion, my eight-year-old daughter’s class made the same craft in school. Knowing her, she wished for iTunes or slime, but I still can’t wait to read her answers. And I hope her time capsule stays with her as mine has with me. I hope someday when I’m gone, she pulls it from a dusty crate and is reminded of me and all the things that made her childhood Christmases magical. I hope that jar holds every moment, each one piled on top of the other, until it overflows with joy and a wistful sadness that only comes from something worth missing.