published Sunday, December 22nd, 2013

Kennedy: 'Twas theweek before Christmas ...

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    Mark Kennedy is the features editor of the Chattanooga Times Free Press and author of “Life Stories: A Collection of Columns.” Mr. Kennedy will be signing copies of the book Aug. 16 at Wild Hare Books. Contributed Photo

There's a brand of mania that afflicts some children the week before Christmas. Symptoms may include giddiness, hyperactivity, insomnia and/or weeping.

Sometimes this is precipitated by a traumatic event. For instance, we have some friends whose Golden-doodle (it's a dog) chewed the head off their Elf on a Shelf.

Our youngest son, age 7, has a raging case of pre-Christmas anxiety. He's obsessed with counting down the days, and agitated that they won't go by any faster.

"I just can't wait any longer," he laments, dropping his shoulders as he stands staring at our Christmas tree.

This anxiety culminated last Sunday night. His tears began about an hour before bedtime.

"Daddy," he said, climbing into my lap with his lower lip stuck out. "I know you'll probably say no to this, but can I please open one Christmas present tonight? You know how Mommy lets me open one present on Christmas Eve? Well, this could be it."

To understand the dynamics of this conversation, picture a 55-year-old daddy trying to watch the Steelers game with a doll-faced, Tiny Tim of a boy in his lap.

"No, buddy, I'm sorry," I said gently. "Neither Mommy nor Daddy nor your big brother have ever opened a present 10 days before Christmas, and we're not going to start now."

Cue the theatrics. He sobbed over to the couch -- head back, forearm over his eyes. He sobbed up the stairs. He sobbed into his bedroom.

During an important third-down play in the Steelers game, I sent his brother, age 12, up to console him. I heard some soft talk at the top of the stairs, but then the sobbing began again, like a campfire energized by a fresh breeze.

"I tried," my older son said shrugging as he came back down the stairs.

As a parent, you learn to distinguish the cry of a heartbroken child from a child who is merely being manipulative. The quality and quantity of tears is the giveaway. Also the vocals are different. A forced cry is more like a muffled yodel that doesn't resolve with a full emptying of the lungs. A real sob ends with oxygen fully depleted and a desperate gasp for breath.

This episode started with fakery and dissolved into fatigue, at which point it took on the intonation of a real sob. Minutes passed and the crying changed from full-boil to a soft whimper. The whole episode then circled back to where it started: Daddy's lap.

As I stroked my younger son's hair and wiped away his tears, I noticed in the corner of my eye my wife and 12-year-old son conspiring in the kitchen. My sixth-grader nodded and soon disappeared into the garage.

Minutes later I heard wrapping paper rustling upstairs and the chirp of a cellophane tape dispenser.

Next, my older son reappeared, carrying two gift-wrapped boxes -- one containing a pair of motorcycle-print pajamas and the other concealing a stack of multi-colored construction paper. These were not Christmas gifts, but staples my wife had purchased the day before.

My 7-year-old son knew these weren't authentic gifts, but he tore into them anyway, as if the simple pleasure of peeling off wrapping paper was enough to satisfy his Christmas craving.

"Thank you, Bubby," he said to his big brother who, in turn, bent down and kissed him tenderly on the cheek.

Christmas for me this year was an instant, not a day -- a magic moment ungoverned by clock or a calendar.

My Christmas arrived last Sunday night in this tender moment of brotherly love, and I wouldn't trade that memory for all the fancy packages still under the tree.

Contact Mark Kennedy at mkennedy@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6645. Follow him on Twitter @TFPCOLUMNIST. Subscribe to his Facebook updates at www.facebook.com/mkennedycolumnist.

about Mark Kennedy...

Mark Kennedy is the editor of the Times Free Press opinion pages and writes the Sunday “Life Stories” column. He also writes a Saturday automotive column, “Test Drive,” for the Business section. For 13 years, Kennedy was features editor of the newspaper, and before that he was the newspaper’s first Sunday editor. The Times Free Press Life section won the state press award for Best Community Lifestyles four times during his tenure. Before Chattanooga’s newspapers ...

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