Twenty-three and Still a True Believer
This essay appeared in New Jersey's Star-Ledger in 2006.
My son, Simon, still believes in Santa Claus. I recently helped him with his annual letter to Santa. This year, he requested clothes, a new game for his PlayStation 2, shampoo and season six of the television series “Charmed.” It's a weird list, and it would be stranger still if Simon asked for what he truly wants: Salma Hayek. But there’s a reason for the weirdness: Simon, age 23, has fragile X syndrome and is mentally retarded.
Simon’s mental age is hard to estimate. He can’t read or tell time; math might as well be Greek. If you ask him what day of the week it is, he has to guess. “Saturday?” he’ll say. “Friday?” His speech is garbled and he can be hard to understand. But he’s a savvy guy who never leaves the house without a cool pair of sunglasses and a ball cap, who hangs out with aplomb, who recognizes anyone he has met even once and greets that person with genuine enthusiasm. He is particularly thrilled when he sees someone in a uniform: a police officer, the mail carrier, Santa Claus.
For the past 20 years, Simon has greeted every Santa Claus he has seen with the same chuckling hey-I-know-you approach. This is the pattern: He strides up to the red-suited man with an odd, almost stiff-legged, rolling gait, cracks the biggest smile in the mall, and says, “Hi Santa! Remember me? I’m Simon.” Then, because repetition is at Simon’s very essence, he lists, in a sing-song voice, what gifts he wants, ticking them off, one by one, on his fingertips. He has practiced this routine often. For the past several years, most of what he has wanted has come from electronics stores; he scrutinizes their flyers intently. He studies the newspaper too. In past years he asked Santa to help victims of Hurricane Katrina and the Asian Tsunami.
Because Simon doesn’t have a logical sense of time, he starts bugging me to leave out cookies and carrots for Santa and his reindeer as soon as he sees the first Christmas decoration of the year. “We need to put cookies out,” he’ll say. “Not tonight,” I’ll answer. “Christmas is a long time away.” Then I’ll show him the calendar and touch a pen to all the days. “A long time?” Simon will repeat. “A long time?” And the next night Simon will look at me, lift his eyebrows, as red as his hair, and ask if we can “put out cookies tonight?”
I assume some responsibility for Simon’s anxiety about the holiday. In theory, we shouldn’t celebrate Christmas at all. I’m Jewish. But my parents were agnostics. The family Christmas tree was a celebration of shopping, not Jesus. For the first six years of Simon’s life, when I was married to his father, a Methodist, we continued my family’s tradition of joyful gift-giving. Santa was visited, sat upon, and petitioned. Then I married my current husband, who was raised by observant Jews and could not accept a Christmas tree in the house. I had to assure Simon that tree or no tree, Santa would come. When he was little, we had a tree but no chimney, I pointed out. Then we had a chimney but no tree. Even when we had neither tree nor chimney, Santa came. Simon accepted the logic.
Simon also accepted even the most bedraggled Santa, with his obviously fake beard and bleary brown eyes. As he grew older, though, he became more discerning. I had taught him the word “fake” to warn him about television advertising and scary movies. He understood acting and that’s the category into which he placed the inferior Santas. That category also allowed multiple Santas: one inside the mall, one outside the grocery store, one smoking behind the restaurant. If I asked, Simon told me where the real Santa was. “The North Pole, duh,” he said.
In some ways, Simon is a typical twenty-something. He stays up late; sleeps late. He’s had this pattern for years. So to perpetuate the myth of Santa I have to set my alarm for 3 a.m. on Christmas morning. I climb out of my warm bed and retrieve presents from their hiding places. I stuff the huge, stretchy stockings that my mother knitted, eat the cookies and carrots, dump the milk in the sink, run water to remove that evidence, and climb back into bed. Every year when that alarm rings, I question my sanity, my qualifications to mother this challenging child. Should I tell Simon the truth? Lying makes me uncomfortable. In fact, I pride myself on my honesty. I remember an argument I had years ago with my older son, Sam. “I have never lied to you!” I cried. “Santa Claus, tooth fairy, Easter bunny,” Sam said. “I rest my case.”
I know Simon has heard people say that Santa Claus is not real. One year we were at an event attended entirely by adults and someone made a loud, snide comment about a fictitious Santa. I glanced across the room at Simon. He usually avoids eye contact. But he met my gaze, shook his head. We know better, he seemed to say. And he settled, smug, in his chair.