Who’s the Believer Now?

In 2006 I wrote an essay about my 23-year-old son’s belief in Santa. “Twenty-three and Still a True Believer” is the first post on this blog.

The essay appeared in the New Jersey Star-Ledger and took on a life of its own.  Readers loved the story about my special needs son's belief in Santa Claus. Here’s how I described Simon back then: 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.

Most of this is still true. But Simon is beginning to become easier to understand. About a year ago he asked if he could start speech therapy. The request surprised me; Simon had hated speech therapy when he was in school. He hated transitioning out of his classroom. Hated the pointed attention in a small group. Hated the work. Speech is hard for him, as it is for many others with Fragile X syndrome. But the months of effort have had results. Simon loves his therapist, a woman with long-ago connections that Simon has never forgotten, and they’ve made great progress.

Thirteen years ago I celebrated Simon’s belief in Santa and did everything I could to perpetuate the myth. I have updated the essay a couple of times, even used it as the first post on my web site, nancylabrams.com. But for several years, I’ve known the essay is no longer true. And I’ve got a thing about truth. It’s necessary.

Simon knows I buy the presents he finds on Christmas morning. He figured it out himself by observing deliveries: mail, UPS, FedX. He’s been in charge of bringing me the mail for a long, long time. I’ve almost always let him open packages. But this time of year, I become secretive. “I don’t want to open this right now,” I say. And Simon gives me a look. One of those slow, gotcha kind of looks. (No eye contact because, well, Fragile X.) “I know,” the look says. “But I’m going to humor you and pretend that Santa is real.” He knows I hide presents in the guest bedroom but he doesn’t bother them.

We’ve already celebrated Hanukkah and that quieted Simon’s jittery passion for presents. But he has evaded all my requests for this year’s letter to Santa. Simon puts up his hand and blocks my face, a gesture he uses frequently. “Talk to the hand,” he responds.

I don’t think he understands my complicated relationship to Christmas. I don’t think I do. My Jewish parents were not observant. My family had a Christmas tree; my mother knitted Christmas stockings. But we really celebrated shopping. As an adult, I’ve celebrated both Hanukkah and Christmas. I love that the holiday season can bring out the good in humanity. I enjoy spending time with family and almost-family. I make amazing butter cookies and buy gifts at craft shows and little stores. I love watching faces light up when Santa is in the room. Simon’s especially. Even if we know that Santa is an idea, an ideal. Not real. But real enough.

I will probably sneak the presents out in the middle of the night, while Simon is asleep. I no longer have to set an alarm to wake up in the wee hours. Because they’re the wee hours. I will keep up the Santa myth. I’m absolutely certain that it lives in the jolly generosity of my special 35-year-old son.

For weeks now he’s been carrying bags of toys that he hands to random children. He wins the toys or buys them. I’ve tried to steer him toward organized charities, but he’s too quick with his debit card. Maybe this afternoon I will ask him again whether he believes in Santa. I bet he will give me an exaggerated wink and whisper, “Our secret.”

Abrams Nancy