Sitting alone on our Salvation Army-salvaged couch, under the dim glow of a drum shade in our 111-year-old bungalow near Ybor City, I reluctantly twisted my wedding band off my finger. Having settled in its place on my hand on lucky Nov. 11, 2011, it hadn't yet the history to leave a lasting mark.
My holiday cheer had been unusually fervent this season, until my mate of seven years, husband of 21 days and father of our two small children got a shave and a haircut, packed his freshly washed clothes and split to Colorado without a word — on date night.
And even after seven DVR'd episodes of House Hunters International, my spirit was still in the dumps.
This seemed like the perfect time for someone who had never seen It's a Wonderful Life to experience whatever miracle it was that made the flick so famous. Heck, maybe my life would reveal itself to be a bit Capraesque by the time the credits rolled.
But two hours and a $6.95 video on demand charge later, I found myself crying — not happy holiday It's A Wonderful Life tears. More like, "that could never happen to me because people are jerks and life stinks" tears. And then my cellphone chirped with an ultimatum from the Man: Tampa or me.
Cue the burglary.
• • •
The waft of life began to smell putrid after a late shift a few weeks later, when, before driving to my parents' house where I had been staying, I decided to stop by home to check the mail and assemble a child's ATV, the final megagift that would go under our measly, plastic Christmas tree. I was determined to give the kids a great holiday morning at our house, just to prove that everything would be okay for the three of us. All the gifts on the list — plus those for my son's birthday — were checked off and carefully wrapped weeks beforehand, a first for me. I would not to let the marital Scrooge steal Christmas, too.
But the Grinch was right on his heels.
I froze in the doorway before the knob had time to clunk against the stucco. It didn't quite register. Did my husband come back just to pick up the electronics? Why such a mess?
Wait. The presents…
I recall some choice words exploding from my mouth as I dashed across a wooden floor littered with overturned drawers and what was left of their contents.
Before I reached the spare bathroom where I had hidden the gifts, I found what I was looking for: The back door, metal with double locks, was lying on the laundry room floor. The entire door frame lay with it, ripped from the wall. For days since I had last been there, the house could have been open to anyone. The adjacent washroom was bare; all the gifts were gone.
Some stranger had violated our home, ripped through our belongings, turned our furniture upside down and taken everything they wanted.
My heart sank, my stomach turned, a lump formed in my throat. And then came the violent, childlike sobbing.
When I caught my breath, I tallied it up: Most everything valuable and invaluable had been stolen, including everything from our flat-screen TV, DVD players, digital cameras and cable box, to antique jewelry, ancestors' carvings, cherished items from our wedding, and, what's worse, the pride I had felt in being a successful Santa on my own this year. Plus my A-Train bobblehead.
In the time it took for the police to arrive, I surveyed the damage, posted photos on Facebook, received 22 replies and called my parents, who were watching the kids, to let them know I'd be late.
The police showed up after a second call — I imagine because this happens more often than I'd like to think — and as if the crazy, black, dried-up river of mascara on my cheeks wasn't signal enough, I waved them down with both arms flailing the instant they turned the corner, like ushering them inside faster would make things better somehow.
After wading through the blur of a million questions and the incessantly flashing bulb of a diligent forensics team, I propped up the door with one nail, a splintered piece of wood and the help of a strong police officer. I didn't grab anything, and I left before they did, just in case trouble was lurking on my less-than-safe, stop-snitching street.
• • •
By the time I reached my parents' house, hundreds of friends had offered to lend a hand. Once I got over the heavy, underlying guilt of the idea and decided (with lots of convincing) that accepting help would be okay, I made a list of the gifts that were taken and created a registry on Target.com, who really won out on this deal.
The very next day, a friend from high school, who I hadn't seen since, showed up at my parents' door with two bags of toys for the kids and a generous gift card, the first wave in a flood of giving.
Boxes upon boxes arrived, day after day, well past Christmas and my son's birthday. Envelopes stuffed with checks and cash and gift cards galore.
To: the kids. From: my fifth-grade history teacher, ex-boyfriends, ex-best friends, girls I once sang with in the church choir, former soccer, rowing and track and field teammates, strangers, friends of friends, fellow moms I've known only through the Internet, Tampa police, the Marines, Ybor City businesses, co-workers at the Times, my father's co-workers and friends, classmates from St. John's Episcopal, Sickles High School, the University of Florida and the University of South Florida.
It seemed like every person who ever knew me — and even people who didn't — crawled out of the woodwork to come through for me and the kids in a pretty dark hour. We received so much, we were able to give a lot to charity, and that was a most wonderful gift. We didn't need all the stuff. My kids never would have known what was missing.
But it was the love and support and friendships and bonds that I never suspected were so strong that made this, my most difficult Christmas, the best holiday I ever could have imagined.
Tampa Bay stepped up for me when the Man stepped out, and my decision on the ultimatum front became a nonissue.
And on Christmas morning, my 4-year-old son and 1-year-old daughter scurried out of a guest bedroom to find our measly, plastic Christmas tree, which a four-wheeled sled had hauled from our bungalow. Underneath it, they saw gifts upon gifts, all of them marked "From Santa." Their eyes lit up, and my heart overflowed with a sense of joy and pride I had never felt before. We had our Christmas right then, just the three of us, and it was all going to be okay.
So toll the hokey bell, and let's get on with it. …
Thank you, St. John's! Thank you, Sickles High! Thank you, you wonderful old Tampa Bay! This place, like Bedford Falls, is far from the saddest place to live.
And I am the richest woman in town.