I knocked on the door. "Can I come in?"
"Yeah." She stood at the bathroom sink, playing with a hairpin on the counter.
"You okay?" I asked her.
"Yeah. Just…" Her voice trailed off and I could see that she had something on her mind.
"What is it, sweetie?" I wasn't quite prepared for what the discussion became.
"I'm kind of confused."
"I'm not sure if Santa is real or not." Her voice cracked and tears welled up in her eyes and my mind started to think of answers, different tacks to take to deflect the question, but this was head-on. It might have seemed a silly question for a 10-year-old to ask, but we had been fairly deft over the years.
"Why do you say that?" I asked.
"Well, one of the letters he wrote us has your handwriting." Busted. "Mommy said that he could change his handwriting to write like you but…. And you guys say he's real, but one of my friends said their parents told her that he's not real."
"Would it make you sad if he wasn't real?" She nodded and the tears started flowing. I hugged her as if I were saying goodbye the last remnants of my own childhood.
I think I knew the answer to her questions when I was a few years younger than she was now. Aided and abetted by a less-than-scrupulous babysitter, I had found gifts in my parent's closet. Santa ended up giving me those same gifts. I had a long career of snooping. It was a compulsion, I'm not sure driven by what, but I needed to find what I was getting. I needed to know.
I backed off for a bit, trying to figure out what to say. "Zoe says that Gramma said she didn't get to see the letter last year after you pulled it off the printer."
"I wonder what Gramma meant by that?" I was really trying to dodge the questions, still scrambling for what to say.
"I'm just really confused," she said as the tears dripped from her eyes. I didn't want to pile on, but I didn't want to just blurt it out, not three days before Christmas.
I then recalled one Christmas when I was a teenager. I still looked for presents like a madman. I had scoured the house from top to bottom and knew what I was getting for Christmas this year, as I always did. Sometimes there were gifts that I wasn't sure who they'd end up with, but I knew what was in the house to be given. I went to bed on Christmas Eve and slept soundly. I had nothing to look forward to, aside from feigning surprise at each gift from my family.
I'm pretty sure my parents woke my sister and I that year, and we walked out to see the presents that Santa had left for us. The spot where all my gifts would normally have been was empty - my gifts were piled inside a papasan chair. You know, the ones that are about 4 feet wide, shaped like a bowl that sits on a stand, with a large pad inside. My eyes must have been as wide as they could go - I had searched the house from top to bottom! There was no way that my parents could have hidden something of that size! My mind raced to figure out where they might have hidden it, but I couldn't conceive of how they could have gotten it here overnight while I slept.
I had no choice but to believe. Santa must have brought the chair. And with it, he brought my sense of wonder back to me. I realized the joy in being surprised and finding what you don't expect, and by extension, returning the joy of giving back to my parents and everyone else. I realized that people work hard to find and bestow appropriate gifts, and when you ruin the surprise for yourself, you're also ruining it for them.
I looked at my daughter and told her what I believed. "Sweetie…when I was a kid, there was a while when I didn't believe in Santa. But now that I'm a dad and have kids, I know that there's a Santa." She smiled, a final tear suspended off the end of her nose. We hugged again, and I got up to leave her to finish getting ready for bed.
As I walked out the door, I turned back one last time. "Sweetie?"
"Ho ho ho."