For a teenager in a newly divorced family, Christmas is like a Hulk Hogan pillow that’s been stabbed in the face with a Swiss Army knife – it ain’t pretty.
Maybe it’s because expectations ramp up during the holidays. I look at old pictures and see my brother and I wearing matching, ugly velour Christmas sweaters, trying to fake a little “peace on Earth” with awkward smiles. There are a few pics where I’m just straight up crying in front of a Christmas tree.
The holidays are overwhelming. Everything’s heightened. You gotta be on your best behavior. Gotta get in the spirit and dress up. All of this excitement can wear down a kid who just wants some Legos.
I was in 7th grade at Twin Bluff Middle School, when kids are at their most insecure and cruel. Everything hurts. I was a raw nerve ending. And after my parents separated the year previous, I felt angry all the time. The only solace I felt was when I blasted Metallica and Nirvana in the basement of my dad’s post-divorce house on Teeup Lane. That helped…a little.
It was the first Christmas with a new familial arrangement. The new plan was that we would celebrate Christmas Eve with my mom, which felt more-or-less normal because she was still single. Christmas Day was with my dad. It was a cold Minnesota morning. Below zero. We all sat in the basement, bunched together on a plush white leather couch that looked like it belonged to a villain from Miami Vice, staring at the Christmas tree. Me, my brother, my step-brother, my step-mom and my dad. It was a little…awkward. We were all trying our best; still feeling out how this was going to work as a newly merged family. All I wanted to do was go back to my room and write stories while listening to “Smells Like Teen Spirit”.
We went around the circle, handing out presents. We each got a Walkman. The exact same kind. My parents were obsessive about giving the three of us the same amount of presents. They wanted everything to be fair, thinking that this could alleviate the potential that any one of us felt we were getting special treatment over another. Being equal, however, made me mad. I didn’t want to be the same as my brothers. I wanted to be DIFFERENT. I wanted to be recognized for my angst and my anger, Walkman be damned! Who were these people trying to have a pleasant Christmas? Didn’t they know I was dying inside? Couldn’t they see that I was secretly better than them because I wore my disappointment on my sleeve?
I stood up, fuming, grabbed my Walkman and walked down the cold hallway to my room. “Merry Christmas!” I yelled as I slammed the door shut. I found my Nirvana tape, slid it in the portable cassette player, and cranked it. I felt a small relief as I listened to Kurt Cobain sing about his misery. But I also felt my anger growing; I was upset that my dad and this new family were trying to move on, when I clearly wasn’t ready. I still felt the burn from the divorce and I was upset that no one else would even acknowledge it. Why were we trying to have a White Christmas without talking about how weird everything was?
I felt like the greatest victim the world had ever known. Like Kurt was narrating my pain. And as the anger boiled up inside of me, I dropped onto my bed, picked up my Hulk Hogan buddy pillow in one hand (it was a present from Grandma and Grandpa Sprangers), my new Swiss Army knife in the other, and proceeded to stab The Hulkster in the face over and over and over in a fit of absolute rage. Little by little, his white cotton innards poked out, his once smiling face now a contorted smirk.
Finally, I dropped the knife and looked at a mangled Hogan. Oh, the shame! What had I done? I loved that pillow, and now it was ruined. I was overwhelmed with guilt. What would happen if anyone saw-
CREAK! The door opened. My dad came in and sat down on the bed. He looked at Hogan, took a breath, then looked at me and said “looks like you’re pretty mad.”
I started crying. Yeah, I guess I was mad. But for someone who was mad I sure was crying a lot. I felt like I was being dragged into an arrangement that didn’t honor my hurt feelings. And the more we tried to act like a normal family the more I felt like my sadness wasn’t being seen. In fact, I felt like it was being denied. And poor Hulk Hogan had paid the price.
But! His face had not been slashed in vain. No, actually, he had been the true savior I needed. Hulk had provided an emotional release that every kid from a divorced family needs now and then.
My dad rubbed my back. He knew how upset I was. Lord knows how much pain he must have been feeling. I didn’t realize it, but I wasn’t the only one who felt scared and alone post-divorce; I was just the only one who was making it all about himself. I can’t imagine how much nervousness my step-mom and step-brother probably felt about leaving their home and moving into ours; that’s a huge leap of faith. And my brother, being the youngest, probably felt the same fear and anxiety about this new family as I did – but how could he possibly express it when his older brother was taking up all the emotional space while murdering pillows?
My dad though, must have been feeling the brunt of it. He was the one that had fallen in love and made the choice to move on with his life. He was the one that was trying to rebuild when everything and everyone around him seemed to be in chaos. It is a far more difficult thing to build one’s life during periods of great pain than it is to wallow in the pain itself. As an experienced wallower, learning to pull myself out of great pain seemed impossible.
But when my dad invited me back to the basement, instead of listening to side 2 of “Nevermind,” I returned and plopped down on the white couch, watching my brothers play Turbo-Grafx 16. Soon, relatives and in-laws would be coming down from the Twin Cities to have our annual family get together. I would eat some turkey and cheesy potatoes with my aunts and uncles and cousins. For a few hours I would even feel a little bit of that magical Holiday Cheer. And when my grandma would ask how I liked my Hulk Hogan pillow, I would smile and tell her it’s perfect.