Clearly, it was a sign.
As the burly man loaded our Black Hills spruce on top of the car, he winced as the needles pierced through his gloves and into his thick, calloused fingers. “Them heres angry trees,” he said, rubbing his hands together. “Dey never want to be chopped down in the first place.”
I stared at the tree on the roof of the car. An angry tree. It’s blue branches shining in the 80-degree sun, drooping over the back of the window, while the large man in dirty overalls weaved the strap through its branches. The tree seemed to gasp as the rope tightened around its midsection, a captive tortured in the name of merriment. I turned towards my husband and whispered a question about a tip for the tree man, but my husband shrugged and mouthed, “No cash.” Angry tree. Angry tree man.
This is the third year we’ve declined to travel to Kentucky, my home state, for the holidays. In the past, it was a regular tradition for my husband and me: a 15-hour car trip to Louisville for Thanksgiving, followed by a 15-hour car trip 3 weeks later for Christmas. It was taxing, not only on the humans, but on the canines who inevitably made the trip with us.
Three years ago, we broke with tradition and finally went to South Africa for Christmas. I had fun texting my family that Santa had flown by at midnight, while they were just sitting down for dinner. I don’t remember receiving much in the way of a response.
Last year, I dug my heels in. I counted the number of trips we had made to Kentucky and decided it was time to push for a little reciprocation. We would come for Thanksgiving, but not for Christmas. The family was welcome to come here. No one did.
Every part of that Christmas was bittersweet. We nicknamed the tree, a friendly Fraser, “Chrimmy,” and when the recycling truck came to pick him up, I watched from the front window with tears in my eyes. When my mom sent a package of gifts, I sobbed as I placed each carefully ribboned package under the branches of Chrimmy. But when we Skyped my family Christmas Eve, I distinctly remember looking at my husband as I closed the lid of the laptop and saying, “I’m so glad we stayed home.”
So this year, when decision time came, my husband and I concluded we couldn’t go to Kentucky for Christmas because our oldest dog, now 14 1/2, couldn’t make the trip, and the dog’s health was too poor to leave him with someone else.
Unfortunately, this was a premonition of things to come.
Three days before Christmas, our old dog had a dementia episode and got stuck in a corner. The next day, he stopped eating. Completely. Convinced he was going to die, I spent most of Christmas Eve crying over his furry body.
On Christmas Day, our younger dog took a bite out of the older one’s face, and we spent the evening, and several hundred dollars, at the emergency vet.
Three days later, we were back at the vet for an appetite stimulant. We fed our geriatric pup whatever he would eat.
And three hours into New Year’s Day, as we walked in the door from New Year’s Eve celebrations, everything he had eaten came out. Everywhere. All over the house.
A week later, the stitches are out. The old dog is eating dog food again, and we’ve rounded the corners he could get lost in. I no longer believe the dog is going to die at any moment, although his time is certainly coming.
And now, I hear the recycling truck outside my house. I don’t want to watch, but I pull myself up and walk to the window. The angry tree is already gone when I open the curtains. I feel the air flow over my lips in a sigh of relief.
Next year, I’m voting for Christmas in Venice.