One summer, our friend Barney sent free passes to us for Moody Gardens in Galveston. It was our first time to visit, and we saw everything there was to see – the pyramids, the Colonel paddlewheel boat, the movies – all of it. Of course, I could’ve spent all day watching the penguins - James Bond birds who take their sushi martinis “shaken, not stirred.”
A couple of months later, we won a trip to Moody Gardens from a local company. We knew nothing of the contest; they simply threw customers’ names into a raffle drawing. When a woman from the company called to congratulate us, I told her to give the trip to someone else because we had just gone.
"That's so nice of you. Are you sure you don't want it?"
"I'm sure. Give it to someone who needs it."
"Okay," she said, hesitantly. "I will.”
“What does the trip include?” I asked, purely out of curiosity.
“It includes admission to all of the pyramids, all the attractions, and a one-night hotel stay."
"What? Did you say hotel stay?" I exclaimed.
"Yes, this includes one night in the Moody Gardens Hotel."
"Oh my gosh,” I screamed, “I didn't know there was a hotel stay. My son loves hotels more than anything. We'll take it."
Charity may begin at home, and in situations involving places we’ve already been, but it comes to a screeching halt at the threshold of a hotel lobby. That lovely woman on the phone laughed, as she told me about the additional $500 allowance we would be given for meals, etc. We went on Flash's birthday, which was also opening night for Moody Gardens Festival of Lights, when Santa Claus literally drops in to greet hundreds of excited kids.
We planned our trip without Cowboy’s knowing. But, because he’s our directionally gifted child, somehow he knew after a few minutes of driving that we were going to Galveston. As we got closer, I decided I would do some acceptable lying – lying that’s permitted on holidays and birthdays and for any kind of surprises.
“Cowboy, do you want to go eat?”
He nodded his head.
We chose Tortuga Mexican Kitchen on the seawall, where we could sit outside and look at the beach. He had no idea our suitcases were in the trunk, packed for a weekend. Before we got out of the car, he pointed in the direction of Moody Gardens. Even during our lunch, he kept glancing in that direction.
“Not today, Cowboy,” I said. “We’re just going to hang out in Galveston today.”
Who was I fooling? He was probably thinking, Mom, give it a rest. I’ve got the whole thing figured out.
True to form, as soon as we started driving again to some made up destination, he started spelling Moody Gardens in sign language. As we got closer, I said, “Okay, we’ll go for a while.” My son indulged me, waiting patiently for me to give up the charade. Since we’d never spent the night there before, that would be the best surprise of all.
When we parked the car, I was trembling with excitement as Flash said, “Cowboy, we’re going to spend the night in the hotel.” We were bubbly. But cool and calm Cowboy was nonchalant about the whole thing, as he got out of the car, pointed to the hotel, and made a beeline to the lobby.
“Surely he didn’t know this part,” I said to Flash, bewildered. Cowboy had been at school when our arrangements had been made, and we never discussed it within earshot.
The lobby was beautifully decorated for Christmas; it was then that Cowboy began squealing with delight. He couldn’t wait to get to the real reason we were there - the most important amenities when we choose hotels - the pool and hot tub.
After dropping off our luggage in the room, we began our reconnaissance mission to check out the water temperature, for the sake of Cowboy’s parents. It was, after all, November. Thankfully, their idea of a heated pool was also our idea of a heated pool, and the hot tub water flowed into the pool, too. We quickly headed back to the room to change into our swimsuits; Cowboy went from dressed to naked in three seconds, and the door to the hallway closed just in the nick of time, as I bellowed, “Change in the bathroom, Cowboy.”
Two hours later, it was time to get dressed in our Christmas garb and walk to the open field adjacent to the back parking lot; it was crawling with kids aged from 1 to 92. You could feel the electricity in the air, and when Santa’s plane came into sight, all necks stretched toward the heavens in search of old St. Nick.
Finally, the plane began circling. For what seemed an eternity, we watched and waited. Then two specks came down from the sky. They got bigger and bigger as they parachuted down, then the two elves landed right in front of us. Next, a third figure dropped from the plane; the Man in Red soon landed, to the sound of thunderous applause and screams of delight. I had the same feeling I get when I watch It’s a Wonderful Life. My heart was full.
As we entered Moody Gardens, Cowboy immediately spotted the Arctic Slide. After climbing a short stairway to the top of the “hill,” he slid down an icy incline on an inner tube. Each of my “Want to go again?” questions was met with a nod; I lost count of how many times my young boy and my old boy indulged.
Next, we strolled through the Festival of Lights, down a long pathway of lighted trees and wire sculptures. Eventually, we came to a wide place in the sidewalk, where a nativity scene was set up. As a recorded voice told the story of Jesus’s birth, different scenes of the story illuminated. It brought tears to my eyes to see such a non-politically-correct display of the reason we celebrate Christmas. After such a long stroll, we made our way to an area where we could sit down and rest while drinking hot chocolate, roasting marshmallows over an open fire pit, and eating typical festival food such as kettle corn and sausage on a stick.
Best of all, at the end of the night, we went back to our room to collapse, instead of fighting traffic to drive home. My heart was fuller than my stomach. All three of us climbed into one bed for a “Cowboy sandwich” – we put him between us and hugged and kissed him like crazy. He fell asleep, while Flash and I watched A Christmas Story. Looking out the window at the lit pyramids was a perfect picture that exemplified a perfect day.
The next morning, we began our day with a complimentary breakfast outside, then a cruise on The Colonel. Like our first visit to Moody Gardens, we saw everything. As evening came, we ended our trip with a 4D-cinema Ice Age short film, complete with wind blowing, water spraying, seats vibrating, and smells. When one of the woolly mammoths sneezed, it sprayed us, and Cowboy wiped his forehead off with a disgusted look on his face. When he was sufficiently pooped out, we drove home.
Each year, we return to the Festival of Lights. And most years, we go on opening day, to see Santa drop in. But this year, my grief over losing Mom worsened when November came. I had trouble focusing on anything, and mostly wanted to be home by my Christmas tree. But, for the sake of Cowboy’s holiday season, we went to opening day again, in mid-November. I was simply going through the motions. Until the elves landed on that patch of grass in front of me. Excitedly, Cowboy, Flash, and I looked up into the sky, waiting for the main attraction to pay us a visit. At the moment Santa’s feet hit the ground, my tears started. All of us in that crowd - anticipating, watching the children’s faces, greeting each other with smiles and well wishes – it was the Magic of Christmas in action. My heart was full.
Last week, as I came home from work one evening feeling that familiar emptiness, I suddenly heard sirens nearby. My concern that a wreck had occurred, quickly faded as I realized the blaring had gone on for several minutes, and was slowly approaching. I ran inside the house, screaming, “Flash, Cowboy, get your shoes on. Santa Claus is coming.”
Both of them quickly got ready and joined me outside. The only neighbors we saw were two that live across from us – both adults.
“It never gets old, does it?” I asked them.
“No,” they said, as they shook their heads.
As patrol cars escorted the fire truck around our corner, I said, “Wave, Cowboy, here he comes.” Then I turned to Flash and yelled, “Santa! I know him! I know him!” as I quoted Elf.
As Mr. Kringle tossed candy and bubblegum to Cowboy, my tears started. My moments with Santa this year were just what I’d needed during my first Christmas season without Mom. Many times during the year, my tears have been often, and at the strangest moments. Even in the midst of happy occasions, I haven’t always felt fully present; I’ve been in a funk, even while remembering good moments shared with her.
But, as Santa drove away, my tears were joyful. Once again, my heart was full. As we walked into the house, I felt like George Bailey when he runs through the streets of town, after getting his second chance at life. Everything’s going to be okay, I thought. I’m going to be okay. And I will. Because joy is a gift that always shows up in the nick of time, breaking up my melancholy, and making me more grateful.
And often, joy wears a bright red suit.