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29 November 2023

This year, all I want for Christmas is normality

My father will sit, happy and well, at the centre of my family’s celebrations. And that is all that matters.

By Pippa Bailey

My longest-running attempt at keeping a diary was made in primary school. It had a cover that was at once padded, holographic and furry, like a baby sensory book, and came with a fluffy pen and, crucially, a padlock – the key to which I lost within weeks, my deepest secrets fated to remain just that: secret. This column is the closest I have come to writing a diary since – the only record that exists of what preoccupied my mind in a particular moment.

This is, somehow, my final entry of 2023 – and so in preparation for writing it, I looked back over the columns I penned in Decembers gone by. Last year, I wrote about how I hated Christmas and was swearing off all traditional celebrations and flying alone to Bali, to spend the remainder of 2022 in the sun among the backpackers and monkeys. “And if it is a disaster and I spend a sad Christmas alone,” I wrote, “I will approach a return to normal proceedings next year with newfound gratitude.”

[See also: If only I still had the desk my father made me, my magnum opus would be written by now]

Well, what a disaster it proved to be – and not just because I really should have taken the guide books’ warnings about “rainy season” more seriously than I did. On the day I landed in Ubud, my father was diagnosed with leukaemia. The earliest flight home I could get was on Boxing Day, and so – as planned – I spent Christmas Day alone in a bougie suite with a private pool, crying – which was not as planned.

The hotel, unable to grasp that there could really just be one person in a hotel room on Christmas Day, whatever the booking form said, gave me as a gift two gingerbread biscuits and two bottled cocktails. I sat in a towelling robe and ate and drank them both in quick succession, barely registering their flavour, as I watched raindrops break the surface of the pool outside. And then I rang my dad in his hospital bed.

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So yes, in summary, I spent a sad Christmas alone. This December, as I enter the festive season with my usual level of Scrooge-like wariness, I am trying to remember the second half of that sentence: my pledge to “approach a return to normal proceedings next year with newfound gratitude”.

I worried last year, as I packed my bags for more tropical climes, that I might be missing one of my grandparents’ last Christmases; it never occurred to me that it might be my father’s last. Thanks to the wonders of medical science – our very own Christmas miracle – it wasn’t. This year, my father will sit, happy and well, at the centre of my family’s celebrations, small and unconventional as they may be. And that is all that matters.

I have not written much of the long months of treatment and hospital visits that dominated the first half of this year – though the eagle-eyed among you will have noticed that my father wrote his own account of them in this magazine, in the issue to mark the NHS’s 75th anniversary – nor of the other life-changing situation that developed in tandem.

I met M— in a pub near the New Statesman office three weeks to the day after landing back in the UK. I approached this first meeting with no great sense of anticipation – not because he didn’t appear from his Hinge messages to be a stand-up guy, but because dating suddenly seemed the least important thing in the world. I went only because we’d been messaging for so long it would have been rude not to. Evidence at last of what my mother always told me: it pays to be polite.

It was, looking back, a disorientating experience to have the very worst thing you can imagine and the very best thing you can imagine happen almost simultaneously; to balance the softly-softly of getting to know someone with the crushing heft of some of life’s biggest emotions.

I always hated it when, speaking of romance, my married friends would tell me, “It will happen when you least expect it.” What a passive piece of advice! You might as well be Snow White, lying back and singing: “Someday my prince will come.” And yet there was some truth in it, in the end. Just when I stopped striving to find him, there he was.

Thank you for reading this year, as ever. I wish you all a very happy Christmas, however you choose to spend it, and I hope that where there is darkness, there is also light.

[See also: Three years on from lockdowns, I have finally tested positive for Covid]

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This article appears in the 29 Nov 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Being Jewish Now