THE SPACE BETWEEN US HAD WIDENED. Years ago, reaching my hand to her waist beneath the sheets, she would have instinctively backed her body into mine, grasping my arm and entwining it around her. She often initiated what came next. But I couldn’t remember the last time I tested her willingness. It’d been so long that I no longer thought about trying. Invisible walls partitioned off our thoughts, our desires, our communication. Neither of us wanted it that way. It had just happened.
Christmas was only two weeks away, putting more pressure on our strained marriage. The holiday music, the cheery TV ads, and the constant efforts to raise expectations were unbearable.
Holidays were for couples with children, for families. My brother and sister-in-law both had families, but they lived more than 500 miles away. It had been eight years since we’d watched their kids open presents on Christmas morning. It was a scene that had brought more resentment than joy to me and my wife.
Approaching 40, we hadn’t discussed having children for years. We’d tried everything medically available and financially affordable, but nothing had worked. Initially, we clung to each other for support, then to our careers. Now, I didn’t know what we were clinging to–maybe a faint hope.
WE MET 15 YEARS AGO at a frat party. She was a junior and I was a fifth-year senior, hanging onto a basketball scholarship. College had become passé. I’d seen it all, or so I’d thought.
A shapely redhead in a formfitting sweater was seated across the table from her date, an innocuous-looking guy wearing khakis and a white button-down shirt that poked through his crewneck pullover. He was dressed more for a church social than a Friday night party. It was the absurdity of their togetherness that first drew my attention.
I waited until he stepped away and then walked to her table.
“Hi. I’m John Roberts. Have we met before?” I asked with my hand extended.
She smiled, but in a patronizing sort of way.
“Surely you can come up with something better than that,” she replied after a pause intended to put me on the defensive.
“You’ve been gawking at me and my date since we arrived. You know perfectly well we’ve never met, but you thought I’d be impressed by a big-shot ballplayer.”
Sexy and sassy, I liked what I saw and heard, and at least she knew I played basketball.
“Okay, you’re right. We haven’t met. How about you give me a better opening line and let me try again?”
She smiled, this time offering her hand.
“I’m Claire Wilson, and any honest approach works best with me.”
I thought briefly about a better introduction.
“Okay. . . I’m John Roberts, and I’ve been wondering what a beautiful girl like you is doing at a party with her pastor.” My sarcastic retort worked. Claire shared a smile that altered my life.
She was on a blind date that wasn’t going well. Before her date returned to the table, I was able to find out where she lived and get her phone number. I excused myself, repeating her number under my breath.
Our first date was the following weekend, and I was immediately under her spell. Her beauty and sassy confidence had initially drawn me to her, but her wit, kindness, and natural curiosity were equally captivating.
She dictated the pace and direction of our relationship from the beginning. We became best friends, then fell in love, and then formed an unspoken bond. We never dated anyone else again.
I shared a two-story house with three basketball teammates. We each had our own bedroom and bathroom, but the rest of the house was communal living. Two months after our first date, Claire moved in. Somehow it worked. The guys gave Claire her space, and she did her best to ignore their juvenile behavior.
Neither of us had lived with anyone before, but we adjusted quickly. The arrangement was more than friends with benefits, but we both enjoyed the benefits.
MY ROOMMATES HAD GONE home early on Christmas break, but I decided to stay at school. Claire had plans to visit her parents and purchased tickets for a flight departing on Christmas Eve. That morning, I loaded her bag in the trunk of the taxi and gave her a long farewell kiss. Misty-eyed, she slipped into the back seat and sped away.
The night before, we’d exchanged gifts. She gave me a leather wallet, and laughed about how she hoped I’d have a need for it someday. I gave her a hinged picture frame with a photo of Claire and me on one side. The other side had a simple note that read, Future Family Photo. At the time, she found it extremely romantic. Looking back, I often felt it might have jinxed our chances.
IT TOOK AN EXTRA SEMESTER to complete my degree requirements, so Claire and I ended up graduating together. My degree was in business management and hers in chemistry. Deeply in love and deeper in debt, we married soon after graduation.
Claire went to pharmacy school, while I ventured into the corporate world, getting a job with Arthur Andersen in its business consulting group. We were poor, but optimistic about our future. With an aging population, the need for pharmacists in the U.S. was high. Claire hoped the demands of the profession would be reasonable, allowing time for a family at some point.
As a “green bean” consultant at Andersen, I traveled hither and yon, assigned to consulting contracts across the U.S. I hated being away from Claire, but we stayed focused on our goals and on each other. In the long run, our work and commitment was worth it. We paid off our student debt, bought a home with plenty of room for the future, and settled into a community fit for a family.
The only plan that didn’t come to fruition was the family. After thirteen years of marriage, we lived alone.
NOT COMPLETELY AWAKE, I sipped my morning coffee and stared out the kitchen window to our wooded backyard.
It was the kind of morning I loved as a kid. Snow had fallen throughout the night. Large flakes continued floating down, but more gently. A six-inch blanket covered everything–the patio, the lawn furniture, the firewood stacked beside the garage, and the backyard hill that fell gradually toward a ravine that wound its way between the row of homes along its bank.
It was a hill I’d hoped to someday sled with my kids atop a blanket of snow like the one that had fallen last night.
“You’re up early for a Saturday,” Claire said matter-of-factly as she shuffled into the kitchen in her robe and slippers. “You have plans this morning?”
Claire’s auburn hair and blue eyes stood out in sharp contrast to her white robe and the bright, snow-covered morning. Regardless of the recent stress between us, I never tired of waking to her beauty.
“No, not really, but look out there,” I said, turning back to the window. “It’s quite a view this morning.”
She came to stand beside me. I’d hoped for a hug or a peck on my cheek, but none came. I leaned down and kissed the top of her head.
“Looks like someone has some shoveling to do,” she teased, before heading toward the coffee pot.
“Say, I’ve got a better idea. You know those snow saucers we bought when your nephews were here a few years ago? Why don’t we get them down from the attic and give that hill a try?”
Claire looked at me as if I’d suggested something illegal. “Are you serious? I recommend you leave the hill to the neighborhood kids.” She poured a cup of coffee and returned to the bedroom to read.
Even a new-fallen snow, two weeks before Christmas, couldn’t bring the holiday spirit into our home. It was going to be another season of going through the motions: putting up the tree, sending out the cards, going to the obligatory company parties.
I WAITED FOR THE SNOW to stop falling before going to the bedroom closet to drag out my snow-shoveling attire: thermal underwear, insulated socks, waterproof snow pants and a fleece-lined vest. I also had an Elmer Fudd, flaps-over-the-ears, plaid hat that Claire had bought as a joke during better marital times, but this wasn’t a day for levity.
I liked shoveling snow. The task was well-defined, void of a deadline. I methodically worked my way from the top of the driveway down to the bottom by plowing a line of snow from one side to the other. It required a mindless energy, which was something I could provide.
It was a dry, powdery snow–the kind that didn’t stick to the shovel and was perfect for sledding with snow saucers. Maybe I’ll try one later, I thought.
I was about to finish clearing the sidewalk when I noticed a brown and white, floppy-eared dog making its way up the driveway. He was shivering, caked with snow. I knew most of the kids in the neighborhood and their pets, and I didn’t remember ever seeing this lonely-eyed spaniel.
He stopped and stared briefly as if awaiting my reaction before slipping into the garage and huddling in the far corner on a doormat. I looked around for anyone who might be following him, but the dog was alone. The sun was low in the sky, and my thermal underwear was losing the battle against the subfreezing breeze that had sprung up. I headed to the garage to check out the newcomer.
He sat up when he heard me hang the shovel on the wall. I held out my hand, palm up, and called calmly, “Come here, boy.”
He stood, ears perked, but didn’t approach. I took a step toward him. He shuffled a few steps toward the door and then stopped to see if I’d continue.
“Come here, boy,” I tried again, this time kneeling to his level. He didn’t budge.
I left the garage door open and went inside to get some warm milk and find something a 30-pound spaniel might find tasty. It took a couple minutes to take off my boots and snow pants in the utility room. By the time I warmed the milk and found some lunch meat, he’d disappeared.
I lowered the garage door, leaving a gap at the bottom in case he returned, and left the milk and meat where he’d been lying.
“Did you fix your own dinner?” Claire asked, seeing me put the milk and lunch meat back into the refrigerator.
“No. A lost dog stopped by while I was shoveling. He looked cold and hungry so I warmed some milk for him, but he took off before I was able to feed him.”
“I’m sure he belongs to one of the neighbors. He probably just got confused with all the snow,” she replied.
“Yeah, maybe. But I haven’t seen him before. I hope he finds his way home. There’s a stiff breeze kicking up and it’s headed to the teens tonight.”
I reached for a can of soup from the cupboard when Claire suggested, “If you’ll make a fire, I’ll round up some homemade chili for dinner.”
“Oh, sure. That’s sounds like a great plan.”
Claire’s upbeat tone and the slight twinkle in her eye caught me off guard. Maybe the December snow was lifting her spirits after all.
FOLLOWING DINNER, Claire and I retired to the family room. We each grabbed a book and took seats at our favorite spots across from the fire, she at the end of the sofa, me in my chair next to her, separated by an end table and a lamp that we shared.
After reading for fifteen minutes, I set my book on the end table.
“I’m gonna see if that dog might be out there.” Claire glanced up as I left the room, but went back to reading.
I cracked open the door to the garage without turning on the lights, not wanting to frighten our visitor if he’d returned. The milk and meat were gone, but I couldn’t see the dog. I opened the door and walked into the garage. He was curled tightly between two boxes on the other side of the car, his head on his paws.
Not wanting to risk the wayward canine running back out into the cold, I crept back toward the house, hit the remote, and closed the gap at the bottom of the garage door. The thud of the door hitting the cold concrete startled the sleeping spaniel, and he scurried to a far corner of the garage, hiding behind a stack of boxes.
Claire heard the commotion and walked toward me through the utility room. “What’s going on?”
“My friend has returned. If he has a home, he wasn’t able to find it tonight.”
“Where is he?”
“Back there, behind those boxes.”
Claire stepped onto the frigid garage floor in her slippers and walked toward the spaniel. His head was down and his ears were limp as he sheepishly watched her approach. “Come here, boy. Let’s get you out of this spooky, cold garage.”
She held out her hands and crept closer. Surprisingly, the dog didn’t attempt to escape. Claire bent down and stroked the top of his head. He sat and studied her for several seconds while she continued to win his trust. Finally, he stood, his tail wagging slowly.
“Come on, let’s get you into the house and warm you up.”
Claire backed out of the garage and the dog followed. He hesitated at the stair into the utility room, but then scampered to catch up to Claire, who was calling him from the kitchen.
I grabbed some old beach towels to dry him off while Claire warmed another bowl of milk. The spaniel kept a watchful eye on me as I returned. He clearly preferred Claire’s attention over mine. Still, after finishing the milk and gobbling up a few leftover meatballs, he relaxed and allowed me to dry him.
I made a makeshift bed out of several towels in front of the fire, and Claire coaxed him to lie down. After he’d dried off, it was obvious he wasn’t a stray. His coat lay smooth and unmatted. He was fit and bright-eyed, showing no signs of a life on the streets.
“He doesn’t have a collar, but he’s comfortable in the house. He must belong to someone,” Claire said as she sat beside him, patting his head.
“Yeah. I imagine someone’s missing him tonight, but there’s not much we can do now. I’ll check with the county shelter in the morning to see if anyone’s reported him missing. ‘Til then, I guess we have a houseguest.”
The spaniel had moved closer to Claire, placing his front legs across her lap, resting his head on her thigh. She held him with one hand and stroked his back with the other. With the crackling fire and Christmas tree in the background, the scene brought warmth I hadn’t felt in years.
“John, would you run to the Circle K and see if they have any dog food?” Claire asked, her eyes not leaving the spaniel. “He’ll be hungry in the morning, and I’m not sure leftovers are good for a dog.”
I CALLED THE SHELTER the next morning and reported finding a brown and white spaniel mix, approximately 30 pounds, friendly, with no collar. It was Sunday and they were short-staffed, so they suggested I bring a photo of the dog on Monday.
Two more days passed with no word from the shelter or animal control. Claire was becoming more and more attached to the dog. She’d even named him Frosty, reflecting his snow-packed condition the night we found him. I thought it a poor name for a dog, but wouldn’t dare say so.
I loved seeing Claire care for Frosty. Our pantry now contained more dog food than human food. I never thought a pet could possibly make a difference in our relationship, but it had. He filled what had been long periods of silence and unease with tail-wagging activity and affection. While I feared Claire becoming too attached to Frosty, I also didn’t want it to end. Her smile had returned.
“It’s been three days and no one’s come forward. How long before we can keep him?” she asked.
It wasn’t a question that had an answer, at least not one Claire wanted. I knew someone could claim him tomorrow or a month from now. Either way, we’d have to give him up.
“We’ll just have to wait and see,” was all I could offer.
ANOTHER WEEK PASSED with no inquiries about the spaniel. Claire had purchased a bed for Frosty, and he’d slept in it several nights beside her on the floor. He’d wait until the morning sun crept around the curtains before jumping onto our bed and waking Claire with kisses from his moist, velvet tongue. She never objected.
CHRISTMAS CAROLS PLAYED loudly in the living room as Claire added to the holiday decorations in preparation for a neighborhood gathering tomorrow evening. She hummed along as she rearranged the garland atop the mantel.
“John, could you take Frosty outside? He’s at the front door.”
Poop patrol had become my duty. I’d even shoveled off a patch of grass in the front yard so Frosty could find the scent necessary to speed up the process.
I pulled on my coat before slipping the makeshift leash over his head that I’d fashioned from a rope I found in the garage. I followed Frosty to the open space in the yard.
The process had become routine. I wasn’t paying much attention when Frosty’s ears perked and he spun toward the sound of children playing in the distance. Before I could react, he pulled the leash tight and backed out of the loop around his neck.
With a dog-less leash in my hand, I frantically called, “Frosty! Frosty, come!” He didn’t turn or even slow down. He was a block away before I made it to the end of the driveway. I wasn’t dressed for a long chase in the snow, so I ran inside.
“Claire, Frosty’s run off!”
I pulled on my boots and was reaching for my hat and gloves before Claire came to the back door.
“What? What happened?” she asked, panic in her voice.
“He pulled out of the leash and ran off. I think he heard some kids.”
“I’ll go with you,” she said, reaching for her coat.
“You’d better stay here in case he returns. I’ll scan the area from the car.”
She didn’t want to stay, but my suggestion made sense. “Okay,” she finally replied.
The streets were plowed, but remained snow-packed. I had to stay focused on keeping the car under control as I peered between houses and down alleyways. Several children were building snow forts and sledding, but there was no sign of Frosty. I canvased the nearby streets several times before heading home an hour later. I dreaded bringing Claire the bad news.
“I couldn’t find him anywhere, Claire. Hopefully he’s run back home.”
A tear ran down Claire’s cheek as she softly said, “But this is Frosty’s home.”
She wrapped her arms around me and buried her head into my shoulder. It was the longest hug I could recall sharing with Claire. I wished it had been for a better reason.
CLAIRE GATHERED HIS FOOD, toys, and bed, and put them in a box in the garage before the neighbors arrived. She didn’t want anyone asking questions about Frosty, fearing she wouldn’t be able to explain and maintain control of her emotions.
The neighborhood Christmas gathering felt more like a wake than a holiday celebration. It had been over 24 hours since Frosty ran off. I searched for him again that afternoon with no results. Fortunately, the temperature had risen, providing a better chance for his survival had he still not found shelter.
The neighbors had departed, but we decided to wait until morning to begin the cleanup.
“Do you think he made it home?” Claire asked as we walked to the bedroom.
“I’m sure he did. He’s pretty resourceful.”
She thought for a second before reaching to kiss my cheek.
Frosty had been with us less than two weeks, but he’d somehow brought a glimmer of light to our marriage. Now gone, I feared his influence would diminish quickly.
BRIGHT SUNLIGHT SPLASHED into the bedroom on Christmas Eve day, seeming to ignore our sadness.
Claire and I had agreed not to exchange gifts again this year, but given the situation, I needed to at least try to cheer her up. After breakfast, I planned a trip to the mall to pick up a bracelet by her favorite designer.
“I’m going to make another pass of the neighborhood,” I told Claire as I prepared to leave. The mall was about five miles away. Even with last-minute holiday traffic, I expected to return before lunch.
“Sure,” she replied, her expectations low.
I drove past the Circle K where I’d picked up Frosty’s dog food. It was hard not to think of him every time I passed.
I continued down suburban streets for another mile. Traffic was picking up as I approached the commercial shopping district where a group of children was playing in front of a sprawling, two-story home. I’d driven past the gate-enclosed building many times, but had never paid it attention.
I slowed to read the sign on the gate: Reed’s Foster Home – Est. 1945. As I was about to continue to the mall, a small girl and a dog came running out the front door to join the other children.
Could it be?
My pulse quickened as I turned the corner and drove around the block for another look. This time I parked outside the gate.
As I stepped onto the expansive yard, the dog turned toward me. Before I’d taken another step, he broke from the pack of kids, barking wildly and running in my direction. It was Frosty, and he was thrilled to see me, but only slightly less than I was to see him.
I reached down and rubbed his head between my hands. He jumped back and then bowed down on both legs, challenging me to chase him. I faked a move in his direction, and he scurried back to join the pack of kids.
The small girl I’d seen earlier approached me with Frosty at her heels. She was no more than five. With blue eyes and light auburn pigtails, she was wearing an off-white stocking hat and hand-me-down coat that had outlived its use.
“Hi, I’m Audrey. This is Rascal.”
A much better name for a dog, I thought.
“Hi, Audrey. My name is John Roberts. I’m pleased to meet you.”
She studied me for several seconds.
“Did Rascal bring you here?” she asked.
Her question was seriously posed, expecting a serious answer. I wondered how she could possibly know.
“Why do you ask?”
“I told him to find me a family for Christmas. He ran away for a long time, but he’s been back several days. I expected you’d come soon.”
“Audrey! Please come in,” a stout, older woman with white hair called from the front door.
“Coming, Ms. Reed,” she called back, before looking up to me with a broad smile.
“Please, Mr. Roberts. Ms. Reed needs to meet you.”
Dumbfounded, I didn’t know what to say, but thought I should at least explain my presence to Ms. Reed. Audrey grabbed my hand and led me to the massive, stone-clad home.
“Ms. Reed, this is Mr. Roberts. I told Rascal to find me a family for Christmas, and he brought Mr. Roberts to me,” Audrey said. Rascal sat alertly at her heels, his ears erect, seeming to understand.
Unfazed by Audrey’s introduction, Ms. Reed extended her hand. “I’m pleased to meet you, Mr. Roberts. My husband and I are foster parents to Audrey and eight other children here at Reed’s Home.”
“It’s good to meet you, and please call me John. I really don’t know where to start, but in a way Audrey’s correct.”
Taking advantage of my pause, Audrey jumped in. “See, Ms. Reed. Rascal did bring Mr. Roberts here!”
Ms. Reed grabbed Audrey’s hand. “Audrey it’s not polite to interrupt.”
“About two weeks ago, following the large snowfall, I was out shoveling my drive when I discovered Rascal, or maybe he discovered me,” I explained. “He was caked with snow and sought refuge in my garage. My wife and I gave him food and a warm bed for the evening, and I called the shelter the next morning to report finding him. We didn’t hear back, so he lived with us until he ran off a few days ago. We’ve been looking for him ever since.”
“I knew Rascal was missing,” Ms. Reed replied, “but Audrey didn’t seem alarmed, so I didn’t report it. I figured he’d turn up eventually.”
“I wasn’t afraid. I knew he was searching for my family,” Audrey said, smiling.
“Thanks for taking care of him. You’re welcome to come visit Rascal any time you’d like, Mr. Roberts,” Ms. Reed offered.
“Visit?” Audrey asked. “What do you mean? Rascal and I are going with Mr. Roberts. Christmas is tomorrow.” Audrey stepped toward me and looked up with her dark blue eyes. “Right, Mr. Roberts?”
Her image was strikingly similar to Claire’s–the auburn hair, the blue eyes, the smile that made the rest of the room seem to dim. The charming five-year-old stole my heart as quickly as Claire had done 15 years earlier.
“Come on, Audrey. You take Rascal up to your room,” Ms. Reed said, pulling Audrey back from me. Tears welled in Audrey’s eyes, and she ran off, failing to hold back her sobs.
“Ms. Reed, would it be possible?”
“Would what be possible?”
“For my wife and me to share Christmas with Audrey and Rascal at our home.”
“Mr. Roberts, I can’t let Audrey get her hopes up. She already thinks Rascal has picked you to be her new family. If she were to spend Christmas with you, how could she ever accept coming back here to a house she shares with ten other people?”
“Maybe she wouldn’t have to come back. Are there conditions or complications that would prevent us from adopting Audrey?”
“Mr. Roberts, you’re acting quite hastily.”
“Ms. Reed, I’m very serious. Are there complications?”
“Well, no. But the process takes time. There are background checks, home visits, and tons of paperwork to submit.”
“My wife and I have already lost too much time. We’re financially secure and are caring and giving people. I can provide a dozen references: pastors, doctors, professors, whoever you need. Please let us spend Christmas with Audrey.”
“I love that little girl,” she said, staring me down, “and I won’t stand for her being disappointed. You’d better be one hundred percent certain. There’s no turning around once we start down this path.”
It was the longest pause I could remember.
“It may cost me my license, but I’ll see what I can do.”
She pulled out a drawer from a desk in the front hall. “Here’s our card. Call me around six. I’ll let you know.”
I wrapped my arms around her and planted a kiss on her chubby cheek. “You’re about to make three people very happy, Ms. Reed.”
I HAD NO EXPERIENCE or point of reference, but I bought every gift I thought a five-year-old girl might want. I’d become so absorbed that I almost forgot the bracelet for Claire.
I called Ms. Reed on my way home. I held my breath as the phone rang three times.
“It’s John Roberts. Please tell me you have good news.”
“I can’t have it done tonight, but I’ll bring Audrey and Rascal to your home in the morning around nine o’clock.”
“You’re an angel, Ms. Reed, an absolute angel! We’ll be waiting.”
I WENT IMMEDIATELY TO THE living room and started arranging the presents. We’d never had so many gifts under our tree.
“What in the world are you doing, and where have you been all afternoon? I was about ready to give up on dinner.”
I hadn’t even noticed the dining table was set with our finest silver and china. The lights were turned low, allowing the table’s candles to set a romantic mood.
“Sorry, I’m late, but I’m sure you’ll understand in the morning. I can hardly wait.”
“Wait for what? And what’s with all these presents? We don’t exchange gifts.”
“Please trust me until tomorrow,” I urged. “I’m going to clean up and then I’ll open the wine.”
Claire shared a wry smile as I escaped to get ready for dinner.
AS EXCITED AS A SEVEN-YEAR-OLD boy anticipating his first train set, I tossed and turned for hours that night. I didn’t remember falling asleep, but I awoke with my arm around Claire’s waist. I slowly pulled back the covers, slipped out my side of the bed, and went to prepare my surprise.
Minutes later, I was downstairs pouring coffee when Claire appeared in her red plaid Christmas pajamas, wrapped snuggly in her white fleece robe.
“Merry Christmas, Claire.”
“Okay, I waited all night. Now tell me. What have you been up to?”
I set our coffee on the table in front of the sofa. “Please. Come sit down,” I said, patting the cushion. I retrieved a small, wrapped box and returned to her side.
“Open this first,” I said, handing Claire the gift.
She slowly pulled the ribbon loose and peeled back the wrapping. She turned to me, eyes wide, after recognizing the contents.
“It’s the picture frame from my dresser drawer.”
She slowly pried it open. Her hands trembled when she saw the two photos. Our 15-year-old picture remained on one side, but I had replaced the writing on the other side with a picture Ms. Reed had given me the day before.
“What’s this mean? Who’s the little girl with Frosty?”
“Like it said before, it’s our future family . . . and the future begins today.” Before I could explain further, the doorbell rang.
“Come on. I want you to meet someone.” Claire set the picture frame on the coffee table, and I took her hand as we walked to the front door.
As the door cracked open, Rascal pushed through, scampering into the living room. I introduced Ms. Reed, but Claire’s eyes immediately locked onto Audrey, ignoring everything else around her. Audrey stared back at Claire, at first inspecting and then beaming.
Claire knelt down to eye level with Audrey and reached slowly to remove her stocking hat, revealing her red pigtails. “How lovely you are. What’s your name?” Claire asked.
“My name is Audrey. Are you my new mommy?”
Claire looked up at me through moist eyes. I nodded.
“Yes, Audrey. I am.”