Alexander Liebenstadt spread the newspaper out on the floor and studied it. He turned to the weather report. "Tonight, clear and cold," he read aloud. "Tomorrow, partly cloudy, chance of precipitation less than 10 percent."
"Aw, man," grumbled Alexander. "No snow."
He haphazardly folded up the paper and tossed it onto the coffee table, annoyed. Then he wandered into the kitchen. "Mom," he said, "the weather report says it's not gonna snow."
Alexander's mother was making Christmas cookies. She stood at the counter mixing flour and sugar and butter together in a large green bowl. She set the spoon down and turned toward her son. "Oh, I'm sorry Alex," she said. "I know you were hoping for a white Christmas, but I guess it's not going to happen this year. Maybe next year it'll snow."
Alex slumped down on one of the kitchen chairs. "But it never snows on Christmas! And Christmas is supposed to be snowy!"
"Now Alex, don't you remember? Just 2 years ago we had snow for Christmas. You can't expect to have it snow every year. Mother Nature doesn't follow our calenders."
"Oh, mom," whined Alexander, "I just-"
"Now look," his mom scolded, "there's nothing I can do to make it snow and whining at me won't change that. Now run along and play."
Alex grumbled to himself as he climbed down off the chair.
"Can I lick the bowls when your done?" asked Alexander, somewhat meekly.
As quickly as she'd become annoyed, his mom became generous. "Sure," she said. "In fact, here's a dollop for you now." And she handed Alexander a teaspoon full of raw cookie dough.
Alex licked dough off the spoon and said "When's Grandpa coming?"
"Your father went to pick him up at the airport," said his mom, between passes of her rolling pin. "They should be getting here any minute."
Just then, they heard voices and keys jiggling outside, the sounds of Alex's father and grandfather arriving. With the doughy teaspoon clutched in his sweaty hand, Alex ran to the front door, arriving just as the two men were setting down his grandfather's suitcases.
"Grandpa, Grandpa!" yelled Alex, racing to give the elderly man a hug. As he ran, the spoon slipped from his grasp and slid under the couch. (Months later, his mom would discover the spoon, with the dollop of dough fossilized and covered with dust.)
"Howdy, young Alex!" laughed the grandfather. But he then broke into a fit of coughing.
"Grandpa, what's wrong?" asked Alex. "Are you sick?"
"Grandad's just feeling a little under the weather," said Alex's father.
"Oh, it's nothing to worry about Alex," said Grandfather, "It's just a little cough."
Just as Alex was getting ready to ask a question, his mother walked in. She was drying her hands on a small towel, but when she saw Grandfather she tossed it onto the couch and ran to hug the old man. "Dad!" It was a laugh, a cry, and a shout all in one. She threw her arms around his neck and kissed him on the cheek. "How was the flight?"
"Dreadful," said Grandfather, "I was fussed over constantly by the stewardesses."
Alex's parents burst into laughter, and Grandfather grinned. Then Alex's mom took her father by the hand and led him away towards the dining room. "How about some coffee, Dad? I've got a pot brewing."
Grandfather smiled and nodded rapidly.
Mom turned back toward the hallway. "Dear? Could you take his suitcases upstairs?"
A voice echoed in the stairwell. "Already halfway there!"
Grandfather sat down at the dining room table. He sighed a long, heavy sigh, stretching his feet out under the table. "It feels good to rest my weary bones," he said quietly.
Alex stood at his elbow. He tugged on his grandfather's shirt-sleeve and said "Grandpa, when can we play a game of dominos?"
"Why, right now, young Alex!"
"Oh boy!" shouted Alex, and he bolted out of the room.
Mom came in with a mug of coffee and sat down next to Grandfather. She smiled. "It's so good to see you," she said.
Grandfather started to reply, but then broke into another fit of coughing. After a bit, he recovered his composure. "Well, it's great to be here," he said quietly. "But my doctor now says-" Grandfather stopped in mid-sentence, because Alex came tearing back into the room, clutching a bruised, old cardboard box.
He deposited this on the table, and then noticed that several dominos had escaped from the box through small holes in the seams, and he scurried back to recover them. While Alex was again absent, Grandfather leaned towards Alex's mom. "We'll talk about this more later."
Alex returned, climbed onto a chair, opened the old box, dumped the dominos out onto the table, and began turning them all over. These, by the way, were outstanding dominos. They were large and heavy, and made a satisfying "clunk" sound when set on the table. Instead of having dots that were just painted on, these dominos had deep depressions, so pronounced they must have been drilled out. The dots were filled in with black paint, paint that was slightly worn off in spots. Plus, the dominos had very rounded edges, so that one never had to encounter a sharp corner. They seemed to be made out of ivory... Were they real ivory? Alex didn't know, but he liked to think that they were.
They played several games over the hours that followed, despite many interruptions. Alex had four sisters, all older than he, and periodically, one or the other of them would return home from their day of Christmas shopping. And each time, Grandfather insisted on stopping the game to hug them and exclaim about how attractive they were becoming. And then of course, Mom came out and announced that dinner was ready and they had to stop for that. But ultimately, they played eight games, five of which Grandfather had won.
After dinner, Alex and his grandfather went to church. Their church had two services on Christmas Eve, the candlelight service, which started at midnight, and an early evening service that was geared towards the children. Last year, after much nagging and whining, Alex had been allowed to go to the candlelight service with his parents and older sisters. Unfortunately, he'd promptly fallen asleep in the pew, which meant that this year, he was back at the children's service.
When they returned,the family undertook the job of bringing out the Christmas gifts.
All through the house, on high shelves of closets and in secret nooks behind furniture, gifts had been stored and hidden away. Now it was time to bring the bounty forth and place it under the tree. The tree had been set up and decorated many days before, but no gifts had yet been set beneath it. This was always done on Christmas Eve.
Alex watched excitedly as the pile grew, amazed that so many gifts could have been hidden inside the house. He had of course been keeping an eye on the closets where he knew gifts were hidden, but the mound of presents that now appeared beneath the tree was far bigger than his research indicated it should have been. How many hiding places did his parents and sisters have?
It took a number of trips between the tree and the various rooms of the house before everyone's gifts had been brought out. Only then did Alex go to his room to collect up his presents. When he got back to the tree, his grandfather was there, setting down a number of small, carefully wrapped parcels.
"Well, young Alex," he said, "looks like quite a pile of goodies, here, eh?"
"You bet!" cried Alex. "I just can't wait until tomorrow!"
Grandfather laughed. "'Fraid you'll have to, youngster!"
"Yeah, I know," said Alex glumly.
"But it's nothing to be sad about," said Grandfather. "Waiting is part of the fun! Looking forward to something is often just as enjoyable as the something itself is!"
Alex looked at him quizzically.
"It's called anticipation," his grandfather continued. "Isn't it fun thinking about tomorrow, trying to guess what's inside those gifts, trying to imagine what tomorrow will be like?"
"OK then!" said Grandfather, who then broke into a fit of coughing. When he'd recovered, he said "You just sit here on the couch, and look at the tree, and think about tomorrow." He patted Alex on the back, and walked slowly into the kitchen.
There he found his daughter and her husband. Mom was sorting through a big pile of Christmas cards, and Dad was reading the newspaper. Grandad sat down and starting rummaging through the sections of the paper that were spread out on the kitchen table.
Mom looked at Grandad. Worry lines formed on her forehead. "So what's the latest word, Pop?"
Grandfather sighed. "Well, the big blue pills didn't help, and the little white ones give me stomach pains. My doctor says he wants to start me on something else next week, we'll see if that does any good."
Alex, still sitting in the living room, could hear the quiet rumblings of an adult conversation in the kitchen, and crept quietly into the dining room to eavesdrop.
"Of course, the drugs just help the symptoms," he heard his grandfather say. They were speaking very quietly. Alex strained to make out their words.
"Um... what are they saying these days, Pop? Um... you know, about time, you know, until-"
Grandad interrupted. "You mean, how long do they say I've got left?"
Mom nodded grimly.
Grandad sighed. "Six months," he said, very quietly. "Maybe a little more."
Alex heard the scrape of a kitchen chair sliding against the linoleum floor, indicating that someone was standing up. He quickly skulked back into the living room.
Six months? He thought to himself. What did that mean?
During the rest of the evening, mingled in with his excitement about the presents under the tree, was a nagging concern in Alex's brain. Six months? Did that mean Grandfather was going to die in six months? And each time he heard his grandfather cough, Alex became more concerned.
At ten o'clock Alex went to bed, but thoughts and worries kept him awake until almost midnight. His dreams that night were of gravestones, not sugarplums.