This year, my wife and I will experience what we’ve experienced for several years now: Getting to bed at a reasonable hour on Christmas Eve. All of our kids are grown, and only one still lives with us. Another thing we’ll get to do is sleep in. No one coming into our bedroom to wake us up, even when it’s still dark out.
Frankly, I have mixed feelings about this. I miss the barely containable excitement from my kids, and how they desperately opened gifts, as if freeing a trapped animal.
What I do not miss is the desperation I felt putting together, building, assembling, or blowing up the big-ticket items. That’s right — blowing up, as in to inflate.
For Christmas, when my daughter was a toddler, we bought an inflatable
bounce house. She loved — LOVED — those things, even though the static electricity would wreak havoc on her, and leave her looking like a dandelion with her hair sticking straight out.
I found the bounce house at Walmart. The picture on the box showed this amazing toy with a 4’X4’ floor, three low walls, and four 6’ posts that were connected to each other by horizontal beams. All inflatable. It had a window, a netted door, bright colors. It had everything. Or, so we thought. Weeks later, in the final hour of Christmas Eve 1999, we discovered what it didn’t have was an air pump.
“We may have a problem,” I said. “There’s no pump with the bounce house.”
“What do you mean?” my wife asked. “Did it fall out of the box?”
I looked at the box. Under the picture of the smiling, bouncing kids and their happy, satisfied-looking parents, and below the type promoting the durability and easy storage of the toy, was the very small and italicized words “Air pump not included.”
“What time is it,” I asked. I knew how late it was. I knew nothing that would have sold an air pump was still open.
“It’s almost midnight,” my wife answered. “Do you think the pump fell out in the car?”
“No, I don’t think it’s in the car.” I exhaled deeply, a foretelling of what the next few hours would bring. “The box says it’s not included.”
Emotions flipped across my wife’s face like pages in a book, finally settling on a look that was a combination of “What are we going to do? I thought you knew how to read; I need a drink; I’m going to cry; Why are you the way you are? and, You have your work cut out for you.”
“Do we have a pump?” she finally said.
“Not the kind we need,” I answered.
We could have left it in the box, wrapped it, and put it under the tree, and then explained to our 2-year-old daughter that we would get the pump the next day when the stores opened. She might have been OK with that. Or, she might have been disappointed, unable to play with her big gift, and watching her siblings enjoy theirs.
There’s one thing that I and many others become addicted to early on in parenthood. It’s intoxicating and surprisingly strong. It’s the look your child gives you when you do or give them something that’s exactly what they want. Kimberly and I always tried to limit the number of gifts to each of our kids, and this was her feature gift. The one she would dream about Christmas night, and wake up thinking about the next morning.
“We’re going to have to blow up this thing,” I said. I expected a “What’s this ‘we’ stuff” comment from Kimberly, but she nodded in agreement.
We were in our bedroom with the TV on. At midnight, the station began a Christmas movie marathon. As the Jimmy Stewart classic “It’s A Wonderful Life” began, I started blowing up a 6’X4’ bounce house. About the time George Bailey was throwing himself into the frozen river to save Clarance the Angel, my head was hurting and I was losing feeling in my mouth.
Kimberly took over for a while. When we traded places again, “Scrooge,” starring Albert Finney, was beginning. This was fitting because a short time later, as Ebenezer Scrooge was being visited by the ghost of Jacob Marley, I’m pretty sure I was beginning to hallucinate from light-headedness.
I think I said, “Can you take over?” to Kimberly, but I’m not certain because I couldn’t feel my lips moving.
At the end of my wife’s shift, as the Ghost of Christmas Future was putting fear into Scrooge, I took my place on the floor with the partially inflated bounce house. After a few messy attempts at drinking hot chocolate, I had regained feeling in my lips, and was more energized to get this thing done.
“A Christmas Story,” the movie about the kid — Ralphie — who desperately wants a Red Ryder BB gun for Christmas, but everyone says he’ll shoot his eye out, was getting started. Again, I became lightheaded, and I thought about what I would do if someone accidentally shot this giant, idiotic bouncey toy with a BB gun, and popped it. How would I respond? What words would my 2-year-old daughter learn?
Around the time in the movie when Ralphie is being punished for using a very bad word, and having his mouth washed out with soap, I was cruising along. The bounce house was starting to look like the picture on the box just above the “Air pump not included,” taunt.
“More like ‘Air pump not needed,’” I said to myself, certain I was going to get this done without passing out. I couldn’t wait to see my daughter’s face when she ran into the living room on Christmas morning. I could hear her excited squeal.
“Dale.” Kimberly was talking to me, but I was still imagining our daughter in her new bounce house, giggling with her stuffed animals. “Dale, it’s not going to fit through the doorway.”
The imaginary laughing stopped. “Did you say something?” I asked.
“You blew it up too far,” Kimberly said. “We might need to let some of the air out to get it into the living room.”
“That is not going to happen,” I said. I’ve never been more certain of anything in my life. As it turned out, this colorful, vinyl contraption that contained six hours worth of deep breaths still had some flexibility, and we were able to push, fold, and bend it through the doorway, down the hall and into the living room.
After another 30 minutes, the bounce house was fully inflated and in position. Kimberly and I went to bed.
What seemed like moments later, I heard our daughter’s door open. I could see her walk out of her room and look down the hall to the living room. She could see the bounce house. She just stood there in her PJs and with her disobedient hair, staring and smiling. She looked into our bedroom and saw me watching her.
“Mebbie Kisbas,” I said. My lips still hadn’t regained feeling.