My best Christmas was spent in a hotel room, and I have the candy jar to prove it. Filled to capacity with old, inexpensive holiday ornaments, it sits at home on a bookshelf and collects dust, yet remains a treasured possession.
In the early 1990s, I used to make monthly pilgrimages to Iowa to visit my son Jason. Regrettably, his mother and I had split some years before. Staying involved, I saw him often, and always at Christmas.
But one holiday visit was particularly unsettling. Jason, then age 7 1/2, had been diagnosed with Asperger Syndrome, and handed a grim outlook. Following evaluation at the University of Iowa, his medical team indicated he was not expected to advance past the second grade level in reasoning, comprehension, or school.
As a parent, I couldn’t think of much worse holiday news.
On the morning of Christmas Eve, I arrived in Bettendorf with suitcases of gifts, just ahead of a westerly snowstorm. Having picked up Jason from his mother’s house, we headed to my hotel as flakes began falling.
The ladies at the front desk of the Heartland Inn greeted us warmly. They were accustomed to my frequent visits and against all protocols – in the pre smart-card locks era – had even let me keep a key to my usual room, 102.
The building was all but deserted. Strolling down the hallway with Jason’s hand in mine, our destination turned into a delight.
Like a child’s present waiting under the tree, the entire door of 102 had been decorated in shiny green and red paper, complete with wreath, ribbons and an oversized golden bow.
Unwrapping this offering, Jason and I entered the room. We were met by garlands, blinking holiday lights, and a small, faux Christmas tree dressed with ornaments. Nearby, a full candy jar propped up an oversized card, which shouted out its joy:
“Merry Christmas Jason and Telly!”
As if not enough, we were interrupted by the entire Heartland Inn staff – from general manager to the youngest housekeeper — standing in the hallway launching a serenade of “Jingle Bells.”
Almost all of them were off duty. Yet with snowstorm now in progress, they had congregated to extend us this gesture, on a day they should have been safe at home with their families. After several carols and many hugs, they headed back to their lives, allowing the Halkias boys to settle in.
Even though tired from my flight, Jason and I played some board games, laughed and wrestled, watched TV, and munched on the oversized pizza the staff had delivered — a holiday feast second to none.
Outside, the incessant snowfall insulated us from any further human contact, as drifts built up against our window. Jason’s diminutive, nail-bitten hands rested gingerly on its ledge as he considered the storm, his dark eyebrows raised in boyish wonder.
Soon his adrenaline drained and he moved over to the bed, fading while cartoon images pranced across the TV screen.
Pondering his life prospects, I felt as helpless as an actor who forgot his lines on opening night. So I covered Jason with a blanket and watched him sleep, all while unpacking his gifts to prepare for the next day, placing them under our decorated tree.
A generation later, and now several years removed from college, Jason is the one flying home for the holidays. On this Christmas Eve, after he heads to bed, I’ll dust off the candy jar and cradle one of its ornaments. Returning it to its usual spot, the compassion of strangers will seem familiar.
And in my dreams, the silhouettes of father and son will dance in a hotel room we once called home, cast by flashing Christmas bulbs in the waning December light.
Telly Halkias is a national-award winning newspaper columnist.
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