Thirteen of us sat or stood in the living room, all eyes on the little computer monitor as the fourteenth person joined the party. The picture was fuzzy, and the motion stopped and started, and froze every now and then, but still, talking to somebody half a world away and seeing them in real time is quite extraordinary, even in this day and age.
"Merry Christmas, Dad," the kids said. He grinned, the bags under his eyes and the haunted look disappearing when he did so, but reappeared as quickly as they left. I stood in the background when he said Merry Christmas to Mary, his wife, and waited for my turn to say hello.
The Skype program that allowed us to be together isn't perfect, and the connection would freeze every few minutes.
"Can't you fix that thing," one of the kids asked, and my brother went fishing for something. He pulled a gadget out of a drawer, then something else.
"Is that a camera?" asked Catherine, the youngest.
"Nah, not a camera," said Bob as he looked at his 9 MM., put a clip in, checked to see if it was ready, then put it back down. He fiddled with the computer then, and it froze exactly as he made an exasperated gesture, much like the kid in the Home Alone movie, and that is the image we saw for the next few minutes as he tried to fix the connection.
Eventually, the thing got working, and we went back to the Christmassy stuff, but I couldn't shake the images of the gun being loaded, and checked, and his frustrated look that froze onto the screen, and the fact that he is in a war zone in Afghanistan, and we are all here, eating cookies and drinking punch.
We said our goodbyes, and he went back to bed, I hope-it was 0430 hrs. there, he had set his alarm for the middle of the night so he could join us on Christmas Eve. It was quiet for a minute or so as we collected our thoughts. I mentioned to Elizabeth, Bobby's oldest daughter who is home from college in New York City how sad I felt, and she agreed, and his boys, Bobby and Danny, in typical Morse fashion began to set things right.
"Imagine Dad as Santa," said Bobby.
"What do you want for Christmas," chimed in Danny.
"A bike, and a toy!" said Bobby.
"How's it feel to want," said Dan, in a perfect imitation of his Dad, waving an imaginary gun around and doing the Home Alone Face.
Maybe it was the tension, and sadness we all felt but didn't want to express, and the worry and loneliness so vividly expressed on The Sergeants' face that was lifted by a moderately funny joke, but that joke grew, and was followed by more, and then better ones and before we knew it our sides hurt, and tears rolled down our cheeks and the jokes kept coming.
Christmas came back to the living room at my sister Mel's house then, as we spent the next fifteen minutes laughing, doing the Home Alone thing, and the Christmas gun and the absurdity of the situation and my brother's natural ability to make you not worry about him, alone in the mountains with a 9 mm and a camera and fifty-eight days to go until he comes home made it clear that though the situation is not even close to good, it is bearable, and it will end, and they will get their lives back to normal, whatever that is.
Christmas is over for us, here in the comfort and security of home. For our friends and family overseas, it never began.