Mom leaned her head out from the balcony of the InterContinental Paris Le Grand. “You can practically hear the joy out in the streets!” she exclaimed. She was right, of course. Paris is always bright, but at Christmas time, it twinkles, and all of the cars, pedestrians, and little shops seem to twinkle with it.
It was the night of December 20, 2015, and the women in my family were on a quest for Advent joy. Preparation had begun months before when my mother approached my sister Allison and me about taking our grandmother, MyPatty, to London for the holiday. In her 74 years, MyPatty had never been to England but had always dreamed of it. In Mom’s estimation, there would be no more perfect time for MyPatty to experience her dream than Christmas. As usual, Mom had been right.
MyPatty loves Christmas. She has woven our childhoods full of Christmas traditions, so as my mother, sister, and I planned MyPatty’s trip, we made sure to include her traditions. Once we embarked, MyPatty found herself continually wonderstruck. It was a week filled with the fulfillment of long-held hope, but hope was not active for just MyPatty. The addition of Paris to the itinerary had been particularly for Allison, who had long dreamed of visiting the City of Light.
Mom, who had never been to Paris either, agreed that it must be added to the trip. That dream was what had led us here, to the InterContinental. Well, all of that and…me. Because precisely 364 days prior to this night, the man I loved had proposed amidst holly and snow and candlelight. And then, six months later, he had called the engagement off, and my world had imploded.
I knew this first Christmas in the aftermath was sure to feel like a seeping wound: every tradition now stirring a memory with my ex-fiancé. My mother had known as well. And so while she had proposed the trip for MyPatty, she and my dad had also orchestrated it for me, the daughter seeking light for her path in a world that felt as though it had grown so, so dark.
From our room in the InterContinental, Mom turned from the balcony and proceeded to pop a bottle of champagne. We toasted to one another and took our first sip.
“I’m so disappointed,” Mom spoke. “I’ve been looking at our itinerary for tomorrow, and I’m just not sure we’re going to get to the Arc de Triomphe.”
“What?!” I cut in with shock. “We have to go. We have to see the city from there.”
We took in each other’s faces for a moment, champagne fizzing in our glasses.
“You know,” I said with a grin, “The arch is really best at night…”
“We could go now.” Allison had a playful smile on her face as she completed my thought.
“I could go now!” MyPatty offered.
“We could go now,” my mom laughed.
Downing our champagne, we threw on our shoes and wrapped ourselves up in scarves. Out among the people we plunged, breathing deep with wonder. Down the Champs Elysees we strolled, passing dozens of merry windows, lit from within. Allison and I pushed our way through the crowd. From behind, my mother noticed MyPatty had started to slow in her pace as the arch drew near.
“Girls,” my mom signaled, “Your grandmother and I are a bit tired. We’re going to get some French Onion soup at this cafe with our friend Mary Jane. You run along to the arch with Tracy and tell us all about it.”
“Mom! Are you sure?” I felt hesitant, and selfish. I knew I was the only one here who had already been to the top of the arch. Surely I should stay behind? But I didn’t offer. I wanted to return to the top.
What if the woman I was before all of this darkness awaited me there?
“I’m sure,” my mom nodded. “Go, go!”
We arrived at the entrance to the arch, purchased our tickets, and proceeded to climb rapidly, desperate to reach the roof prior to the top of the hour so we could see the famed Eiffel Tower light show from our lookout.
“This is… so many stairs!” Allison huffed as we circled up and up and up.
Allison and I emerged from the stairwell with seven minutes to spare. Tracy followed, content to take her climb at a more manageable pace.
“Glad you booked it so fast?” Tracy smirked as Allison and I bent over and breathed heavily.
The city grew quiet way up here, everything below glowing and magical. While we waited for the light show to begin, I walked the perimeter of the roof, observing all of the stories unfolding beneath me, lived by people unaware that I watched from up above. Up here, the path each person walked seemed so clear and well lit. Not at all like the experience down below, chaotic and happenstance.
“Oh, look!” Allison exclaimed.
I turned, and the Eiffel Tower had begun to glitter, dancing with joy, sharing her light.
Tracy, Allison, and I drew close to each other. Silently, we observed the beauty. And there on that rooftop, I felt lucky. Not like I was back to the girl I was before the darkness, but like this life I had was worth loving and sharing, even with the darkness still there. For the first time in a long time, I whispered a prayer of gratitude.
Back at the cafe with my mother and grandmother, we shared bread and cheese and stories of the climb, and my mother smiled. And with the clock clicking ever closer to December 21st, the world’s longest night, Mom raised her glass.
“Merry Christmas, girls!” she toasted, offering me a knowing gaze as we clinked our glasses.
“Merry Christmas,” I returned, holding her eyes while we both held the dark, and the light, and the hope that lives forever in between.
Katy (Johnson) Stafford dreams, writes, and occasionally podcasts in the messy middle of life. Newly married, Katy is spending her 30s embracing hope, longing, and the wild spaces in her own heart. Her favorite creative project right now is called In Love, a memoir about loving your life beyond white picket fences. Katy shares more of her thoughts here, where she cultivates a community for writers and creatives.