My best Christmas was the year we had Ken and Barbie at the top of our tree. We had an angel first, for Christmas Day, but then we had Ken and Barbie. Let me explain. When my daughter was four, I hired a ballet dancer to babysit for a few afternoons a week. Randy was tall and confident, with that dancer’s chest-first carriage, and, though he was only 27, a sure, cheerful bossiness. For four years, he and Halley roamed the city on adventures: to climb the Alice in Wonderland statue in Central Park, to smile at the waddling, pint-sized penguins at the zoo. They had their own world, their own passions: a devotion to ice cream, to Elmo, to Pee-wee Herman.
He orchestrated Halley’s birthday parties to a fare-thee-well: One year he declared a Peter Pan theme, made Halley a Tinker Bell outfit with little jingle bells at the hem, and talked my father into making a scary appearance in a big-brimmed pirate hat and a fake hook for a hand. Randy took charge of my grown-up parties, too, dictating what I wore, foraging in thrift shops to find the right rhinestone necklace to go with the dress he’d made me buy.
When Halley was eight, Randy left New York to take over a sleepy ballet company in a small city in Colorado. He taught, he choreographed, he coaxed secretaries and computer salesmen into pliéing across the stage.
Halley missed him terribly, we all did, but he called her and sent her party dresses, and he came to see us at Christmas when he could. The year Halley was ten, we had a new baby. That same year, Randy was diagnosed with AIDS. He told me over the phone, without an ounce of self-pity, that he had so few T cells left that he’d named them Huey, Dewey, and Louie.
It seemed insane for him to travel, insane for him to risk one of us sneezing on him and giving him pneumonia, but he had decided, and that was it. He was as cheerful and bossy as ever. Terribly thin, his cheeks hollow but eyes bright, he took Halley all over the city once again, with baby Julie strapped to his chest in a cloth carrier.
“We’ve got to do something about this tree,” he said one day. The tree, with its red ribbon bows, looked fine to me; I was even a little vain about the way every branch shone with ornaments.
A few days later, on New Year’s Eve morning, he summoned our little family. He was wearing the old pirate’s hat, fished out of a costume box and, for hair, curly colored streamers that stuck out of the hat and tumbled down to his shoulders.
As we watched — me irritable at first, wondering how much you were supposed to yield to a dying houseguest, even if you loved him like a brother — he stripped the tree. Then he brought out more curly streamers, heaps of them, and tooters and little party-favor plastic champagne bottles. “Now we’ll turn it into a New Year’s tree,” he declared.
A New Year’s tree! Of course! We threw the streamers all over the tree, we covered it with the tooters and the tiny champagne bottles. “And now, for the pièce de résistance,” Randy said. Stretching his tall self way up to the top of the tree, he removed its gold papier-mâché angel. Solemnly, carefully, he placed on top Halley’s tuxedoed Ken and her best Barbie, the one in a sparkly ball gown.
“Ta da!” he said, and beamed. It was a wonderful tree, happy and goofy and perfect.
Randy lived for another year and a half. None of us will ever get over his death, not really. But every Christmastime, I raise a glass to Randy — to his tree, to his bossiness, to the Christmas he taught us that courage is a man in a pirate hat with silly streamers for hair.
• Jenny Allen is the author of a book of fables for grown-ups called The Long Chalkboard, illustrated by her husband, Jules Feiffer. Her one-woman show about ovarian cancer, I Got Sick Then I Got Better, has been seen in theaters and at hospitals, universities, and cancer conferences around the country.