Well, gang, I wish I could say that this Christmas will be the best one ever, but, judging from what's happened so far this December, I'm about ready to skip ahead to Arbor Day!

Now, before you accuse your pal Jean of taking Grinch lessons on the sly, let me assure you that I just love Christmas! If you're a shopaholic like me, it's a great excuse to exercise the old credit card! And, I gotta admit, even though I just turned 40, I still have to watch Rudolph, Frosty and all those other old Christmas specials! But I also love Christmas for its true meaning, too--a time of giving and sharing stuff. And I do still believe in God and Jesus and all. (Though I haven't seen the inside of a church for almost a decade!)

Anyway, this year I decided to throw a small Christmas dinner party at my place. I hadn't entertained in years, and I felt kind of guilty about it. (About the only thing I entertain these days is the notion of going to bed early!) I also decided that this wasn't going to be a beer-and-pizza affair. No, this party would be class with a capital C! I was going to personally prepare every dish, there would be formal place settings, and the stereo would play only Andy Williams and George Winston. (With the exception of "Grandma Got Run Over By A Reindeer"--still my all-time number-one fave!)

Things started to go wrong pretty early. While I was busy basting the Rock Cornish game hens, I saw hubby Rick throwing on his jacket and heading toward the door. I asked him where he was going, and he said he was meeting up with his friend Craig over at Tacky's Tavern. (I should have known.) You can believe I put a stop to that. "I haven't been slaving in this kitchen since 9 a.m. so you could go out and get blitzed and eye the bimbos," I said. Rick whined something about having promised Craig he'd be there and said he'd only stay home if I set a place for Craig at the dinner party.

Well, I seriously considered saying no, because Craig, who works with Rick at the tire center, is not exactly my idea of polite company. He's the type who thinks being funny means putting someone else down. Now, heaven knows I'm pretty quick with the wisecracks myself, but I never joke in a way that makes people feel bad about things they can't help. To me, that's not humor, that's just being mean! But, in the spirit of the season, I decided to let Craig come to the party.

Well, much to my chagrin, less than 10 minutes after Rick called Tacky's, Craig came roaring in. The other guests weren't due for another hour, which meant I had to put up with Craig and Rick's loud, childish guffawing in the living room while I tossed the salad and prepared the dinner rolls in the kitchen.

Sure enough, Craig managed to get my goat right off the bat. As they sucked down Black Labels, Craig sarcastically complimented Rick on my doll collection and asked him which one he thought was the prettiest. Then Craig started teasing Rick about the fact that I keep my dolls in a tall glass curio cabinet in the living room. (Har-dee-har-har, Craig!) Rick told him to shut up, and, to further distance himself from Craig's taunting, he said, "Jean nearly bankrupted us buying them, and they're uglier than ----." (I won't tell you what word goes in the blank, but I bet you can guess.)

As if that weren't humiliating enough, Craig added, "So your wife collects dolls, eh? You need to knock her up, Rick. Or at least give her a good reaming."

You can see why I got so mad. What does collecting dolls have to do with not having children or not making whoopee? It's narrow-minded, juvenile people like Craig who make life hard for all the nice people! I almost charged into the living room to give Craig a piece of my mind, but I bit my tongue. I didn't want to get upset right before the other guests arrived.

Well, as it turned out, I didn't have much to worry about, because of the eight people I invited, only three showed up: my friend Patti the creative writing teacher and two of my co-workers, Sharon and Fulgencio. I felt really sorry for Fulgencio as I served the cucumber and cream cheese hors d'oeuvres, because Craig and Rick kept making these veiled cracks about his name and accent. Rick had decided that Fulgencio (who is from Mexico) is, well, not all that masculine, just because he's small-statured and graduated from a fashion-design school on the West Coast. It goes back to what I said earlier about making fun of people for things they can't control. Is it Fulgencio's fault that he's not from this country?

Rick and Craig kept up their antics during the serving of the main course. Now, I had spent hours preparing more than a dozen game hens, but did they appreciate it? Nooo! "What the hell is this?" Rick bellowed. At least Craig put a little more creativity into his insult: "I never knew sparrow could taste so good."

Well, despite all the bad stuff that had happened, I thought dessert would more than make up for it: Chocolate Fudge Marble Upside-Down Baked Alaska with cherry flambé topping! My masterpiece! I had Patti turn down the lights as I carried the flaming dessert into the dining room.

"Well, would you look at this," Rick said. "Jean thinks she's Martha Stewart."

"Yeah," Craig replied, "about two hundred pounds later."

That did it. I put the dessert down on the table and marched to our bedroom, where the guests' coats were being kept. My plan was to snatch Craig's down vest, return to the dining room, throw it over his head, and order him to leave. (And Rick could go with him!) But something happened before I got the chance.

What follows is the hardest thing I've ever had to write. Even harder than the tribute I wrote to Princess Di after her death.

For you see, when I opened the bedroom door, I found my kitty, Arthur, sprawled out on the floor in an unnatural way. I rushed over to him and noticed that something was protruding from his mouth.

Arthur had choked to death on my Pinchers The Lobster Teenie Beanie Baby.

Well, after that, the dinner party just fell apart. About five minutes later, Patti came into the bedroom, concerned that I hadn't returned. When she saw what had happened, she ran and got Rick and Craig.

"Sorry about your cat," Craig said. "You want me and Rick to go bury it somewhere? I got a shovel in my pickup."

I guess I was not in my right mind at the time, because I agreed. I got an old narrow box out of my closet and laid Arthur in it. I couldn't quite pry the Teenie Beanie Baby out of his mouth, because his jaws had stiffened, so I decided to let it be.

Rick and Craig were gone a lot longer than was necessary. Finally, at about 2 a.m., Rick arrived home, smelling like a brewery. I asked him what he had done with Arthur.

"The ground was too hard to bury the cat," Rick said, "so we drove around for a while and tossed it in a dumpster behind the Old Country Buffet. Here's your box back."

Well, you can be sure I gave hubby Rick the biggest tongue-lashing of our whole marriage. Like I said, I wasn't in my right mind, and I said a lot of things I probably shouldn't have said, like how he never liked Arthur anyway, and how he didn't care at all how I felt, and how he was so insensitive, and how he could never say anything without being vulgar. Then I went into our bedroom, slammed the door, threw myself on the bed, and bawled for almost two hours.

As I said, this won't be the merriest of Christmases in the Teasdale household. But I am coping, and, thank God, I still have my other kitty, Priscilla. On my friend Patti's advice, I'm trying to work out my grief through my writing. So I wrote a poem about Arthur that I would like to share with you: Arthur, you left us all too soon,
But for me it was eight years of joy.
You were not always appreciated during your short life, it's true.
(One person I won't name would have preferred a chocolate lab.)
But I understood your beauty, your magic, your sweetness.
I hope that Jesus is playing with you up in Heaven above,
Dangling your Cat Dancer toy that you loved so much.
(That is, until you put on all that weight a few years ago.)
It is tragic when a mother outlives her children,
But I will remember you always.
I used to say that when I got to Heaven,
The first person I wanted to see was my grandmother.
But I have to change that now, my sweet little Arthur.