THE PHONE RINGS. OH, BROTHER. Now what? I don't have time. It's my sister, calling to say she doesn't have time. She's at the mall, in a hurry. "So if you were going to buy a sweater set," she says, "what size would you get?"

"Probably just a medium," I say. And I'm glad she's called. "If you were going to buy one of those new stretchy blouses and all they had left was pink," I say, "would you get it?"

"Sure," she says.

"Good," we say, at precisely the same moment, and in my mind I can see her doing what I am doing: checking something off the holiday shopping list. When it comes to gift-giving, my sister and I have long since abandoned the surprise factor. Because we know what holidays are about: lists. Long lists. Holidays are about errands. Holidays are about traffic and lines and getting all the wrapping done. My sister and I assist each other with these things. Because we think holidays are also about a spirit of helping: helping each other hoard stuff so that we'll be ready for the grand day of stuff-swapping.

Well, holidays used to be about something different, but to tell you the truth I forget. Or, I'm too busy right now to remember. You should see my list.

The doorbell rings. Oh, brother. Now what? A lady wearing a nurse's smock. Hello? She's here to see my husband. "His biannual requalification?" she says, as if I'm supposed to just magically understand. What does this have to do with Christmas? Nothing. "Life insurance," she says. Okay, whatever. If this doesn't have anything to do with Christmas, then I don't have time. My husband comes downstairs, and pretty soon she's taking his blood pressure, a test I apparently ruin when I bound into the room with one of my favorite holiday refrains: "WHAT DID YOU DO WITH THE SCOTCH TAPE?"

"Maybe I should be taking your blood pressure," the woman suggests with a smile.

"Holidays!" I say, flopping in a chair like a silent film star really good at emoting.

"I know what you mean," she says. "But try this one on: Last Christmas, my mother-in-law died. We received word just as my kids were opening their presents."

"Oh," I say. "That's . . . bad."

She talks about the day calmly, matter-of-factly, as she steers my husband onto a digital scale. No, she doesn't think the death has tainted the holidays forever for her family. "Mostly, we just feel alone," she says, and then she looks at me, as if I'm supposed to just magically understand. She says that her friends dodged the issue of the death last year, and that the trend has continued. "People don't know what to say, so they don't say anything. I feel like we're in a bubble." She says she doubts that this has anything to do with having someone die on Christmas Day, but, rather, having someone die at all. "All of a sudden you're in this bubble." I've never heard it put that way. She talks about the longing to get out of the bubble, especially at holiday time, when the loneliness is most intense.

"Well, how do you get out?" I ask.

"I think someone has to come and get you," she says. She says she wishes one of her friends would just say something. Anything. "You know, `This must be a difficult time,' or whatever."

I look over at my desk, where my list sits. In my mind I begin compiling an entirely different list. There are actually several people in my world, or at least in the periphery of my world, who will be going through this holiday with one less person on their shopping lists. I think of my friend Todd, who lost his sister this year; David and Judy, who lost their baby; Joe and Betsy, who lost their teenage daughter. I think of Faith, my first boss, whose funeral was over before I even knew about it. I think of Faith often. She was a pest of a boss and a hero. So often I've thought of writing to her daughter to tell her this. Well, at least the hero part. But I barely even know her daughter. Wouldn't a letter from a stranger be . . . weird? Or is that just an excuse?

The nurse is now redoing the blood pressure test. I wonder what to say to her. I should say something really smart and really sensitive about loss. "Well, um," I begin, feeling the words fall out of my mouth with a thud. "Please extend our special holiday greetings to your family." Ugh. I am not good at this. Sometimes you feel so inept, you freeze.

"Normal," she says, pulling the cuff off my husband's arm. "I'm happy to report you're so normal you're boring."

"Thanks," he says, adding a few of his own words of sympathy.

She smiles, nods, gathers the tools of her trade, and then she is gone.

I return to my desk, my list, my holiday in the making. On the corner of the page, I draw a box. I write: "Todd," "David and Judy," "Joe and Betsy," and then I write "Faith's daughter," and put a star there.

Jeanne Marie Laskas's e-mail address is laskasmail@aol.com.