Sunday, January 3, 2016
It will be happier
The tree has been taken down; the ornaments packed away as we bid farewell to both another Christmas and another year. They seem to pass faster now that there are no children running through our house, and we see our old friends pass on to other worlds. Dear Beth this past summer, and Doug as well. I always pour a finger or two of Tullamore Dew for my dear friend Michael, and make a batch of Karen Walker’s coconut bars. It would not be Christmas without them. And of course, there is my mother, only a year gone, and her still lingering presence catching up with me in the holiday rituals.
This year, there was no marathon of cookie baking, nor breads made. The Christmas cards, an old-fashioned and costly tradition in this age of instant communication, didn’t get out until after the holiday. I stubbornly addressed and mailed the cards just so people knew we were thinking of them as the season passed. Time was too tight, what with a dissertation to finish and a million student papers to grade. It made for a quiet holiday.
Every year, I get anxious about Christmas, and when the gifts are all opened, the bright paper thrown away, I take a few minutes to reflect on the year that has been, and then begin working on resolutions for the coming year. It is a time of reflection and memories, of clearing out the old, down-sizing a life that no longer has hordes of laughing teenagers gathered around the dining table, or staying up until midnight wrapping gifts to go beneath the tree. We have become efficient in our advancing age, tailoring such previously frenetic activities to current needs and energy. There is wistfulness to it.
The cold of northern Maine in December and January keeps us inside more, and more things get done, which is often a surprise to both of us. Closets and cupboards cleaned; furniture rearranged; dogs to be snuggled, a constant flurry of mindless busyness that leaves me remembering, both a joyous and dangerous thing.
Two weeks before Christmas, my appendix burst. I was eight, and for the past month, I had been sick on and off. Throwing up one day, fine the next. My mother was sure it was just flu, and on the days when I wasn’t vomiting she bundled me off to school. But at two in the morning, exactly two weeks before Santa was due to arrive, it all came to a head. I awoke, crying from pain, and when mom took my temperature it was a startlingly 103 degrees.
We lived in Vermont then, in a small neighborhood of newly constructed houses that seemed to have sprung from the hilltop that once had been hayfields and cow pastures. The wall of windows in the living room looked out onto still worked fields and thick woods beyond. The houses had been built to accommodate young doctors at the nearby Dartmouth Medical School. There was a doctor to the right of us, and a doctor to the left of us, and another on the next street over.
Within minutes of taking my temperature, my mother was on the phone, calling the closest, even though it was two in the morning. And, like doctors did in those days, he threw on boots and a coat over his pajamas and carrying the then iconic black bag that all doctors had, waded through the deep snow and chilly night to check me out. Less than an hour later I was bundled into the back seat of the family car and we were on our way to Mary Hitchcock Hospital. My brother, three years younger, had been swept off to share a bed with the doctor’s son.
The emergency room was bright and bustling when we arrived, causing me to shutter my eyes as my clothes were stripped from me and I was swooped up onto a stretcher. Within minutes, blood had been drawn, my stomach had been poked, and a four a.m. emergency surgery scheduled. My mother and father hovered beside the stretcher, assuring me all would be well, and then I was whisked off to the operating room, even brighter and busier than the ER had been. I do not remember falling asleep.
I woke up, alone, in a four-bed ward of the pediatrics floor. Except for the slap of feet beyond the door, it was quiet. Outside the tall multi-paned windows along one wall, the sun shone brightly in a blue sky. Where there had once been a stabbing pain, there was now a persistent nasty ache, and when I moved even the slightest bit, it felt like someone was pulling my skin apart.
I wondered where I was. Where my parents were and how many days I had been asleep, and whether Christmas had come and I had missed it. Had Santa passed me by? Silent tears rolled down my cheeks, and then there was a nurse in a starched white uniform that crinkled when she walked, beside my bed reassuring me. She checked my temperature, plumped the pillow, and then left, promising she would be right back. She was, carrying a bowl of red Jell-O, and promising me that my parents were on their way.
“Can I go home?” I asked as I spooned the cool gelatin into my mouth.
“Not yet, but soon,” she promised as she bustled around the bed, tucking in the sheet at the foot.
My parents arrived soon. Bundled in heavy coats and wooly mittens, snow still sliding off their boots, they brought the smell of the outdoors cold into the over-heated ward. I wanted to leap from the bed, fling myself at them, and beg them to take me home. But I was stopped by the pull of the stitches that transected my stomach like a red bristly caterpillar, Yes I had pulled up the cotton hospital johnnie to look.
They did what all good parents do, hugging me hard enough to break ribs, being overly optimistic about the surgery, but the worry was obvious on their faces. They had brought comic books and a handmade card from my brother, and good wishes from the neighbors. I felt cut off from the world and what was going on outside. I longed to be out of the bed, Christmas shopping with them, sledding in the back yard with the rest of the neighborhood kids. Not stuck in a bed. But that was the way it was.
Ten days, the doctor who came in to chat with my parents said. Ten days. Almost Christmas!
“But what about getting a tree?” I asked. This was part of our ritual. One Sunday afternoon after church we would all pile in the car and go to pick out the perfect tree. Not too tall, not too short. Not too full, not too skinny.
“We’ll get a tree,” my father said calmly. “Don’t you worry.
“But what about Santa?” I asked. “Will he still come?”
“Of course he will,” my mother said, just a little too brightly.
The doctor chatted with them for a few minutes more before having a whispered consultation with my mother near the door of the room. Even then I was a terrible eavesdropper and I stretched to hear. Futilely. A few minutes later, a starched nurse came in and ushered my parents away. I was left around in that miserable ward. Three empty beds all I could look at, and a bit of blue sky and bare branches through the windows. I was miserable.
A week went by, and all I had been given to eat was Jell-O. To this day, I hate Jell-O. Can’t swallow it without gagging. What I wanted was a hamburger. Or maybe fried chicken. That, the nurses explained to me over and over again, was not in my future. Even at eight, I began to wonder what was in my future.
On the Friday before Christmas, my parents sprung me from the hospital, with the stern admonition from the doctor that I was to rest, rest, and rest. Try telling that to an eight-year-old four days before Christmas! But my father underscored the order, and sweetened the pot by promising that if I rested, on Sunday we would go get a tree. Christmas was saved.
The next morning we all piled in the car and began the slow drive over snowy roads to visit the tree lots and find out tree. Although I was made to wait in the car while everyone else roamed the snowy lots, Dad showed everyone to me as he surveyed them, and when at last we all agreed on a tree. With the tree strapped to the roof, we made our way home. It was feeling like Christmas.
The tree went up on Sunday, and I supervised from the couch. I was tired, and complained little. One Monday I sat at the kitchen table and helped wrap a few presents, but it was hard to be up for long. The incision hurt and I continued to tire easily. Unusual only a few days before Christmas.
By Wednesday, I didn’t want to get up. My stomach hurt terribly and I had no energy. Out came the thermometer, and then a call to the hospital. A half hour later, still in my pajamas and robe, I was wrapped in a blanket and carried out to the car. We were headed back to the hospital.
In the same emergency room, I was again poked and prodded, crying this time, and then admitted back to the same horrible ward I had spent nearly ten long days. The incision had abscessed and Christmas Eve for me would be spent in the same miserable bed, an IV dripping in antibiotics, Santa unaware of where I was, in spite of my parents’ efforts to reassure me. When the left at the end of visiting hours, I turned my back to the side and cried into my pillow.
I never heard the nurse come in, so she must have tiptoed, but she came around to the side of the bed I was facing and looked down at me. In her hand she held a small radio.
“I thought you might like to listen to Christmas music,” she said gently. My world brightened a bit. She moved the bedside table slightly and reached behind to plug the radio in. The knob clicked as she turned it on, and then there were carols playing. The world didn’t seem so bleak. She smiled.
“Merry Christmas, honey,” she said softly. And then she left.
I don’t know how long I stayed awake listening to favorite carols, but at some point I fell asleep, and then it was morning. Christmas morning. The radio had been shut off. Sunlight spilled in through the big windows. My stomach didn’t hurt as much.
And then my parents were there, and my brother, too. He had been barred from visiting because he was too young. And they were all laden with brightly wrapped presents.
“Santa came!” my brother shouted. “We got a toboggan!” My mother shushed him quickly.
The presents got piled on the floor by the bed and one by one were brought to me. Paper piled up on the linoleum floor, and my dad crumpled and stuffed it into a box they had brought.
Finally, there was one large present left, and my dad lifted it onto the bed beside me. I tore the paper away quickly and started to cry. Inside was the three-foot doll I had coveted for almost a year. Her name was Patty. Santa had not forgotten me.
It’s been almost a half century since that Christmas in the hospital, but I still believe in the magic of the holiday season. Every year my heart goes out to those who are alone, or sick, or alone and sick at a time so meant for families, whether it is Hanukkah or Kwanza or Solstice. I’m nostalgic about Christmas.
I want snow, and cold weather, and candles in the winter, and Christmas cards hung on strings. The soft glow and sweet scent of the evergreen tree, and all the foolish traditions that are part of our history with family. And so I’ve resolved that when the dissertation is done, and the holiday season approaches next year, I will bake those cookies, and write the cards and mail them off to friends far and wide, and carry platters of baked goods to my neighbors, and trim the tree, and do something nice for someone who needs it. For that is the way to end one year, in the glow of happiness, and to begin another looking forward, and wishing the best for all.