Wonder filled my mind as I held in my hands a Christmas tree bedecked with crisply folded fives, tens and, yes, there’s a twenty. They were fashioned into accordioned bows, circles,
“Wow!” “Who’s it from?” “How much money is it?” The kids asked the questions all at once. “Where do we put it?”
At least the last question had an easy answer. “I’m taking this to Mom’s room,” I told them. “It could use some Christmas.”
I carefully maneuvered the unwieldy object down the hallway and reached around it to open the door, closed to limit kid-sized chaos.
“Suzie? Are you awake?”
“Yes,” came the sleepy reply.
“Look,” was all I managed to say.
Her sleepy eyes registered curiosity, confusion, then the same wonder that I felt.
“Is that money?” she asked.
“Yes.” The same emotions cycled through her face one more time.
“Where did it come from?” She needed details so I filled her in: Richard, Sunday School, collection, the intended anonymity. We contemplated how much it might be.
“Should we count it?”
“I don’t know. It looks too pretty to mess up. I thought I’d just leave it in here for you to have a little Christmas cheer. It’s kind of drab in here.”
“I agree,” she said. I moved some things around on the cherry dresser by the bed and we both stared at it for a while.
“What do you think?” I asked. She eyed it for a moment in deep thought.
“What do you think we should use it for?”
It was the obvious question but I didn’t have a ready answer. The bills from her first surgery were only beginning to show up. The hospital sent them to the insurance company and the insurance company decided what they intended to pay and then the hospital re-decided what we owed personally. It all took time.
The first few final bills to arrive had been shocking. There were so many more to come.
“I have no idea,” I finally answered. Whatever it amounted to would be just a drop in the bucket. But it seemed more significant than that.
“How about we just leave it there and wait until the right thing shows up. I’d hate to just put it in the checking account to disappear.”
“Sounds right,” she agreed. We would just wait and see. Until then, we could enjoy the blessing.
Somewhere across town, a woman sat in an office trying to clear her desk of the last paperwork before her Christmas break. Happy holiday plans were on her mind when the name appeared again. It couldn’t be.
She checked the procedures and the name one more time. It was definitely her. For some mysterious reason, out of the thousands of pieces of paper that came across her desk, this woman’s name seemed to jump out.
Maybe it was the sheer repetition. This poor lady was having a very tough time and the problems just kept coming. And right before Christmas.
It wasn’t the first sad story she’d seen. Her desk was filled with paperwork trails of human misery. It was one of the silent, heart-breaking parts of her job. Medical and financial privacy laws rightly kept her from talking about it to anyone but sometimes it was harder on her than others.
This time the pull was too great. She felt she needed to do something. She made a promise to herself that every time she saw the name she would pray for her and her family. It was all she could do but her faith urged her on.
She bowed her head and held the bill in her hand. “Lord,” she began, “Please bless Suzzanne W. Ritchie . . .”
The bills meant work was more important than ever. When I walked out on my string session six days earlier, I had assumed the worst. Instead, people were surprisingly flexible and work was waiting for me. I spent the two days before Christmas Eve mixing until Suzie’s next doctor’s appointment on Friday afternoon. Dad drove Suzie and I quit work early to meet them there.
The brand new Sarah Cannon Cancer Center, two days before Christmas, was a sight to behold. It was the first time we had experienced a dedicated cancer facility. The partnership with Tennessee Oncology represented the cutting edge in cancer research and was, in many ways, the first of its kind.
Dad joined us for moral support as we walked into the lobby which was huge and crowded with people. Both staff and patients were extremely nice to each other and I mistakenly assumed it was because of the Holiday spirit.
Dr. Raefsky added to the atmosphere when he appeared smiling in a red and white Santa hat with a baseball cap brim. It was a complete transformation from the “Dr. Doom” image of our last meeting. He shook my hand and turned his attention to Suzie.
“Hello, Suzzanne,” he said with a warm smile. “How are you feeling?” They exchanged small talk as he did a routine examination. Then, down to business.
“Well, we need to find out what these other things are. I’ve got you scheduled for a C.T. guided needle biopsy of the tumor on your spine next Tuesday at Summit Medical Center, if that works for you?”
“Yes, that’s after Christmas, so our family will be gone.” She looked at me and I nodded.
“Do you have any questions?” There were a million questions but none that could be answered yet.
“No, I don’t guess so.”
“Good. The nurse will give you all the information. Have a great time with your family.”
It was over that quickly. But the questions hung in our minds, unasked and unanswered, for the next four days.
Back at home, Mom had returned from Mississippi. My brother and his family volunteered to spend Christmas in Tennessee. They stayed in a nearby motel and brought their two boys over to play and visit during the day. Only my sister couldn’t make it. It was radically different but it was as close to our traditional family Christmas as we could arrange.
I hit my Christmas break with high hopes of forgetting about our troubles for forty-eight hours. I dove into the frenzy and helped Suzie wrap the rest of the presents. She’d hidden them around the house a year before and we had to search a little but we finally found them all.
I thought I was doing a good job of being a host for the whole family for Christmas until I went into the bedroom and found Suzie in tears. I could think of plenty of reasons but experience suggested I had no idea.
“What’s wrong?” I asked.
“Nothing,” she said.
Of all the things that might be wrong, I was absolutely certain that nothing wasn’t one of the options. I sat down and took her in my arms and gave it my best shot.
“Are you worrying about the tests?”
“No,” she came back quickly. I was as wrong as I imagined.
“Then, what, Sweetie?”
“It’s just . . .”
“All of these people are in my house for Christmas for the first time and I have no food for them.” She sobbed.
“You’re kidding, right?”
“No! I’m serious. I feel like such a failure.” I knew it wasn’t the right response but I couldn’t help but laugh just a little.
“Seriously. You can’t imagine that after all the surgery and cancer you’ve had that anyone, anywhere could think you’re not feeding them properly?”
“I know. I know. It’s ridiculous. But it’s how I feel.”
“Oh, Sweetie,” I hugged her as tightly as I dared. “No one cares.”
“I care!” There was no arguing with that. If that’s how she felt then it had to be fixed.
“Well, I’ll go to the store.”
“But we have no money,” she replied. Over her shoulder I spied the tree, sitting on the dresser and reflected in the mirror like a great, big prickly bank.
“I think we do.” She stopped crying. “I think I’m looking at it.” She followed my eyes.
“But we were saving it for something special.”
“If it makes you happy, I can’t think of anything more special than that. It’s time.” She hugged me back and then stared at the tree.
“How much do you think it is?” Her eyes lit up. That was an easy sell.
“Let’s find out.”
Mom and Trisha cooked like mad. The feast filled the table and desserts spread into the kitchen. Turkey, dressing, cranberry sauce, ham, biscuits, vegetables, gravy and more made a Christmas dinner fit for the neighborhood. The “kids’ table” held the overflow. Prayers were prayed. The Christmas story was read. Presents were opened. Children played outside.
Suzie saw just enough of it to be satisfied before she tuckered out and went back to bed. The tree in her room was stripped bare but she was happy. The count had been almost $500.00 but it made a memory that she never forgot.
Because Christmas, in the end, is not about getting. And Suzie, who had been given so much, needed more than anything else to have something to give.
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