A Most Unusual Christmas

The summer sun was still sweltering when I had my first clue that this Christmas would be different. I’m not normally known for being observant, much less prescient of things to come, so it had to hit me over the head. Suzie looked at me with a mischievous sparkle in her eyes and announced, “I’m finished!”

“Finished with what?” I asked. I had no idea what was up but she was obviously pleased with herself.

“Finished Christmas shopping!” She smiled in triumph. I couldn’t believe it.

“No way!” was my eloquent response. Suzie had, for the first time ever, begun buying presents during January sales at the beginning of the year. But I didn’t realize she’d kept it going. “Wow, why?” I asked. I’m prone to imaginative responses under pressure.

“I don’t know. This year I just felt like being smart. Once I got started, it was a challenge.”

“So, what did I get?” That rapier wit again. She threw something at me. She has little tolerance for rapiers in the house. In fifteen years we had never finished shopping until a few days before Christmas. Or moments. I’d never even thought of it. I’m not sure I knew it was possible. Yet somehow Suzie perceived that this Christmas required a new strategy.

MorningChristmasTreeWe bought our Christmas ornament early, too. Suzie had long been taken with Hallmark’s Nostalgic Houses series. It had become a tradition with the goal of building a tiny Christmas village on the tree itself. We had a few laughs the year we had a kitchen fire and the ornament turned out to be a red brick fire house. Maybe we should have taken notice earlier when the current ornament was a drugstore. At the time we just thought it was cute. Nostalgic, even.

Thanksgiving changed all of that. A routine check up had prompted more tests and our worst nightmare came true. Breast cancer. Suzie’s mother had died a slow and painful death from it. Her aunts all had it. After surgery and radiation they lived but we concluded, for Suzie, it was inevitable.

What we didn’t expect were three separate primary tumors, breast cancer times three. A bilateral mastectomy was not on our Christmas list either but we were relieved when they sent Suzie home with a positive prognosis. Chemo after the holidays then reconstruction and she’d be fine, they reassured.

The doctors gave up with the brain tumor. They didn’t tell us, of course. Two weeks after her surgery Suzie awoke to find she couldn’t put together a sentence. She thought clearly but words wouldn’t come out. She was trapped inside her brain. An MRI confirmed that the tumor was huge.

The difficult surgery went all day and late into the night. In recovery we were ecstatic when Suzie could recite tongue twisters. The doctors were happy, yet restrained. We had no way of knowing metastatic breast cancer spread to the brain was usually fatal. We couldn’t imagine why they told us we could go home instead of looking for more tumors. Why would we wait?

We really didn’t understand their joy when the biopsy showed it was not breast cancer but a different kind. We thought that was bad. They thought it was a blessing. Their joy turned somber, however, when more tumors were discovered in Suzie’s kidney, liver and spine.

“I want you to know, your situation is not entirely hopeless,” was her oncologist’s idea of encouragement.

This time Suzie was given no option but going home. Even life-saving super doctors took holidays. The new year would begin with more surgeries and exploration. For now, it was Christmas. Since Suzie couldn’t travel, close family decided to bring Christmas to us. No one said out loud that it would probably be Suzie’s last.

There would be two weeks before her next doctor visit. Two weeks to think. Two weeks to try to pull together a semblance of a holiday for the children. Two weeks for Christmases past, present and future to play through our heads. Two weeks to ponder what the new year would bring before the long winter ahead.

When I saw the strange car pull into the drive, a wave of emotions swept over me, an all too familiar mixture of gratitude and guilt. It was another family taking time out of their busy Christmas season to bring us food. I checked the room quickly. The kids were watching TV, toys were everywhere, a busy mess. Not up to Suzie’s standards but it would have to do.

Not that we didn’t need the food. Suzie had been unable to cook since Thanksgiving and I was no substitute. My answer was usually fast food but there was no money for that kind of extravagance anymore. A hot chicken casserole delivered to the door was a welcome treat, not to mention the bar-b-que, roast, pizza, cakes, homemade pies and cookies. The kindness was overwhelming and humbling. At the same time it reminded me of the fact that we really needed the help, hence the guilt.

As the car door opened this time I saw, not a casserole, but a Christmas tree emerge. Well, this was different. It was four feet tall, green and covered with red ribbons. Behind it I caught a glimpse of Richard Gay, the preschool minister at our church. Suzie had answered one of the church’s endless calls to keep toddlers while adults were in class. I came along to help. Richard was in charge of it all but he’d never been to our house.

I opened the door and he reported taking up a collection for us in the children’s ministry before I realized what was happening. When I looked closer I saw the ribbons on the tree held green bills folded like origami ornaments. The tree was covered in money!

I asked him to come in but he forced the tree into my hands and walked away while I was still in shock, saying he didn’t want to interrupt us. My mouth opened and closed a few times and I think I got out a thank you before he closed the car door and was gone.  I glanced down at the armful of tree. On the corner of one of the folded green decorations I saw a 20.

Christmas trees naturally attract kids, as does money, so Rebekah, Sandy and Billy made enough of a stir to wake Suzie. She called from the bedroom to see about the commotion. With white silk tape and bandages cocooning her head, Suzie’s eyes widened as I squeezed through the door and popped when I told her the decorations were made of cash.

In forty years of living it was the most unexpected and generous gift either of us had ever received. It came from total strangers. We were the only teachers in our class and had barely met anyone else.

I set the tree on the dresser so Suzie could see it and we pondered how much money was there and what we should do with it. There was no question we would need it. The question was, how long could we keep it? And what could we do with it that would be worthy of such generosity?

The week before Christmas was peaceful, kind of like the quiet that settles in the eye of a hurricane. For a while the sunshine and bird calls seem surreal compared to the raging storm that just passed. We decorated the house. The kids played video games, argued and giggled. Meals were eaten.

Suzie couldn’t get out of bed much but managed to sit up and join us for brief moments. She directed things from her bedroom sanctuary but tired easily. I was on a mission to be encouraging and make this as good a Christmas as possible, under the circumstances.

We didn’t talk about the looming issues of life and death. We didn’t talk much about the previous month of constant crisis. We didn’t speculate on the tests to come. Instead, we enjoyed life in an almost studious way, trying to soak in all of the rare and precious everyday moments, to heighten the experience with the urgency and perspective of near-death.

It can’t be done. It’s exhausting to try.

We did manage to lock worry away for hours at a time. It made no sense at all to ruin the short time we had left worrying about the short time we had left. Foolish, in fact. So, we soaked up the sublime beauty of such perfect moments as washing the dishes together. Chores of daily life became events to be cherished and memorized.

The endless needs of children took our minds, thankfully, off of ourselves. We felt like a family for the first time in weeks.

The big issues were still there, packed firmly away, building pressure. The stress grew as we got closer to Christmas and family visiting. Having been scattered by a rolling crisis, we grew jealous of our time alone, just our young family. We clung selfishly to each moment and simutaneously felt bad about it.

The tension broke through occasionally as a lack of patience with the little things. Things that normally wouldn’t matter. If things were normal. The flare ups of frustration also scared us a little. We were striving to be strong and reassuring for the kids and each other and had managed the nightmares relatively well. But if we couldn’t handle simple tasks like housecleaning or getting ready for company, what would happen when the coming storms broke again? Were we finally losing it? Were we past the end of our strength when so much more would be needed?

The breaking point finally came when my Mom, Dad, brother, sister-in-law and nephews arrived the day before Christmas. They understood the situation and were the model family, kind, helpful, sensitive, loving. They stayed in hotels so they wouldn’t bother us. There wasn’t a cross word spoken. I was even on my best behavior. So, when I found Suzie in her bed crying I was surprised.

“What’s wrong?” My crisis alarm pegged. Suzie was one of the strongest women I knew and had faced the horrors of the previous month with barely a tear. Now they poured.

“I’m sorry. I’m just overwhelmed. I’ve ruined Christmas” she answered.

“That’s not true, and if anybody has a right to be overwhelmed it’s you.” As usual, I only made it worse. Tears welled again.

“Everyone’s here and I can’t clean my house or cook or do anything. I feel helpless. We have no money. There’s no food in the house. I can’t even take care of my children!”

Suzie is one of the strongest people I know. I’d seen her mad and I’d seen her snarky and I’d seen her in pain and I’d seen her exhausted but I’d never seen Suzie in tears for herself. I knew she was at rope’s end.

“It’s not you or anyone else.” Seriously, she was apologizing. “I feel terrible because everyone’s being so nice but I just want to be left alone with my little family!” For Suzie this outburst was the equivalent of Mt. St. Helens erupting. She hadn’t used the phrase “my last Christmas” but it hung in the air. Not sure what to say, I sat on the bed and found myself staring at the dresser.

“We could use the money tree,” I finally said.

“But we were going to save that for something important.” I saw a flash of hope on her tear-streaked face. This was not a time to be sensible.

“I think this counts. How much do you think is on there?” Her eyes lit up.

“I don’t know but it’s a lot,” she said. By the time we got through untying ribbons and smoothing bills there was more than five hundred dollars spread on the bed. From total strangers. We were amazed.

We could have been more sensible and fiscally responsible with our gift, but we weren’t. We could have treated the money from the tree as an investment, but it wasn’t. It was a gift. And a gift is more than a paycheck. It holds the spirit of the givers. It is undeserved, earned by the sacrifice of others.

So, in that spirit, Suzie made a list, I went to the store and bought a feast. We turned our thoughts to the meaning of Christmas, God’s gift of a son who loved us enough to sacrifice himself in our place. We thanked God for the blessings of family, friends and total strangers.

On Christmas day the house swirled with aromas of food, spices, chocolate and coffee. The tree was decked, the ornaments hung. The kids opened presents and played. My father blessed a sumptuous dinner. Before we knew it they were all packed into cars and driving away, waving.

It was a meal provided by strangers in the spirit of the One Christmas celebrates. A free gift we got to share, provision both for ourselves and others. Christmas itself is such a gift.

May you have a blessed one.