71: A Christmas Memory

71: A Christmas Memory

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: A Book of Christmas Miracles

A Christmas Memory

Christmas is doing a little something extra for someone.

~Charles Schulz

The snow fell softly, its delicate lace-patterned snowflakes lingering on my woolen poncho. I half-carried, half-dragged my cumbersome load — a large garbage sack loaded with gifts — across the whitening street. It was almost midnight on Christmas Eve, but I was in no hurry to get home. Tears blurred the kaleidoscope of multicolored lights that blinked cheerily from our neighbor’s houses. More subdued candles dimly lit every window at our house in their halfhearted attempt to feign cheer. Suddenly I stopped and stared. A white-bearded, red-clad, overstuffed figure was tapping gently at our front door and muttering “Ho! Ho! Ho!”

What is he doing here? I thought bitterly.

Christmas wasn’t coming to No. 5 Jodi Lane this year. I feared it might never come again. My mind raced back to that day in November, the day our joy seemed to disappear forever.

The fall weather was just turning crisp, and my husband Jack and I and our three children squeezed into the car to head out for the Junior Midgets Sunday afternoon football game. Our two older children, Tara, four, and Sean, eighteen months, ran up and down the bleachers while I tended the baby, Christopher, who was three months old. He was snuggled up warmly in his carriage, napping on his stomach, oblivious to the noise and chill in the air.

“I haven’t seen your newest addition yet,” one of our friends, Tony, called, coming to my side. He smiled and peeked into the buggy. Always eager to show off the baby, I lifted him out, his face turned toward Tony. The smile faded from Tony’s face, and horror filled his eyes. What was wrong? I turned Christopher to me. His beautiful, perfect little face was a contorted, grayish-blue. I screamed.

Another parent — a New York City policeman — leapt from the bleachers, grabbed Christopher from my arms and began applying CPR before the screams had died from my lips. An ambulance was on standby for the football game, and the policeman ran toward it with our lifeless baby cradled in his arms. Jack ran behind them. By the time they pulled away, I had collapsed, and a second ambulance was called to take me to the hospital.

When I arrived minutes later, the policeman who had carried Christopher away opened the door of my ambulance. His name was John, and his brown eyes were kind as he jumped up and sat by me in the ambulance. I didn’t like what I saw in his eyes. He reached out one of his massive hands — hands that had tried to save my baby — and held mine.

“Let’s pray for a moment before we go inside,” he said gently.

“Is he alive?” I pleaded.

I didn’t want to pray — not then, not for a long time afterwards. John led me into the hospital to Jack, and we stood together as we heard the medical explanation: SIDS (sudden infant death syndrome). Our son was another infant who had simply died in his sleep. No one knew why or how. There had been little anyone could do at the hospital. Christopher was dead when I lifted him from the carriage. He had died sometime during his warm, safe naptime.

We had set out that morning — a family with three happy, healthy children. Jack and I returned that evening huddled and bewildered in the backseat of John’s car. Tara and Sean were at a friend’s house. And Christopher, our baby, was dead.

John and his family lived about three blocks from us. A twenty-year veteran of the NYPD, John was experienced in dealing with death, but he was neither hardened nor immune to it. It was his patience and compassion that carried us through the worst hours of our lives.

The weeks that followed encompassed the two most joyous family holidays of the year — Thanksgiving and Christmas — but for us, they were a pain-filled blur. Jack and I were so overwhelmed with grief, we cut ourselves off from everyone and each other.

By the beginning of December, if I could have stopped Christmas from coming for the entire world, I would have done it. Christmas has no right coming this year, I thought angrily.

But now, close to midnight on Christmas Eve, Santa Claus was intruding at my front door. If ever I had entertained a belief in the existence of Santa Claus, this was certainly the moment of stark reality — the time I knew he didn’t, never did and never would exist.

Angry and exhausted, I set down the load of packages I’d bought for the children weeks ago. I had donated Christopher’s presents to Birth Right shortly after his death. Tara’s and Sean’s gifts had been hidden safely from their spying eyes at a neighbor’s house until this evening. I felt a pang of guilt. Jack and I probably hadn’t done a very good job of preparing for Christmas this year; we had numbly gone through the motions of selecting and decorating a tree with Tara and Sean.

By the time I reached the front steps, Jack had opened the door and was looking blankly at the bulky figure. His eyes landed on me, behind the Santa; he probably thought I had dragged the guy home in a feeble attempt to revive some Christmas spirit. I shrugged my shoulders, indicating I was just as bewildered as he, and entered the house behind the red-suited man.

Santa ignored us. He merrily bounced up the stairs and made a beeline to the children’s bedrooms. He woke Tara first, gently calling her by name. She sat straight up and smiled. Of course Santa was standing by her bed! What else could you expect on Christmas Eve, her four-year-old mind reasoned, and she immediately launched into a recital of her wish list. “A Barbie doll with lots of clothes, a tea set, Candyland and a doll that really wets,” she finished happily. Santa hugged her and made her promise she would go right back to sleep. “Don’t forget, I’ve been a very good girl,” she called after him.

Santa walked into Sean’s room. Sean wasn’t so enthusiastic about waking up (he never was), and he was a bit skeptical, but he remembered getting a reindeer lollipop at the mall from some guy who looked like this and decided to let him stay. Santa lifted him out of his crib. Sean smiled sleepily and gave Santa a hug.

I looked at the big strong hands that gently held my son and, lifting my eyes to Santa’s face, saw kindly brown eyes gazing at me over the folds of his fluffy white beard. I remembered those strong hands and the warmth of those eyes.

“Oh, John!” I cried and burst into tears. Santa reached out to Jack and me and held us close. “Thought you might all need a little Christmas tonight,” he said softly.

Soon Santa left, and we watched him walk out into the snow-covered street toward the warmth of his own home and family. Jack and I wordlessly placed our packages under the tree and stepped back to see their bright paper glow under the Christmas tree lights. Santa had come to No. 5 Jodi Lane. And so had Christmas.

~Lenore Gavigan

Chicken Soup for the Mother’s Soul II

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