63: The Perfect Gift

63: The Perfect Gift

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: It's Christmas!

The Perfect Gift

Those who bring sunshine into the lives of others, cannot keep it from themselves.

~James M. Barrie

Christmas was fast approaching. The houses in our neighborhood looked like ladies going out on the town, with necklaces of garlands and colored lights. In the spirit of the season, my father bought the most beautiful tree he could find and spent hours lovingly decorating every bough with lights and ornaments. Some of the ornaments were crafted by artists, some were collected on trips, and others were priceless creations that my parents had saved over the years: things like a tiny handprint in clay or the photograph of a toothless kindergartner surrounded by glitter.

On Christmas Eve morning, my father brought my mother home from the hospital for the holidays. Her long battle with cancer was coming to an end and we knew, with heartbreaking certainty, that her forty-ninth Christmas was going to be her last.

It was a melancholy reunion. In many ways, my mother, who had once been so full of life, had already left us. She was weak from the disease, the pain medication left her foggy and lethargic and, as hospice had predicted, she had withdrawn into herself in preparation for death. She sat in her wheelchair in front of the Christmas tree for hours, lost in thoughts she couldn’t express.

At the same time, my brother, sister, father and I also carried wounds from her battle. We had spent long hours in hospital rooms, had lived through terrifying emergencies that sent ambulances racing to our home and had ridden the roller coaster of hope followed by disappointment and despair. We moved about the house with heavy hearts and a deep exhaustion that the gaiety of the season made almost too painful to bear. There was no Christmas feast planned, no shiny packages under the tree. For what could possibly be put into a box for someone with so little time to live?

As the day slipped into evening, the doorbell rang. Word had gone out in the neighborhood that Mom was home for the holidays. For the next few hours, friends and neighbors trickled in. Chairs were arranged in the family room, the fire was stoked, and carols were softly playing on the stereo. The conversation soon turned toward those special moments when my mother had touched their lives in some way. Some of the stories were new to me; stories that hadn’t been told because she never advertised her acts of kindness.

“Remember the time I was shorthanded at my alterations shop and mentioned it when I ran into you at the mailbox? You were on vacation from your job, but when I got to work the next morning there you sat in front of a sewing machine, helping out.”

“How about the time I took the roast out of the oven and dropped it at my dinner party? I was devastated!” said another. “You knew how hard I’d worked on it so you made me serve it right off the floor!”

“When my daughter got pregnant you insisted on keeping her baby in the morning so she could finish high school and you wouldn’t take a dime for doing it. Without your help she would have had to drop out of school. It would have changed her whole life.”

“Remember the time you dropped me off at the bus station? You were waving goodbye so enthusiastically, the bus driver thought you were flagging him down and backed up!”

It started slowly, but as the words began to paint a picture of deep, abiding friendship and love, something magical happened. Each story drew my mother a little further out of the fog and back into the light. A vacant nod turned into a smile. Her brown eyes began to twinkle with warmth and awareness. She even chuckled at the stories about her foibles, as she had always loved to laugh at herself. As she drew nearer to us, my heavy heart lifted.

Our college-aged friends who were home for winter break began to arrive. They also had stories to share.

“We loved being in your house. There was always something fun going on; football in the back yard, Euchre inside at the game table. Plus you always fed us!”

“You were the best baker in the neighborhood,” my best friend added, “I couldn’t get enough of your cinnamon rolls!”

“You don’t know this,” said one of my brother’s friends, “but I always wished I had been born into your family. You guys were always laughing. It was a great place to be!”

“I wish I had known,” my mother quipped softly. “I could have worked out a trade with your parents.” The room erupted into laughter and taunts toward my siblings and me. They thought it was hilarious that she could have so cavalierly tossed one of us aside.

It was in that small joke that I realized my mother had returned to us. Against all odds she was truly present, surrounded by the family and friends who treasured her. She always said she was just a simple woman living a simple life. Those who view their lives as “simple” seldom see the impact they have on those around them. Our neighbors took the time to let her know that she had made a difference to each of them, and in doing so, softened the razor-sharp edges of my own grief.

There hasn’t been a December since that year when I haven’t thought of the night our friends postponed their own traditions to demonstrate the true meaning of Christmas. Six days before my mother would pass away, they gave my family the perfect gift. It couldn’t be boxed, bowed, or stuffed into a stocking, and cancer couldn’t take it away. It was the gift of love that had been nurtured for decades. It was the one gift, I know beyond a shadow of a doubt, that she carried with her into Heaven.

~Vicki Kitchner

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