Christmas in July

Christmas in July

From Chicken Soup for the Nurse's Soul Second Dose

Christmas in July

Children are God’s apostles, sent forth, day by day, to preach of love, and hope and peace.

J. R. Lowell

A drop of sweat trickled down the side of my face. As I walked through the door into the building, a blast of cool air enveloped me.

“Thank goodness for air-conditioning!” I said loudly to the receptionist in the lobby. She nodded in agreement as she answered a call and I got onto the elevator.

“What number?” asked a little boy in a red wagon being pulled by his mom.

I looked at him and smiled. “Number five.”

He pushed the button as he smiled back at me with blue eyes that sparkled. He had no hair, and his mouth was covered with a paper mask. He wasn’t from my floor . . . the masks on my floor were oxygen masks, and they still had their own hair. As a pediatric nurse in a pediatric hospital these sights were a common and accepted part of my job.

It was July 24, a sweltering summer day. But when the elevator doors opened to the fifth floor, it was like a scene from a winter wonderland. There was a lighted Christmas tree in the corner and paper snowflakes hanging from every ceiling tile. Red ribbons adorned all the doorknobs of the patient rooms, and snowmen were pasted on every other available open space. The Christmas carol “We Wish You a Merry Christmas” played in the background, harmonized by Alvin and the Chipmunks. The playroom was filled with children with oxygen tanks and IV poles in tow. There was much laughter and giggling going on as the “play lady” turned to me and said, “Merry Christmas! We are celebrating Christmas in July . . . so that makes today Christmas Eve! Hope you’ve got your shopping done!”

I smiled at her inventiveness and said, “What a great idea, Betsy! Two Christmases in one year. These kids must have been really good!”

As my afternoon shift began and I started my assignment, I saw each of Santa’s “July elves” I was assigned to, all gathered in the playroom, still giggling and listening to the Chipmunks. I did a quick check to make sure everyone was okay, and let them get back to the fun.

After playtime was finished and IV poles and oxygen tanks with kids attached were returned to their rooms, I began my rounds.

I saved Stacey for last so I could spend more time with her as needed. She was waiting for me, with that slightly lopsided grin and those huge brown eyes. I had been caring for her for many months.

Her voice sounded far away with the oxygen mask pulled tightly over her cheeks. “Kathy, what do you like best about Christmas?”

I didn’t really think about my answer, I just said, “I love decorating the tree. I have some special ornaments that remind me of people I love.”

While doing her treatments we talked about Christmas, and I told her part of a story I remembered from when I was her age, about a mouse that ate Santa’s cake. I couldn’t remember the end and what happened to the mouse, but I said I would try to find out.

I could see she was really tired when her treatment to clear her lungs was finished. She fell asleep during dinner while watching TV; she didn’t have the energy of most other eight-year-olds. I was conscious of the subtle changes, and I knew her treatment options were limited. I understood that she was slipping away. No matter how much I loved her, I could not change that.

Stacey slept much of the evening. As usual, she awakened when I came to say goodnight. It was a ritual we had started when I first started caring for her. Whenever my shift was almost over, I would come to tell her a story, she would brush her teeth and say her prayers, and I would hug and kiss her and tuck her in her bed for the night.

Since it was Christmas Eve in July, I recited “The Night Before Christmas” for her. Just as I was about to leave, she handed me a small package wrapped in white tissue paper and tied with a red ribbon. I was touched and surprised. “Can I open it now since it is after midnight and it is Christmas . . . in July?”

“No, I want you to wait for the real Christmas, with snow, and trees, and Santa . . . in December.”

I gave her another gentle squeeze, and said, “You are so special to me. I love you. I can’t wait till Christmas to see what it is!”

She smiled from beneath her oxygen mask and said, “You have to promise you will wait.”

I assured her I would wait, just as she asked.

The dog days of summer turned into the cool, crisp days of fall. Stacey and I watched from her hospital room as the children played in the park across the street. Soon the brilliant crimson and yellow of the leaves heralded the arrival of October. Stacey’s breathing was becoming increasingly difficult and she required more oxygen to keep her comfortable. Her usually sallow complexion was now a bluish hue, and she chose her words carefully whenever she spoke. It required most of her energy to talk, and when she said, “I’m tired,” it wasn’t just tired. She was tired of fighting for every breath.

Stacey wrote a note to me that afternoon to ask if I would “Pleeeese find out what happened to that mouse that ate Santa’s cake. I want to know how the story ends.”

I had forgotten about telling her that tale until she reminded me about our Christmas in July party. The next morning before work, I called the family friend who had told me the story when I was young. I told him the circumstances and all about Stacey, and that she was waiting for the end of the story. He gladly told the story again, and this time, I wrote it down.

During Stacey’s treatment the next afternoon, I recited the rest of the tale about the mouse that ate Santa’s cake. She smiled when I finished, and with great effort said, “Thank you. Now I know what happens at the end.”

When her grandmother arrived that evening, as the sunset glowed pink and purple in the sky, Stacey closed her eyes and died peacefully in her grandma’s arms.

Now her story was completed too.

I was with her when she died, as I had been on many afternoons and evenings of her young life. I missed her terribly. I missed her big brown eyes and her lopsided smile that drew me eagerly back to work every day. I missed the faraway sound of her voice behind her oxygen mask, and the hugs and kisses she gave me at the beginning and end of my workdays on my first job as a pediatric nurse. I felt her absence every day from that day on.

But time passed, as it does. We celebrated Thanksgiving with a feast together at work, and the holiday rush began. Soon it was the real Christmas Eve.

I returned home from work that evening and as the clock struck midnight, I took out the package Stacey had given me in July. On the tag in her childish scrawl, she’d written, “To Kathy. I love you. Do not open until December 25.” I slowly unwound the red ribbon and removed the crinkled tissue paper. Inside the package was a white snowman with big green polka dots. He wore a black felt hat, had blue button eyes, and a red, lopsided grin. A loop of green yarn wrapped as a scarf around his neck, and another loop was glued to his back so he was ready to hang on the tree. As my tears fell on the snowman, I recalled the words I said to her when she asked what I liked best about Christmas . . . decorating the tree with special ornaments that remind me of people I love.

Each Christmas as I unwrap the ornament, the tissue paper becomes more fragile and yellowed with age. I reread Stacey’s simple declaration of love and caress the polka-dot snowman. His lopsided grin is a legacy of the little girl that I loved.

Kathleen E. Jones

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