86: From Christmas Past to Christmas Future

86: From Christmas Past to Christmas Future

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Christmas in Canada

From Christmas Past to Christmas Future

Christmas is not as much about opening our presents as opening our hearts.

~Janice Maeditere

Nine days before Christmas our twenty-three-year-old son was in a horrific car crash while driving home from a party. By the time Christmas arrived, we hadn’t seen daylight since 2:20 a.m. that awful day. He suffered a catastrophic brain injury, and all we could do was wander the halls of Sunnybrook like zombies. We grabbed some sleep when we could, sprawled over waiting room chairs or rolled up in a fetal position, the sounds of the breathing machine and heart monitor haunting our sleep.

But how does one celebrate the joy of Christmas in the ICU? Our son’s life hung by a thread and we were unwilling and unable to break ourselves from his side.

We were told that when someone is in a coma the hearing is thought to be the last of the senses to go. We decided then to push our sorrow aside and, in the only way we could, share Christmas with our son. So, leaning over his limp, lifeless body, I lovingly whispered into his ear, “Merry Christmas, sweetheart.” Then, guided by the Christmas Spirit, with all the love in our hearts, we began to tell him what Christmas meant to us — the Christmases we grew up with, that he grew up with, our yearly Christmas traditions and all the variations we had passed on to our children.

First we told him about the very first Christmas Eve and the first Christmas Day. We told him about the Christmas bells chiming songs of joy to welcome the birth of Baby Jesus, of the three wise men and the Star of Bethlehem. Then we told him about the Charlie Brown Christmas and A Christmas Carol, with its three scary ghosts of Christmas past, present and future.

We told him about jolly old Saint Nick and Santa’s elves in his workshop at the North Pole, located way up on top of the world. We reminded him that he sat on Santa’s lap at the mall when he was a small boy, while the nice lady took pictures. We named all of Santa’s reindeer and read him the story of Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer. We read Dr. Seuss’s The Grinch Who Stole Christmas and The Night Before Christmas, where all through the house, not even a mouse was stirring. We described Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite, with toy soldiers and sugar plum fairies, and talked about how we watched it on TV every year.

Our daughter brought videos of Christmases past to the hospital. Moments, frozen in time, of trimming the Christmas tree while the house smelled of evergreen branches mixed with the scent of freshly baked cookies; moments of gingerbread houses and big turkey dinner feasts and eggnog and of huge family gatherings at his Omi’s house, where we’d see tons of relatives and open even more presents.

We quietly sang our favourite Christmas carols to him in whispers — we were, after all, in an ICU hospital ward. We sang “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town,” “Frosty the Snow Man,” and his favourite, “The Twelve Days of Christmas.”

In his ear, we whispered the story of the time we put bales of hay out for the deer, peanuts, still in their shells, for the squirrels and seeds for the wild winter birds. That year the winter was bitter cold, and he and his sister had insisted we feed the animals that lived in the forest behind our house.

As our son lay there, silent and still, we talked of how each season we experimented with hot cocoa, sometimes adding whipped cream and cinnamon or coloured mini marshmallows or sticks of candy canes, melting in the hot chocolate. We reminded him how we placed Christmas cards from distant loved ones on the mantel, beside carefully hung stockings and plates of cookies and milk laid out for Santa. How we’d snuggle up by the roaring fire with our hands clutching mugs of steamy cocoa, while snow fell silently outside and a whisper of Christmas music danced in the air.

We reminded him of the year we drove to the farm to hunt for our Christmas tree, and took a sleigh ride with jingling bells and horses that neighed, and how that winter the snow came down gently, silently, creating a winter wonderland. We talked about snow angels and snowball fights, snow castles and forts, and the year we built the biggest snowman in the neighbourhood. We reminded him of the fun we had every year decorating the house with sparkling, twinkling lights, and of driving out at night to see the neighbourhood Christmas splendour.

Suddenly, the life support machines keeping our son alive started to bleep like crazy. Several nurses came running and pushed us aside. His heartbeat shot way up, and then dropped down really low. He was pale, grey really, and soaking wet with perspiration. These events then began to repeat themselves over and over, and it was frightening to watch. We later learned this indicated that part of his brain was waking up — the part that allowed his body to stay alive and breathe on its own, and it could be a long, drawn out process. “Prepare yourselves,” we were urged. They did not think he would survive it.

I took a moment to call my mother to wish her a Merry Christmas, but when she asked me how it was going, I broke down and began to sob as I tried to describe what was happening. I think it was the first time I had let myself go.

Later that day, the nurse stationed at our son’s bedside called us over with a huge grin on his face. “I have great news!” He announced excitedly. “Your son is being transferred from the ICU to Critical Care. He’s not out of the woods yet, but he’s definitely moving in the right direction.” This wonderful news was like a gift handed to us directly from God. That day, somehow, our son managed to gather his strength and hurdle himself over the fine line between deathbed and road to recovery. Leaning into his ear I whispered, “Guess what we just found out? You’re getting better, sweetheart. Great job! Keep up the good work.”

Ironically, this turned out to be one of the best Christmases our family ever had. No longer would we hear “prepare yourself; he’s not going to make it.” Against all odds, he made it, and he made it on Christmas Day. He remained in a coma for several more weeks before he actually opened his eyes. Fully waking up was a very long process, and he still suffers from his catastrophic brain injury.

Christmas angels were definitely watching over us that day, and over our son. But it was the Christmas traditions we’d gathered up throughout the years of living in Canada that allowed us to celebrate with the mystique that had become what Christmas means to us. I believe that is why he came back — and why he lived — because of our persistent recounting of those joyous memories, with all the love in our hearts.

~Eva K. Chagnon

Barrie, Ontario

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