Dad Ruined Christmas

We held vigil – my brother and I – as our father slipped into peaceful sleep Christmas Eve.

Returning from much needed rest, we noticed my father’s nurse had placed stickers of angels on his hospital room door.

“But what about a transplant?” he pled with the doctor twenty-four hours earlier.

“It’s too late. It’s not an option.”

“I want to talk to another doctor!” he shouted, as we listened to his yelling from the hallway.

He wasn’t ready to die, but vital organs were beginning to fail. The hospital could only alleviate his pain.

“I want to go home. Check me out of here and take me home!”

Despite his condition, our mother made the decision as she always had during their sixty-year marriage, quick to submit to his demands.

“Mom, no. There’s no way you can take care of him,” we pleaded.

“Yes, I can. It’s what he wants.”

. . .

I realized it was serious when my husband told me to get on a flight and to my father’s bedside.

“I’ll drive.”

“No, you need to get there sooner. Tonight. Randy will pick you up at the airport.”

My childhood friend picking me up? What did he know, were they not telling me something, had my father already passed?

Trusting those who knew me best, I packed not sure how long I’d be gone.

The holiday was fast approaching and the airport was a mess. Grateful to have a last-minute ticket, yet anxious with uncertainty and worry, I waited as flight delays and cancelations were announced.

Wondering if this would be a final Christmas with my father.

The most wonderful time of the year had never been so for me.

. . .

1969

“We three kings of orient are” I sang, marching into the cavernous First Congregational Church.

My first acting role, at age eight. The poor little Indian who wore tattered hand-me-downs, now adorned in a velvet robe and jeweled crown.

Pews filled with parishioners, I felt special that brief moment, singing aloud “Bearing gifts we traverse afar.”

Once the pageantry was over I’d return to our dilapidated wooden house, and wish for presents that would never come.

The most-memorable Christmas of my life consisting of that role as royalty, but instead of gold, frankincense, and myrrh, my gifts being a stocking filled with walnuts, a candy cane, and used Matchbox car. It wasn’t even in a box, as if it had been found, or stolen from another boy’s yard.

. . .

My grandmother Amelia was a bag lady.

She’d wander the alleys and dumpsters early mornings. I’m not sure what she discovered other than cans and bottles for recycling, but occasionally she would give me or my brother a toy she claimed she found in a garbage.

Everyone in our small town seem to know Grandma Emily.

She worked as a domestic. Once, at a beautiful modern waterfront mansion I was able to explore as a boy. It had a Japanese tea garden with ponds and little bridges.

“Fruit! Fairy! Queer!” my grandmother would yell at me, or whisper, “You’ll never be anything. You’re nothing.”

The only memory I have of her being nice to me is Christmastime. Her gifts, the most valued present I’d receive as a boy, Big Chief writing tablets. I felt like John Boy Walton!

Wikipedia describes the pad as “newsprint paper and features widely spaced lines, easier to use for those learning to write.”

My grandmother, planting the seeds for writing, not ever knowing I might one day tell her story.

1989

“Silent night. Holy night…” a busload of passengers calmly sang, as we rode slowly through California’s central valley fog, from Merced to Lodi.

I’d managed to get a few days off from my job in Yosemite. Taking a shuttle from the national park to the nearest Greyhound depot, I barely made a late-night trek north, to surprise my parents and spend the holiday with them.

The nervous driver only able to see a couple feet in front of the bus, drove slowly through the thick fog.

A girl with short boyish haircut managed to cut the tension, asking “Hey, does anyone want to sing Christmas carols?”

Like the scene in Planes, Trains and Automobiles (one of my father’s favorite movies), she led her fellow travelers in almost every classic song we knew.

“Robby!” my mother shouted. “Junior, look who’s here!” she said to my father.

Grandma Emily sat in the corner.

With no chance (and not much money) for presents, I picked up a box of chocolate-covered cherries (her favorite) from a convenience store next to the bus depot.

. . .

Despite only a handful of holiday memories, remembering my grandmother’s smile and happiness at Christmas warms my heart, still. Unfortunately, my father’s desperation to live, and the loss of hope, leave me with much sadness.

He wasn’t there when we returned. Sure, his body was, and machines told us his heart still functioned, but we knew he was gone.

It was more than rest, wasn’t sleep. His soul had left.

The television played sitcoms we’d all seen a hundred times. We pretended to change the channel, for him.

After hours of grueling helplessness at our impending loss, the nurse arrived to disconnect life support, leaving us numb and alone.

Gloria Gaynor proclaimed “I. I will survive,” loudly on TV as I grabbed the remote, grasping for the off switch.

“He’s gone,” I phoned my cousin. It was all I was able to say as a deafening silence filled the room.

“Dad ruined Christmas!” my brother blurted out, relieving our trauma with laughter and quiet tears.

We stumbled to our car, returning to the home he and my mother had shared. His unopened presents still under the tree.

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