It was Christmas eve, just ten short years ago. As I think through the events, it seems like only last year. I’ve come a long way since then, but I don’t think that I would have gotten nearly as far if it weren’t for what I learned that Christmas.
A light snow fell as we walked slowly back from midnight mass. It had started an hour before we had left home and the accumulation was over two inches now. It was nearly half past one in the morning; midnight mass had gone just past one. I was only eighteen at the time, Kelly was fifteen. It was the four of us: me, Kelly, Momma, and Poppa.
Just five months earlier, cancer had been discovered in both of Momma’s lungs. Doctors had given her four to six months to live. We were just thankful to have her through this holiday season, certainly her last. Her condition degraded, and she had a difficult time doing most anything. Walking was especially difficult. But she insisted on walking to midnight mass. She was a strong, proud woman, sometimes too proud I thought.
“Mass was beautiful tonight,” Kelly said in a cheerful way to nobody in particular.
We all said nothing. I glanced over at Poppa, there were tears welling up in his eyes. He had been taking it very well, but he must be just about ready to burst. Momma had a determined look on her face, walking was such a chore now that she couldn’t muster up the strength to talk while she did it.
“I wish Billy could be here.”
“So do I Kelly. So do I.”
Poppa fought back the tears as his feet carried him forward in a methodical march. He was holding Momma’s arm, steadying her.
Billy was our older brother. Almost twenty now, he had joined the Air Force just under two years earlier and was stationed in Germany. He had gone through training as a medical assistant, and hoped that his military college benefits would get him started toward medical school when he got out in two more years. But he seldom managed to get home. The cost of the trip was prohibitive, and he was saving every dime he had for his education.
I had to say it.
“You know they have something called a hardship discharge Momma. Because of your disease, if we told Billy, they would probably let him get out with an honorable discharge. Or maybe even get stationed closer to home, you know, somewhere in the states.”
Momma stopped suddenly. She was so stubborn and proud that she hadn’t even told Billy, and wouldn’t let us tell him. He was just going to get a mailgram one day saying that his mother had died of cancer, and could he come home for the funeral. After resting several seconds, she managed to speak slowly.
“We’ll do no such thing. Our Billy is going to be a fine doctor one day. If we bring him back now, he’ll go off to work and never get back to his education. I want him, I want all of you to have the chance that your Poppa and me never had. I want you to have an education so that you can have a good job. Billy can’t do anything for me now. As much as I would love to have him home right now, I know that doing that would mean that he would never become a doctor like he wants to. And besides, if he doesn’t become a doctor, who is going to find the cure for this dreadful thing that is killing me? You tell me that Kathleen.”
She now had a half smile on her face. She was a remarkable woman, and in a way, I could see her point. But I thought it was unfair for Billy not to have a few final weeks with his mother before she died. He was a strong young man, physically and emotionally. We would all need him when the time came.
“I know what you’re saying Momma, I know that you love him so much that you don’t want to seem like a burden to him. But I think that he deserves to know. He deserves the chance to make the decision himself. He is strong, and you know it. He wants to be a doctor because he cares for people. Seeing you like this is not going to take from that, it is going to make his desire stronger. Don’t you see?”
We had started walking again and were on the final block. Our house was just seven houses down from where we were. The snow began falling harder. Momma stopped again to respond to my latest statement. Once again, she rested for a few seconds, then when she had the strength, she started.
“He’s not to be bothered with it, and that’s the end of it.” Her voice faltered, she barely managed to finish the statement. I looked over at Poppa, the street light reflected off the wetness of his eyes. Tears had run down Kelly’s face and she sniffled lightly as she walked slowly with her head down. This stubborn woman that we cherished was not going to change her mind.
We reached our front steps a few minutes later, the remainder of the walk conducted in silence. Our four sets of footprints were clearly visible in the snow on the front steps. Although another inch had fallen into them, the surrounding snow had remained proportionately higher, making it look as though we had floated as we walked through the snow, leaving light, fluffy footprints.
We slowly ascended the steps, Poppa on one side of Momma to help her up, me on the other. Kelly had gone ahead to unlock the door.
Kelly held the door well open for Momma to walk in first. Our front door led into a small hallway which then led into the dining room. Once in the dining room, the living room was off to the left, kitchen off to the right. Momma made her way slowly into the dining room, there was a small light on in both the living and dining rooms as well as the lights of the Christmas tree by the front window. As I held her coat from behind so that she could walk out of it, I jumped as she let out a small squeaky noise.
“Oh my god. Oh my god.”
“What’s wrong Momma?” I almost screamed myself. But as I walked around to face her, I saw that nothing was wrong. Sitting in the large easy chair across from the Christmas tree was Billy. He had now jumped up and was rushing towards Momma.
“Oh my Billy, oh my boy, oh my god I love you.”
Billy picked her up in a huge bear hug, Momma laughing and crying all together. Soon all of us were doing the same thing, tears running down our faces, leaving tracks of wetness, tracks of joy. Poppa was now hugging Billy, the two of them locked in a contest of strength, neither one wanting to let go for fear that the one would see that the other was crying. Momma and Kelly were hugging, I had my arms around Billy from behind.
“How did you manage this?” I asked once I had composed myself.
He and Poppa had separated and were sniffling and wiping their eyes.
“Well, I had yesterday off and the day after Christmas, so I decided to see what I could get along the lines of a free military hop over here. I got into Andrews Air Force Base early this morning and took a Greyhound into Sykesburg this morning. Even though I’ve got to leave in the morning, I wanted to come spend a few hours with everyone.”
Momma had sat down in one of the dining room chairs. We hadn’t gone far once we had come in the door, which was still standing open, letting a fierce draft of cold air in.
“You must leave early then?” Momma asked.
“Yes Momma. But we’ll spend the next few hours together, all of us.”
“That’s good then. Let’s sit and talk, you must tell us all about Germany. Kelly, close the door, it’s freezing in here. We’ll sit in the living room and have a fire and something warm to drink.”
Kelly quickly closed and locked the door. Poppa began helping Momma up and into the living room, while Billy and I headed into the kitchen to fix warm drinks.
In the kitchen, I silently began heating the tea kettle and searching for the hot cocoa mix. Billy rummaged through the liquor cabinet until he found the Irish Creme that he knew Poppa always had on hand. I tried to think of the best way to tell him, but realized that time was short, and I’d better just tell him.
“Momma is dying.”
It came out easier than I thought. My voice didn’t even break. Although I knew that my next sentence couldn’t be as easy.
“I know. I knew that something was wrong, that’s why I came.”
“Do you remember the time that Momma fell down the basement steps and broke her leg?”
“I was at basketball practice and Kelly was in that afternoon program that they ran in the church basement. You were on your way home with Sue Kronin and she asked you if you wanted to come over and practice cheers in the basement for a couple of hours. But you told us afterwards that you thought you should go home. It wasn’t that you didn’t want to go to Sue’s or practice cheers, you just thought you should go home. What made you feel that way?”
I stopped and thought about what he said. It was just a feeling that I had. I wanted to go with Sue that time, but I seemed to be preoccupied with this feeling that I must go home. It wasn’t until I went home that I realized how lucky I was that I did. Momma was lying at the base of the stairs in incredible pain, unable to move. She would have been there several hours longer if I hadn’t gone home.
“I guess I just sensed that something, someone at home needed me,” I said as it all became clear.
“Well I felt the same thing. When people are close, the way we are with Momma, the way our family is, I think that the closeness of the relationship breeds something else, some intangible sense of the others’ needs. It’s that sense that made me come home from Germany for this night, or morning I guess, and it’s that sense that made you come home rather than going to Sue Kronin’s for a few hours on that afternoon. I think that my being here will help Momma. How I’m not sure, but I think it will. But I also think that we shouldn’t let on about me knowing. By the time I leave in the early morning, she will know that her condition is no secret to me. Nobody will need to have said it, but she will know. She will also know that the purpose of this visit was to better her condition in any way that my love can. Whether it makes the final days that she spends on this earth happier, or gives her the inner strength to go on longer than her narrow-sighted doctors predict, it will be the best possible gift that I would ever want to give.”
The tea kettle was whistling a consistently high-pitched monotone as I finished putting generous scoops of cocoa mix into each of the four cups. Billy had to steady my hand as he spoke, his powerful speaking had almost made me come apart at the seams. I hugged him with all of my might and tried to speak through my tears.
“Oh Billy what are we going to do?”
“Pray. Just pray.”
I loosened my grip around his lean mid-section and stepped briefly into the bathroom to straighten myself up. When I returned Billy was splashing healthy doses of Irish Creme into each of the five steaming mugs of cocoa. We set them all up on our Christmas serving tray, splashing on the painted mistletoe of the tray as we gave them a final stir.
We served the warm drinks amidst wonderful family conversation. We had sent all our gifts for Billy out two weeks before, so we had nothing for him to open before he left at dawn to catch the bus that would mark the end of this all too short visit. Momma and Poppa tried desperately to stay awake past three o’clock in the morning, but we put them both down half asleep at quarter past. Billy hugged and kissed them, assuring them that he’d return soon. Kelly followed shortly after, leaving Billy and I to reminisce of holiday seasons gone by.
I woke at about six thirty in the easy chair. Billy was nowhere to be found, the small bag that he had set in the kitchen was also gone. I looked out the window at the stairs, the wind must have blown the snow over his tracks because there was no trace of any footprints in the snow.
I remember sitting down on the couch looking across at the mantle above the fireplace. There was still a small glow left from the fire that we fed until well past four in the morning. Staring across the room recalling the short visit, I noticed a small white piece of paper peeking out over the rim of my stocking that was tacked to the wooden mantle.
It was a short note from Billy.
I think that the visit was helpful. Just as I sensed that it was time to come home, I sensed that the visit helped Momma, as well as the rest of you.
Sorry I had to leave so early, but I must catch the early bus if I’m to make my plane.
Take good care of Momma, Poppa, and Kelly, and give them all my love. Never underestimate the value of a visit — no matter how short it may be.
It was a wonderful Christmas Day. All of us agreed that it was one of the best that we could recall, except that Billy wasn’t there. But somehow, we all agreed when we spoke weeks later, we felt as though he was there. We were all there. We sensed it.
Momma felt better than she had in months. She cooked the entire dinner by herself (she hadn’t done that since five weeks after her diagnosis, it wasn’t that she didn’t want to, she was just too weak to be on her feet very long), and ate with a great fervor that belied her condition. There was no talk on this joyous day that even remotely resembled the conversation that we all struggled through during that difficult walk home from midnight mass.
Over the next two days Momma’s condition improved remarkably. I was amazed at the change in her that Billy had predicted in both our conversation and the brief note that I had found in my stocking (at this point I still kept the letter to myself). It took the three of us nagging her to get her to slow down and go to the doctor to see if there was any physical explanation for the remarkable change in her condition. We were all cautiously optimistic of what might come of that visit on December 28.
The cancer was gone. Not just in remission, but gone. As if it was never there. They did everything twice, with a second doctor coming in to check the original x-rays along with the latest because Momma’s regular doctor was himself beginning to suspect that perhaps he was going a bit crazy. It was there, now it was gone.
We were all on cloud nine. Poppa had to return to work for the afternoon, promising that he would try to talk the foreman into another day off to spend with the family in celebration. I left Momma and Kelly home searching for the number to reach Billy at in Germany as I went to the grocery store to gather fixings for a fine family dinner.
It wasn’t until I was directly in front of our house that I noticed the strange car parked at the curb. I was thinking that it was too new to belong to anyone in this working-class neighborhood, and then I noticed the government license plates. I dropped the two grocery bags at the base of the stairs and dashed inside the house. I heard violent sobs that I recognized as Momma’s emanating from the living room where Momma and Kelly sat on the couch holding each other. The two tall men in Air Force uniforms stood holding their hats in front of them with their heads down in respect of the sorrow. Nobody had to tell me anything. I knew that Billy was dead.
It must have been the shock that allowed me to get clear sentences out after that. I asked the question that I knew neither Momma or Kelly had been able to ask.
“How did it happen?”
It was the slightly taller of the two men that responded.
“William was a volunteer during his spare time at a local orphanage near the base. He was playing Santa Claus for the children when the boiler in the basement exploded. The entire wooden building went up in flames in a matter of minutes. William had actually gotten out, but realizing that many of the children were missing, he went back inside to try to save anyone that he could. Witnesses said that he brought some fourteen children out before the upper stairs were cut off by the intense heat of the spreading fire. He was on the third floor when it happened, and he began lowering the remaining children to safety using a makeshift sling that he fastened out of bed sheets.
“When it was all over, it’s amazing that all of the children had escaped with just minor injuries. If it hadn’t been for William, the death toll would have likely exceeded thirty children. He has already been posthumously awarded the highest decoration for bravery in peacetime by both the United States and Germany. Chaplain Thomas arrived at the scene just after William had jumped from the window. He was badly burned and suffered severe injuries in the fall. He was a very brave man Mrs. O’Connor.”
The tall man turned toward the slightly shorter man. The man looked older and somehow gentler. I noticed the cross on his collar that identified him as a chaplain.
“I arrived in time to administer last rights to William,” the chaplain started. “I held him in my arms during his final moments of consciousness. I assured him that the Lord would welcome him into his house for his amazing display of unselfishness that ultimately cost him his life on earth. I was further amazed at what the young man had to say to me.
“He told me in his final words that he wanted the Lord to do him a favor in exchange for what he had done for the children of the orphanage. He said that his mother was very ill, and that he wanted her to be well. He also said that he wanted very much to be able to spend some time, just a few hours with his family before the end of his life on earth. I cried as I held this brave young man in my arms and listened to his noble, unselfish requests. Shortly after that, William fell unconscious and never came back around. The doctors were amazed that he hung on until the next day before he passed away. They also said that when he died, he had a smile on his face, he looked satisfied.”
Momma and Kelly had both stopped their sobbing and were listening attentively to the chaplain as he spoke in gentle sentences. My eyes met Momma’s, then Kelly’s and I clearly saw the bright realization in their look that I felt in my heart as the chaplain finished. I knew what to ask.
“When? When did it happen?”
“It was Christmas Eve that it all happened. William dropped off into a coma early Christmas morning and died in the afternoon. During the final five hours his vital signs were weak, he was distant.”
“What would all of that be in our time zone?”
The chaplain looked at me curiously and turned towards the taller man who must have been better at time zone calculations.
“Well the fire would have been about ten in the morning on Christmas Eve and I guess that it would have been a little past midnight on Christmas Eve that he slipped into the coma, and about six in the morning Christmas Day when he died.”
I’ll never forget the look on the faces of the two men. Their looks were similar, both looks of bewilderment. Momma, Kelly, and I looked at each other smiling. I approached the couch and the three of us hugged. We realized now that Billy had given the ultimate gift. He had given it to the children of the orphanage, and he had given it to us.
(C) Colin Lee 1988, All Rights Reserved