In separate vignettes, we meet Katherine, who is taking care of her ailing husband; Julianna, juggling with construction paper, scissors, and rubber cement in a room full of high-spirited four-year-olds; Adrianna, struggling with the difficulties of marriage; Cassandra, the busy mother of toddlers; Victoria, searching for a love to call her own; Alexandra, a young woman waiting for word from her doctor about an uncertain diagnosis; and Isabella, discovering the gift of motherhood. The lives of all the women come together in a moving conclusion that perfectly captures the heart and soul of the holiday spirit.
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CHRISTINE PISERA NAMAN is the author of Caterpillar Kisses and Faces of Hope. She has written for several magazines and is a frequent contributor to the Chicken Soup for the Soul series. She lives in Monroeville, Pennsylvania.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
“I saw my father today,” he announced as she entered the room. Startled, she blinked, then rushed toward him, pulling off her heavy winter coat. She quickly dusted off the few flakes of snow that had snuck beneath her coat to attach themselves to her bright red sweater. She sat quickly in the chair next to his walker and gave him her full attention. She knew, of course, that he had not seen his father. He himself was seventy–five years old, and his father had died years before.
She was surprised not so much at what he had said but by how he had said it, a clear competent thought in a complete sentence, even if the thought was an impossible one. Since he had been moved to the dementia floor three years earlier, complete thoughts were fewer and farther between.
She came to see him every day. Most days he was not well and he could not recognize her. But there were those rare days when his eyes held just the slightest glimmer of understanding. And it was those moments of hope that warmed her heart. They seemed to be reserved only for her. Their daughters came and went, visiting regularly, but he showed nothing. His illness had begun slowly, as this type of illness always seems to do, then quickened, until names then faces melted into an unknown past. It had been sad to watch, but she had reminded herself that he had had a good life, a full one, a life full of blessings.
Visiting him wasn’t a duty but instead her comfort. She never rushed through her visits but lingered, beginning and ending each with a prayer, just as they had begun and ended each day of their life together. Each day she read a little from the Bible, sometimes reading from his, sometimes reading from hers. The Bibles were tattered now; they had been gifts to one another on their wedding day.
Lately she had had to rely on the flicker that only sometimes appeared in his eyes when she entered the room to know that he still knew her. She had to watch him carefully because that moment disappeared just as quickly as it came.
Often he was silent, offering only a furrowed brow when confronted with even the most basic questions. He didn't know how he was or if he enjoyed lunch or if he thought it was a nice day outside. So, mostly she just talked to him. She told him things. How she was. How their daughters were, how their lives were progressing, their accomplishments and heartaches. She told him about their grandkids and even a bit of gossip about the neighbors. He never offered anything back, but he never acted as if her talking bothered him either, so she just talked on. There was a simple peace in just being together, side by side, just as they had spent the past fifty years. It didn’t matter as much as one would think that one of them was no longer who he had been. It was okay because there was a quiet understanding that only people who had nurtured a marriage for fifty years could understand. She tried to explain this to her daughters but was almost sure none of them understood it. She prayed that in time they would understand because when they did, it would mean that they too had successfully grown a marriage. “Fifty years is a lot of lifetime,” she would tell them. “Sometimes you walk side by side; sometimes you take turns carrying each other. Together we’re still complete.”
“So you saw your father?” she tried brightly, shaking the snow from her boots. He had drifted off, but her question brought him back.
“Yes,” he answered with the slightest smile, as if savoring the memory. It had been years since he had smiled. His smile had been one of the first things to go. The sight of it warmed her and brought back a flood of old times. For a moment he seemed not so far away.
She decided that it was her Christmas present, a touch of a blessed past. A glimpse of the man she called her husband the way that she wanted to remember him. For some time she had had to struggle to remember him the way he was then instead of the way he had become. But here it had been delivered to her without a struggle like a present, and on Christmas Eve.
So she decided that he too had gotten a Christmas present. Whatever or whoever he had seen, he thought it was his father. And it made him happy. And that was good enough for her.
They spent the rest of the afternoon pleasantly. They chatted in his room for a while. And even though he didn’t respond, he seemed to enjoy what she told him. They sampled Christmas cookies and eggnog in the living room. They watched a good bit of It’s a Wonderful Life in the TV room. She remembered how he loved Jimmy Stewart. “Good, clean, and wholesome,” he used to say. “Just like people should be.” She encouraged him to make a craft in the group room. But he seemed confused at the idea of gluing rigatoni to cardboard. His Italian blood forbade it, she joked to herself. At three she helped feed him a Christmas dinner of roast turkey, mashed potatoes and gravy, stuffing, cranberry sauce, and pumpkin pie for dessert. His hearty appetite was one thing that never changed.
Finally, they returned to his room. Gently, she stroked the little hair he had left.
“I guess I need to be going, honey,” she told him. “I need to get home to prepare Christmas Eve dinner for the girls.”
She checked her watch. “I still need to get to Rocco’s Deli,”she explained. “And pick up the pecan salmon I ordered. It’s as good as ever.” She knelt down beside him. “Let’s pray.” Holding his now–frail hands in hers, she recited a prayer. When she was finished, he looked back at her with a childlike innocence. Prayer always seemed to calm him. She felt guilty leaving him. She used to check him out of the nursing home for the holidays and take him home, but the last time she did he almost fell and the time before that he seemed frightened to be in unfamiliar surroundings, so she felt it best to leave him be. It was a decision she always wrestled with.
“Oh my goodness! Your present!” she exclaimed. “I almost forgot to give it to you.” She laughed. “It wouldn’t be Christmas without a present.”
She retrieved the wrapped package from the other side of the room and set it on his lap. He stared straight ahead and made no motion to touch it. She couldn't tell if he even noticed that she had put it there.
“Here. I'll help you open it,” she said, guiding his hands to the bow. But when he let his hands fall limp, she tore the wrapping off herself and opened the box.
“It’s a quilt,” she announced. “See, honey?” She had spent nearly six months making it, beginning in July. “I made it from scraps of all of the girls’ old clothing,” she pointed out. Bits of dance recital costumes, prom and communion dresses, and graduation gowns all mingled together to form the tapestry. “If you look closely,” she promised him, “the years will come flooding back.” She hoped so, at least. She held the fabric up, but his eyes didn’t follow. He was becoming less and less focused and beginning to drift.
She pressed the blanket to his cheek. “See, it’s soft. I thought you would like that.” He didn’t respond. “Your other one is so tattered.” When this comment was met only with silence, she said, “I guess I need to be going.”
Her heart, squeezed by sadness and guilt, sank a bit. But, reminding herself that it was Christmas, she forced herself to rally. And with a jolliness that sounded fake even to her she said, “Before I leave, I’ll fix you up in your chair with your new quilt and I’ll put on your radio.”
She led him to the chair across the room. Like an obedient child, he shuffled behind her. She remembered how strong his now–fragile body once had been. She settled him, draping the blanket onto his legs. “It’s warmer on this side of the room,” she explained. “And this way you’ll be close to your radio. You can listen to Christmas music!”
He didn’t respond and although she didn't mean to, she sighed. Turning from him, she began gathering her things and putting on her coat.
“There he is,” he said. “There’s my father.”
Startled, she turned. For that split second, his voice was stronger and clearer than it had been in years.
She watched him as a flood of understanding rushed over her. He was staring into the mirror that was anchored to the wall, studying his own reflection. She blinked away a tear as she watched him smile broadly at himself.
“It’s good to see him.” He chuckled. Cautiously she walked toward him, praying not to disturb the moment. It was like trying to catch a bubble without popping it.
“Yes, it is,” she managed softly, reaching him. They peered into the mirror together. Side by side, silently they looked at his image. They stayed that way for several minutes. Dinner could wait.
This time the silence that filled the air was good.
She waited until he had had enough. Finally, she brushed his cheek and kissed him on the top of the head.
“It’s good to see him,” he murmured again, barely audible, then closed his eyes. He was drifting off to sleep.
She straightened the quilt one last time and stood in the doorway watching him. He slept peacefully with a contented look on his face.
“I’ll see you tomorrow, honey,” she whispered. “Merry Christmas.” She was comforted by noticing that he was gently stroking the quilt as she turned away.
“This is not worth the service hours,” Julianna muttered to herself. “No matter how many it’s worth!”
She was chasing what was apparently the fastest four–year–old on the planet through the basement of the church. He was running with scissors. Until that moment, she didn’t believe children actually did that. She assumed it was just a cliche. But obviously she was wrong, because there he was running and there she was chasing him. He weaved in and out of every open space between the preschool–size tables and chairs as well as the other preschoolers and teenage volunteers.
“Tyler,” she called.
Then, correcting herself, she yelled, “Trevor!”—or was it Travis?
“Oh, crap,” she griped to herself. “Stop! Whatever your name is, stop!”
Everyone had been assigned a child. What were the chances of her getting the next Roger Kingdom?
“Please, stop,” she whined, finally catching him, only because he had stopped to investigate the train table. She scooped him up, gently took the scissors from his pudgy hand, and began to carry him back to their station.
“You must not run with scissors,” she said in her most authoritative yet perky voice, hoping more than anything that the director, Mrs. Armstrong, would hear her using the suggested phrase from the manual they had all been given to study before they arrived. She had read it and signed a statement swearing that she had studied it, which may have been an overstatement but was not exactly a lie.
Julianna considered herself a person who knew a lot about children. After all, it felt as if she had been one forever. Her mother had insisted it was exactly the same sixteen years, 365 days per year that everyone else spent getting to be sixteen, but Julianna disagreed somehow. She was the youngest of six sisters. No one could ever imagine what that was like. To Julianna, her sisters’ lives seemed complete and put together while she felt as if she was constantly struggling to put a life together for herself.
As she lugged Trevor (for sure, Trevor; she had checked his name tag) over to their station, her cell phone beeped with a text message. With a huff, she switched the child from one hip to the other and checked the message.
It read: “Don’t forget the salad greens. Be home by 6:00 pm. Love you, Mom.”
Julianna rolled her eyes. How many times was she going to remind her? She clicked the phone off. Phones were not permitted to be on when earning service hours, and this job was worth a slew of them and she did not want to jeopardize it. She guessed that most kids thought it was easier to pick up garbage in the park or to sing at the retirement village than it was to chase overexcited preschoolers through the church basement on Christmas Eve day. They were probably right, but truth be told, Julianna liked kids and hoped to have a few of her own someday.
She plopped Trevor down in a tiny chair and herself in the one next to him.
“Let's make Christmas trees,” she suggested perkily, squirting glue on top of a cardboard cutout.
“Let's not,” he retorted.
“Let’s talk nice to each other,” she suggested, handing him a shaker of red glitter.
“Let’s not,” he replied again.
“Let’s hope Santa is not hearing you and cancelling your toys,” she remarked matter–of–factly, sprinkling silver glitter on top of her own cutout.
She watched as Trevor’s face went from white to red then went off like a siren howling “NOOOOOOOOO.”
Panicking, Julianna tried to silence him. She looked around self–consciously. The entire room looked back.
“Shhhhhhhhhhhhhh,” she whispered. “I was only kidding. He’ll still come.”
Trevor was having none of it. By this point he was screaming louder and turning purple. Julianna closed her eyes and prayed for patience. When she opened them, what she got instead was a miracle. Well, maybe it would not have been a miracle in anyone else’s opinion, but in hers it surely was. In the entrance to the basement being welcomed by the youth group director was Jason Green. For Julianna he was everything. He was everything that made a guy wonderful. She liked the way he looked and walked and talked. But although he may have been everything to Julianna, he somehow had no idea she was alive.
Her mother would laugh heartily when Julianna alternately pined about her love for him then pouted about the fact that he didn't know she was alive.
“Everyone should experience unrequited love at least once in their life,” her mother would say. “It builds character.”
“I have enough character,” Julianna would protest.
“Impossible,” her mother would answer simply.When she would ask for suggestions as to how she could get his attention, her girlfriends were full of them.
“Send him a card.”
“Hang out where he does.”
“Go see him play basketball and wave from the stands.”
Her mother on the other hand had only one suggestion. “Pray on it.”
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