FRIDAY: Christmas Happens

THIS IS THE LAST POST OF 2014; THE NEXT POST WILL BE 01/05/15. HAPPY HOLIDAYS!

BY DIANA KOCH

Copyright is held by the author.

SHE STOPPED going to the Mall right after Halloween. That’s when the first decorations began to appear, those cheery harbingers of peace and goodwill that prodded her sorrow like hot pokers. But it was not until the night of the first snowfall that she made the decision not to celebrate Christmas. That way, there would be no lavishly adorned tree to flaunt memories of Christmas past, no strains of festive music to seduce the emotions. The lights and candles would remain unlit and there would be no crackle of hickory logs burning in the fireplace. As for the lingering smell of shortbread and gingerbread permeating her kitchen, it was totally out of the question. Christmas was not happening in her life this year and probably not in the coming years either. Christmas was for those who had faith, for those who had hope. She had neither.

She hadn’t counted on the intrusiveness of the telephone. In early December the calls started coming. Her Aunt Mildred’s was the first.

“Katie dear, you’ll spend the holidays with us. Your cousins and their families will be here to take your mind off . . . things. No way should you be alone, especially this year.”

She had declined, stating that she had other plans. Aunt Mildred had fished for more information, but Kate had been as vague as her aunt had been persistent. In the end they called a truce and agreed to meet for lunch sometime in January.

Her older brother’s call had been next.

“Listen Kate, we’re having Christmas at the in-laws’ farm this year. It’s best if you come with us. The kids want to cut their own tree, go for sleigh rides, build snow forts. It’ll be good for you to not dwell on . . . last year. We’ll pick you up.”

She tried putting him off the same way she had her aunt. He ignored her excuses, lectured on the importance of getting on with her life. Just like when they were kids and he had bullied her into playing Dungeons and Dragons when all she wanted to do was read. This time, she had ended the badgering with a decisive “NO!” He had said good-bye then, but only after an audible sigh of disapproval.

When her neighbours began their yearly rituals of stringing garlands of lights and stuffing clay pots with greenery tied with oversized red velvet ribbons, she pulled down the blinds and busied herself with cleaning out kitchen cupboards. She studied the TV schedule and avoided all programs even vaguely related to Christmas. The radio in her car had been turned off for weeks. Did the radio stations begin playing Joy to the World in November every year? The holiday greetings and newsy form letters from friends that accumulated in her email account, she dumped unread into the trash. She told herself that avoiding Christmas was a lot like dodging the flu. One had to take precautions.

Her colleagues at work had also put up road blocks to her non-Christmas plans. She volunteered to cover the Christmas shift in the Intensive Care Unit so that they could be with their families. They announced that they had it covered.”We think you need the time off,” they said. “Especially since Christmas marks the first anniversary . . .” Kate noticed how no one ever seemed to finish that thought. Wouldn’t want to upset poor Kate! They meant well, but she had counted on spending the day with people who were too ill to realize what day it was. She would have been able to pass the time in a state of professional alertness and efficiency. Instead, she found that she had five days off. Five days that she had to fill with something other than Christmas.

As she left the hospital after her final shift, she avoided the main entrance with its lavishly decorated eight-foot spruce surrounded with the crimson mass of potted poinsettia plants. She ducked out one of the side entrances where there was no one to wish her a Merry Christmas or press a card or candy cane into her hand. Once inside her car in the utilitarian atmosphere of the parking garage, she relaxed, relishing the austere surroundings. It was a relief to sit in the semi-darkness and give her mind and body permission to be embraced by the coldness of December. It felt good not to have to feign a cheery smile or exchange a friendly greeting when the persistent ache she lived with threatened to give her away at any moment.

It was almost midnight when she pulled out onto the street, the snow banks on both sides reflecting the glow of holiday lights. She accelerated and found herself driving in the opposite direction of home. At first she wasn’t sure where she was headed. Just drive, she thought, anywhere, away from the silver bells and sparkling angels hanging from the light posts. Turning into a side street, she followed it for several blocks, then zigzagged through a quiet subdivision trying to ignore the onslaught of neon Christmas. She stopped the car when the headlights illuminated the wrought iron arch.

As always, the stark black structure mesmerized her, drawing her toward the silent graves beyond. She parked and reached for the flashlight in the glove compartment, pulled on her tuque and gloves, her heart racing, tears already stinging her eyes. The path led past a small grove of ancient oaks and then to a secluded area next to a clump of snow-clad evergreens. With the beam of light pointed onto the face of the granite stone, she fell to her knees and ran her fingers over the names. Their smiling faces glowed in her memory. They had loved Christmas and she had loved making it special for them. Happy times that the three of them had created together and that she could not enjoy without them. She shone her light onto the blank space reserved for her name. It would have been better if all three of us had been laid to rest under this blanket of snow. The thought swirled in her head, a silent mantra that refused to numb her pain.

It was past one when she arrived home. There were five more messages, invitations to holiday gatherings from friends and relatives. She had to escape. The only place she could think of was the one she had been avoiding since last Christmas. Perhaps it would be easier than exposing
herself to the remnants of other peoples’ celebrations, not to mention their “poor Kate” sentiments. She dropped into bed, too exhausted to be apprehensive about her decision.

It didn’t take long to pack the car the next morning: some clothes, a few groceries, a bottle of wine and a couple of books that she had been meaning to read. She was in the car and driving up the northern highway by seven, before there was time to change her mind.

It had started to snow, fat, fluffy flakes that stuck to the windshield. The surrounding countryside was quickly being transformed into a surreal white world. Just like last year, she thought. She quickly tried to divert the direction that her mind was drifting, but it was too late. The memories became an unstoppable avalanche that swept her back to last year’s Christmas Eve.

They were spending the holidays at the cottage as they always did. It was so restful and beautiful: the icy blue of the frozen lake, the whisper of the snow-covered pines, the clean, crisp air. They had cut a six-foot Douglas fir and decorated it with the lights and decorations that had belonged to her parents. Melanie had made snowflake cut-outs to hang in the front windows and Russ had strung lights on the rail of the veranda. The cracking fire, the stockings hung from the mantel, the candles glowing, her mother’s Nativity figures arranged under the tree — every detail passed in slow motion through her mind.

“Mom, Dad and I are going cross country skiing to the old mill and back. It’s still snowing out, and everything is so Christmasy. Want to come?”

“No, Sweetie. I think I’ll stay and do some baking. That way you can have hot chocolate and cookies when you get home. Be careful, OK?”

She had been taking the last of the shortbread out of the oven when the urgent knock on the door came. Through the window she had seen the OPP car, its lights still flashing, parked in the drive. That would be Jeff, she had thought, just wanting to wish us a Merry Christmas on his way to his shift.

She had opened the door to a serious-faced Officer Jeffrey Blaine.

“Get your coat, Kate. There’s been an accident on the Old Mill Road. Russ and Melanie are being taken to the hospital in town. They were hit by a drunk who lost control of his car and veered off the road. I’ll drive you.”

She couldn’t remember the 20 mile drive to town. She could only remember the sombre finality of the intake report. “Vital Signs Absent.”

The squeaking of the wipers brought her back to the present. The wind had picked up, blasting the windshield with a swirl of snow and ice pellets. She noticed that in the last half hour, the black pavement had all but disappeared, leaving only faint tracks where other vehicles had passed before her. It would take at least two more hours to reach the cottage. Two hours of treacherous driving conditions. She welcomed the danger, the thought that she might meet her end here on this lonely highway. But when the car’s tires hit a patch of ice, a surge of adrenalin coursed through her tense body and instinctively, she took her foot off the accelerator.

The cottage was wrapped in a layer of pure, pristine whiteness, in contrast to the dark shroud that enveloped her. She had driven almost to the turn around in front of the veranda before the car’s wheels became stuck in a snow drift. It was an effort to unload her things and carry them up the steps and into the front door, but it prevented her from dwelling too long on arriving without the two people who had been the centre of her existence. She turned on the propane furnace and busied herself with the unpacking. Her brother and his family had accepted her offer to use the place for summer vacation and the Thanksgiving holiday. As expected, they had left everything clean and neat. There was nothing for her to do but settle in. Even the fireplace grate was stacked with kindling and the wood basket filled with logs. She felt suddenly overcome with the fatigue of the drive and the emotional replay of the tragic events that haunted her. She wrapped herself in a blanket and sank down onto the sofa, falling asleep to the sound of the blizzard howling in the chimney.

That insistent knocking — it must be the nightmare again. Officer Blaine would be standing at the door waiting for her, waiting to deliver the news. She would have to relive the horror yet again. Perhaps if she ignored it, shut it out of her throbbing brain, she would wake up to Russ and Melanie returning from their outing. The knocking persisted, accompanied by a muffled voice. “Please, we need help!”

She jumped to her feet and rushed to open the door. A dark-complexioned young man stood shivering on the veranda.

“My wife’s in the car. She’s in labour. I tried to get her to the hospital, but the road’s blocked up ahead. I saw your car and pulled in your lane. Please, you’ve got to help me. It’s our first baby.”

All Kate’s medical training took over. “Let’s get her into the house. Don’t worry. I’m a nurse. Everything will be OK.”

Together, they struggled to carry the moaning young woman into the house through the knee-high drifts, the wind tearing at their hair and clothing. Once they had her settled on the bed in the main bedroom, Kate gave instructions to get sheets and towels from the hall closet.

“She doesn’t speak much English,” he said hurrying from the room.

An hour later, the smiling new mother was holding her baby wrapped in blankets that Kate had cut from flannel sheets. The young father sat beside them on the bed, examining the newborn’s tiny hands. Kate decided to leave them alone.

She went into the kitchen to prepare a meal — canned stew, bread, some fruit — it would have to do. The wind had abated somewhat, but it was still snowing. The young family would be with her until the ploughs could clear the highway. Thankfully, there had been no complications with the birth and the mother and child were doing well. She felt a sudden, unexpected wave of joy. The suffocating heaviness in her chest was gone and for the first time in months, her mind was clear. She spent the night in Melanie’s room and slept a dreamless sleep.

The smell of coffee and the soft strains of Silent Night being strummed on a guitar woke her. She dressed quickly, then stepped into a room radiating Christmas. The young mother sat in the arm chair beside the blazing fireplace nursing the baby. A brightly decorated little pine stood in front of the window.

The young man looked up from his playing. “I hope you don’t mind. We had the tree and decorations with us. Friends offered us their cottage for a few days. We were on our way there when the blizzard struck. The baby wasn’t due for another two weeks.”

When she didn’t reply, he said, “We don’t know how to repay you for your kindness. We can only wish you Feliz Navidad and say muchas gracias.”

With tears prickling her eyes, she walked over to the mother and child. A soothing, gentle peace that she had not thought possible settled over her.

A short time later, she took down the boxed Nativity figures from the top shelf of the hall closet. Lovingly, she unpacked them and set them up under the tree. The young father continued strumming the guitar and singing quietly. “Noche de paz, noche de amor. . .”

”As they shared their simple Christmas breakfast in front of the fireplace, Kate looked intently at the young man. “You haven’t told me what your name is.”

He smiled. “My name is Joseph, but you can call me Joe.”