BY MARK THOMAS
Copyright is held by the author.
JIMMY WOKE up early the morning of December 24th and decided, for no particular reason, to search for the true meaning of Christmas. It was an unusual decision for many reasons, the most obvious being that Jimmy was never entirely certain what month it was. His mental condition often made him oblivious to ordinary cues like signs in shop windows. But today he was extraordinarily focused. He looked at the calendar on the inside flap of an old cigarette package and carefully counted forwards and backwards from a day he would never forget and eventually decided that it was the morning of Christmas Eve.
For several years now Jimmy had been suffering from a poorly diagnosed mental illness that included hearing voices and having the paranoid certainty that every nearby person was scheming to take his possessions. It sounded like garden variety schizophrenia but the psychotropic drugs distributed at the mental health outreach centre were only sporadically effective.
Every once in a while, though, Jimmy woke up relatively symptom-free. This was one of those wonderful mornings where he seemed to see the world as it really was. He knew that these sensations were often short lived and before many hours had passed he might very well be huddled in his nest behind the church parking lot protecting his precious collection of bicycle parts. I can’t waste this opportunity Jimmy thought to himself. I’m going to discover the true meaning of Christmas.
He went into the rear entrance of the church to use their washroom and change his socks. The head caretaker of the church had tried for years to get Jimmy into some sort of more permanent government-assistance program but he had finally given up. Now he just left two oatmeal muffins and a couple of clean towels near the sink. There was an outside door and Jimmy could wander in any time he wanted as long as he didn’t bang on the connecting door to the daycare that was housed in the church basement and scare the crap out of the young supervisors.
When Jimmy had washed up and eaten his muffins he went back outside to give the crumbs to his (talking) pet rat, Terrence. “Hi Jimmy,” Terrence said as he crawled out from underneath the dumpster. “What do you have planned for today?” Jimmy put the muffin papers on the pavement so Terrence could get at them.
“I’ve decided to find the true meaning of Christmas . . .” He paused awkwardly “Since it’s Christmas Eve.”
Poor guy, Terrence thought to himself as he ate the fragments of muffin why can’t he ever give himself an easily obtainable goal. Terrence sighed, but it was scarcely audible. “In a way,” he said, “your quest is simple. Walk around to the front of this church and you’ll see a nice manger scene celebrating the birth of Christ. That’s the most elemental meaning of Christmas — it’s a specific religious observance.”
“I know that,” Jimmy said testily. “I may have a poorly diagnosed mental illness, but I’m not stupid. I meant what is there about this time of year that makes people more sensitive to the needs of others, no matter what their religious beliefs.”
“Well,” Terrence reconsidered, because he really was a thoughtful friend, “Sigmund Freud tried to describe it as the secondary purpose of religion. The famous psychiatrist didn’t worship God (which he considered the primary purpose of religion), but he did understand the sense of community and compassion that religion can sometimes dredge out of people.”
Jimmy rubbed his chin and watched the church janitor carry a bag of recycling to the bin. The janitor dipped his head a little in Jimmy’s direction. “You certainly are an insightful rat,” Jimmy said slowly. He thought about the second most significant day in his life, the fateful day he almost killed Terrence with his shoe when they first made contact at the back of the church parking lot. Terrence had dodged out of harm’s way and offered up a quick bit of kindness: a careful suggestion that they team up. Jimmy could retrieve scraps from trays at the local Pita Pit, and Terrence could whisper advice into Jimmy’s ear when he became confused in conversations with the doctor at the outreach centre.
Terrence wrinkled his sensitive nose and saw that his friend was slipping into a dangerous reverie. “I get that a lot,” Terrence said gently as he hopped up into Jimmy’s arms and crawled into his jacket. Jimmy felt Terrence’s little claws scrabbling around for a minute or so then suddenly the rat poked his head out just underneath Jimmy’s collar. This was their favourite way to travel. They were nice and warm and could easily see where they were going. It was especially important for Terrence to have a clear picture of what was happening because he occasionally had to manipulate Jimmy’s puppet strings in an unseemly way.
It was a gorgeous morning and the streets were full of people finishing up their Christmas shopping. Several men and women nodded to Jimmy and said, “Merry Christmas!” which was a nice change because people often avoided him.
Ash trees lining the street in front of the church were an interconnected web of black, glistening branches and looked like purposeful artistic filigree against the grey sky. The puddles in the pavement reflected those beautiful tangled lines and when cars sped by the designs wobbled delicately and almost transformed into words.
“C’mon,” Terrence said, “let’s go to the clinic and get your meds.”
Jimmy reached into his coat, stroked Terrence’s fur and said, “Merry Christmas, buddy.”
Terrence snuggled deeper into the jacket. “Merry Christmas, Jimmy,” he said.