We anxiously awaited Christmas of 1967, my brothers and sisters and I, then a young teen. We never would have guessed that by the time Christmas had arrived our lives would be permanently altered. I was 14.
After our parents' early December Florida vacation our holiday festivities got underway. Dad decided we should get the tree early this year -- had he already some idea that something was wrong? We went to Rawhide Boys Camp as we had the year before, with the idea of making it a yearly tradition. This ranch gave customers a festive, old-fashioned Christmas, with a sleigh ride out to the grove of trees, allowing us to walk around and pick one out, Dad fielding the six different opinions over which one was perfect and then choosing his own -- the hot chocolate, hot dogs and donuts afterward. It may have been the last happy, perfect day of my childhood.
Dad and I had always been close. It could have been because I was his eldest daughter, or because we seemed to think and laugh alike – Bugs Bunny, Pink Panther – even that movie called Salt and Pepper that didn't seem the least funny to me watching it without him. With growing unease I watched him call his doctor about a pain shooting down his left arm, only a few days after returning from Rawhide.
The next day he was in the hospital preparing for surgery.
The Christmas season should have ground to a halt, but it didn't. With news that dad's surgery had gone well, we made up for lost time getting Christmas ready to come as scheduled. Even without Dad's persistent singing to lead us on, we managed to relearn all our favorite Christmas songs. My brothers ventured to the rooftop to get the lights up around the outside of the house -- crooked, but secure. The Christmas tree went up in the basement for the first time. We planned it as a special welcome home for Dad, because he had been working so hard to get the basement recreation room done, with a painted Hawaiian scene on the cement wall, and even a running waterfall -- neither quite done. The shower that he put in worked, though, and it was a blessed relief from taking baths all the time.
Shortly before he was to be released, we were told he'd need another operation. The first one didn't "take." That Christmas Eve Day Mom spent at the hospital, waiting. The five of us kids had to sit home and endure the worst kind of wondering, mostly silent, not reaching out to each other but buried in pain. I kept thinking how Dad would miss us this Christmas Eve, miss telling us the Christmas Story from the Bible, miss leading us on all our favorite songs with all the lights out except the tree, and miss most of all helping Mom with the cookies and eggnog --helping to devour them, that is. Dad was still a boy at heart, and this was his favorite time of year. He was only 41.
"It's not fair!" That scream kept echoing in my head. I had pleaded with Mom whenever she called to let me come to the hospital, too. I wanted to tell Dad not to worry -- there'd be more Christmases.
Mom did say we could come, but only I and my older brother were old enough to be allowed in the room. My aunt and uncle picked us up. I was glad to go, but our other brother was only a year younger than me and he hated being left behind. How could hospitals be so mean on Christmas Eve, I wondered.
When we met Mom in the waiting room I was surprised to see so many of Dad's relatives there, all from out of town except for Uncle Clarence. He lived close by, but I never got to see him enough. Dad came from a big family, and his mom was as playful as he was. But not that not. She was a widow who lost her husband when her youngest was only two. I wanted to cheer her up and tell her that won't happen again. But I couldn't.
Mom hugged us and led Marty into Dad's room. I saw the Christmas poster I had made for him in art class hanging on the outside of his door. "He can't see it there," I said to no one in particular.
Relatives made hushed small talk. I didn't listen.
Suddenly Mom was there for my turn. I followed her into his room. I had hoped to see him sitting up, like last time. Instead he just lie there in bed, an oxygen mask over his face. He looked at me and I could see his eyes light up. I smiled at him but couldn't think of a thing to say. "What about next Christmas," I thought, but suddenly it didn't seem right to say it. I took his hand.
"You look so pretty," he said to me.
My eyes clouded up. Does he even know what day it is? "You'll be okay, Daddy." I finally said. I couldn't take my eyes off him as Mom led me away. No, that can't be all. You have to say more, some fatherly advice. But nothing more came out of me. Or him, that night.
In a heavy daze the five of us kids got through that evening. One of us read the Christmas story. One of us started singing, only to stop after a few lines. My little sisters, ages 3 and 6, noticed our mood, and Mom and Dad being gone, but for them the tree was the thing. So we tried to be excited with them. In immense relief I buried myself under the covers that night, grasping at the little bit of hope I could find. "Surely, he'll be fine," I reasoned. "Dreams are given on Christmas Eve, not taken away."
I felt myself shaken awake what could have been just minutes later. It was Mom, and it was a little after midnight. Telling me that Dad had died.
Did I sleep again? I'm not sure. I could only think about Dad's face, remembering his smile, his crazy sense of humor, all the love he had for us and everyone around him. I wouldn't allow the tears. Not yet. I had to keep that reality away, at least for awhile.
Someone called my name the next morning and I wandered slowly down the basement to the tree. I stared at the unfinished Hawaiian landscape and saw a 41-year-old man's dream had ended. I couldn't see the tree anymore --I couldn't see anything.
Mom hugged me and sat me down by the tree. Finally I wiped my eyes and saw that my sisters and brothers were opening their gifts, my aunt and uncle and Dad's mom were there, and they were smiling and hugging. And I could hear the songs playing in the background. Already the mess under the tree was huge. I reached out for my turn, but there really wasn't anything I wanted. Not under that tree.
Mom handed me a present. "Come on, honey, enjoy. Your Dad would want you to."
I looked around at everyone's faces, and though I saw sadness, I also saw joy. The present said, "from Dad." It was the slim gold watch I had wanted, with an inscription, "Love forever, Dad."
Dad wasn't gone, not really. He would never die for me. As tears streamed down my face I put the watch on, hand shaking, and held it to my ear, hearing it tick. I felt his love as strong as ever.