I’m reposting this from last year because it captures the Christmas season so completely that I have no words to add. Christmas has become more about hustle and bustle and consumerism than love and tenderness and joy. We are immersed in material things and pay less attention to the people and intangible facets of life that make us sparkle. I am rich with Christmas joy, especially with my little Santa believers at my side. But every Christmas laugh tenderly holds hands with a small wet tear hanging on my lash, catching the lights of the season and sparkling with a reminder of what I hold dear.
Read on, my friends. Merry Christmas.
She was 16 teetering on 17 when I met her. She was shy, more an observer than a doer. Her mother talked garrulously while her little brother flipped through Encyclopedia Brown books and her older brother bopped his head to some rock n roll drowning out the clickety clack white noise. I settled in to get to know her.
I was only a few years her senior so it wasn’t difficult to harken back to my teen years. I dug right in with my first line of questioning while her mother was tending to her brothers out in the hall. Boys. I asked about boyfriends and crushes and heart throbs. She told me she hadn’t had a real boyfriend but she really wanted one before it was too late. She unrolled a poster of Troy Aikman that she wanted me to hang across from her bed. I asked her if she meant over her bed. She emphatically said NO. She wanted to see Troy’s eyes and dimples from her perch. I teased her like a big sister would, having established a warm kinship from the start. She nudged me jokingly while I made exaggerated smoochy sounds. Then she poked me in an effort to shut me up before her mom walked back in.
She knew she had a confidante in me, and I knew I had a new friend.
Over time she shared with me all the stuff that frightened her and angered her. She told me all about the dances and parties and slumber parties she was missing back home. She lamented at how her mail had dropped off the longer she was away. She worried about being forgotten, about not making her mark, about not making a difference. We watched movies together, mostly in silence except for the occasional beeping of equipment. I gave her a VHS tape of my favorite movie, Breakfast at Tiffany’s. She rolled her eyes, right on cue.
Her brothers stayed a while but kept their distance. I was her friend, her rock away from home. Her mom and I became close and shared easy laughs at a time when she thought she might never smile again. Her father came in and out of town, and embraced me each time he came and went.
Her easy spirit darkened, and soon she was too full of toxins to communicate verbally. Her face had swollen like the victim of a 1000 hornet stingers, and her sweet mouth drooled constantly. Her mind was in tact while her body failed. She tried to point and nod and she still held my hands while I sat with her, telling her ridiculous stories from my high school days. I knew she was laughing when she squeezed my hands with both of hers, the most energy she could exert. I talked to her like she was my teenage pal, not a patient stuck in a quarantined bone marrow transplant ward. I never uttered the word “leukemia,” not out of denial or discomfort, we simply had so much more to talk about.
Weeks later, after hugs and tears and prayers, she went home.
Her mother sent me a lovely letter that I still have, close to 15 years later. Enclosed with the letter was my copy of Breakfast of Tiffany’s with a note written in her wobbly handwriting, “I don’t know why this movie is so great. There aren’t any cute boys in it. Maybe I’ll like it when I’m older.” Her mother also told me that I was her daughter’s only friend all those months in the hospital and that the family appreciated that I treated her as such. They valued that I saw her as a person, not a patient. And with that letter, wrapped in fine pink tissue, was a single white rose. Her mother told me she had grabbed it in a fleeting moment of lucidity because she wanted me to have a rose from her daughter’s casket.
All these years later, her family still lives in their farmhouse off a road with a number instead of a street name. Her younger brother is a married man now. Her older brother has a daughter, whose temperament is a lot like his little sister’s as the family tells it.
She was 16 when I met her. She was weeks shy of 18 when she died.
Her birthday is December 25. And so every Christmas, while the world celebrates the birth of Jesus, I pray and thank the world for giving me Jana.