By Arlene Graham
Daddy was sick.
That was the only way I could explain it to my 24-year old sister, Sheena, who has Down syndrome. But I knew in my heart it was much worse than that.
He looked terrible lying there. His face was a sickly shade of gray, his skin clammy. As the respirator wheezed and the heart monitor beeped, I knew it was very bad. Daddy was in a coma.
He made it through the surgery well. At least that is what they said. But it brought more bad news. There were just some things they could not fix. Daddy was very, very sick and he would never get completely better. In my heart I knew it. But my heart could not make this revelation clear to my sweet little sister. Not yet.
The signs of Christmas were all around us. The nurses’ station was decked out with garland and cards and lights. Outside the hospital window snow was falling. Behind all the sounds of the hospital you could here the faint playing of Christmas music from a distant speaker. Daddy would have enjoyed that.
He loved Christmas. And we loved celebrating it with him. But as I looked down at my Santa Claus, fighting for his life, Christmas was far from my heart. Silently I worried what life would be without him and it broke my heart to contemplate.
Mama had died right after Christmas just seven years before. It happened very suddenly. We never saw it coming. We all worried about Daddy but he seemed to rebound from the blow. The following Christmas he showed up at my door, dressed in his Santa suit, ready to show my son a Merry Christmas.
Nicky was just four months old that Christmas. He never met his Grandma. But he loved his Grandpa and he loved Santa Claus. He made that first Christmas without Mama the Christmas we hoped to keep as a family. Everything had changed and nothing had changed. Daddy just had that way of making the world feel right, no matter the circumstances.
Now we were losing my Santa. And I just didn’t see how he could make it better this time.
Daddy never went to church.
Mama tried. She went to church. Most of the time my sisters and I went with her. But I never saw Daddy in a church growing up. He always found himself busy with something else or, if one of us girls invited Daddy (as we often did), Daddy would just say “Why don’t you go with Mama and tell me all about it when you get home.” He just would not go, no matter the occasion.
Every Christmas Mama read the Christmas story from the Bible to us on Christmas Eve and Daddy always listened. When she was done Daddy would tell us “Twas the Night Before Christmas”.
He would never read it to us. He had it memorized. He performed it with dramatic pauses and rises and falls in his voice. His eyes lit up and he got all excited. As he wrapped up the story– “Happy Christmas to all and to all a good night!”– his voice trailed off and his eyes invariably looked out the big bay window in our living room and towards the night sky.
“Well, kids” he would say, “you might want to get yourselves into bed, I’m hearing jingle bells in the distance.” We would sit there in the dark, staining to listen. Yes, we would admit, there was a merry sound coming from far off and we ran off to our room. Looking back on it now, my Santa Claus was Santa. He made the magic happen, every year.
Until the day I left home I shared a room with my sisters. I’m the oldest, Bobbi is younger by four years and Sheena came along when I was 15. It didn’t matter on Christmas Eve though. When Daddy said he heard the jingle bells we were all five years old.
When I came home for Christmas the year I got married I tried to have an adult conversation with Dad about his lack of religious feelings. I could not understand how a man of his kind disposition could ever stay away from attending church with Mama. I didn’t want to force Daddy to church. I just wanted to know why he stayed away. It didn’t feel right to me that a man of his decency would avoid worship.
I even asked Mama once but she told me to mind my own business. I thought that was odd, because Mama was always telling us all how important it was to remember God, to say prayers and to be like Jesus. But when it came to discussing religion with or about my father my mother stayed completely away from the topic. Almost like it was strictly forbidden to mention it.
When I asked Daddy about church he was much kinder to me than Mama was. But he said just as little. In his kind way, Daddy said Church things were best to be explained by my mother. He seemed a little sad saying that. But he never explained it.
Years later, at a summer time family reunion, I listened to a story told by my great Uncle Frank, my grandfather’s brother. He told how devastated my grandfather was when Daddy’s brother Paul was killed in World War II. I was familiar with this part of our family’s history but something he said really got my attention. “Paul was a good boy through and through. Nobody knew how God could allow him to die.”
It was then that maybe Daddy’s religious feelings became clear to me. The family took Paul’s death very hard and my Daddy, being six years younger, was especially vulnerable. If his parents lost faith in God over it how could it have affected my Dad as a 13-year old boy?
I saw my Dad in a new light that day. I wondered if he grew up thinking he had to be as good as his brother. I wondered if he rebelled at all. I wondered if his parents had ever told him that it wasn’t God’s fault that Paul had died. I wondered if the day he was married was the last time he was ever in a church. And I wondered if he ever really did pray, like Mama tried for so many years to get us as family to do.
Daddy never said a bad word about anybody or anything.
He would sometimes express an opinion about the politicians running for president. And he might express his thoughts about an unfair boss or a bad customer experience at work. He worked hard all of his life, attended every event in the lives of me and my sisters and after we were grown and moved away Daddy seemed to find joy in helping others in different ways. He never complained and was rarely critical.
Daddy was recruited to play Santa Claus one year at an old folk’s home Mama was working at and he really enjoyed it when there were grandkids of the residents there to see him. Mama even bought him his own suit and he got the opportunity to play Santa several times each year.
As Daddy got older I watched him grow more tender and sentimental with us. While he was not easy to anger he never really showed much emotion either when we were little. But as grown adults Daddy did nothing to hide his real feelings for us.
When he held Nicky for the first time he cried like a baby. When Mama passed he wept in my arms and never had I seen such mourning from a man. While I never knew where Daddy stood in his feelings about his Creator I knew he loved me, my family and our lives together. There could never be any doubt of that.
With Mama gone, however, there was a loneliness about my Dad that was different than just missing her. Yes, they were sweethearts and constant companions. And he missed her, I could tell. But there was an edge to Dad without Mama. He was more than lonely but less than bitter.
In time I came to see Dad’s emptiness as something gained through time. It was something older than his relationship with Mama and I suspected it was the loss of his brother still. I got the feeling especially after that family reunion that Daddy was looking expectantly to his future. Much like the way he looked out the window on Christmas Eve, straining to hear the sleigh bells.
It was out there, whatever it was. It would be here, whenever that was. Something wonderful would happen, perhaps, but who knew what? The anticipation was delicious, in a way. But until it happened it seemed my Dad could only hang on.
That was the feeling I got as I watched my Dad in his later years without Mom. He never articulated it. He never said a word. But as I watched him there on what I thought for sure was his deathbed, I had a feeling his wait would soon be over.
My Santa did not die that Christmas.
In fact, Daddy has defied the doctors all along. He doesn’t get around much any more and he requires constant care. But he is a cheerful, cooperative patient and he tries his best to participate in everything.
Three days before Christmas he emerged from the coma. When his signs stabilized he was allowed to come home. Though weak Daddy was as happy as ever to celebrate Christmas.
It wasn’t until a very cold February day nearly two months later that I felt safe asking Daddy about his thoughts when he was sick. I frankly asked Daddy if he was afraid to die.
No, he said. He never once feared death.
But as tears welled up in his eyes, he said Christmas would mean thanking God forever more. While he was in a coma Daddy said he got to visit Mama. He said she was well and happy. And while there was nothing said about where she was or how long he had left on earth, Daddy was convinced the experience was entirely real and that it was a Christmas gift from God meant just for him.
Through my own tears I looked at my Santa Claus.
How happy he made us all growing up. How cherished he was to me! Daddy had found peace and all I could do was to hold him and cry – not for him, not for me but for the miracle he had experienced and for the calming peace it gave to his soul.
I once feared that losing my Santa Claus that Christmas would ruin Christmas for me forever. Now I realize that Christmas will never be better than it is for me now.