By Beatrice Hayes-Klein
I grew up in a home without Christmas or religion. My father was raised a Methodist and my mother was a practicing Catholic early in their marriage. Frequent house moves and a life filled with other priorities kind of kept religion on the back burner in our home.
It may not have helped that we lived in Southern California. It was laid back even then. Sundays were play days and Christmas meant sunshine. As much as church life and Christmas observance are the American way our little slice of California life was very different.
I remember going to a church once when I was a little girl on a bright Easter Sunday. When we would visit my grandparents there would always be a prayer said before every meal. Many of my friends had a religious upbringing but rarely did I ever discuss God with them and never were any of them inclined to invite me to join them in their observances.
Christmas in my home growing up was filled with sadness. My father was an alcoholic and Christmas was always hard. I remember spending much of the season hiding from him because he scared me. My mother also seemed to dread Christmas. She was surly to be around and weary of how long it took for December to be over. We had a Christmas tree every year. But that was about it. I never knew why we had a tree. We did it because everyone did it.
As a college student in the late 1960s I turned completely from religious thought. It was a progressive time and I wholeheartedly bought into the ideas of atheism and feminism. I thought I was so modern in those days.
After leaving college I moved to take a teaching job in Northern California. I got married for a brief time. But after that fell apart I took another job teaching in a tiny town in Wisconsin – a place that would slowly change the way I saw the world and myself. My time there cooled my progressive headiness. But it was my first Christmas there that gave me a connection to God I never expected.
I taught 4th grade to a class of 27 children – all white, lower middle class rural kids with parents who, in my view, were raised in the 19th century. They were polite, God-fearing, flag-waving – and ignorant. In reaching out to their children I was hoping I could inspire greater respect for the diversity of this big wide world. It was the deepest desire of my heart to see these kids overcome their upbringing. I felt I could influence them that way.
I had a boy in my class who was as ordinary as any other Wisconsin kid. His name was Ryan. He was a poor reader and prone to silliness. Like other boys his age he was very physically active. There was nothing extraordinary to Ryan as I saw him. But that impression of him – and the families of nearly everyone around me there – was about to change.
Towards the early part of October Ryan began to miss school and before long we all learned that Ryan had a rare form of Leukemia. He looked fine but we were told by his parents that his prognosis was not good.
Several weeks passed where nobody heard from Ryan or his family. The speculation was that Ryan was taken to Chicago for treatment. Just after Halloween I got a note in my box at school to call Ryan’s mother. Instantly I was hit with a bad feeling.
To my surprise, Ryan’s mother answered my call with sunshine in her voice. She said that Ryan had indeed had treatment but that he was home now and she wanted him to catch up on his schoolwork. For a moment I felt a thrill in my heart to know that Ryan was all right. But when I pressed her for details – how was Ryan feeling? Is he up to working on school? – she told me that Ryan’s chances for a recovery were very slim.
Almost without thinking, I blurted it out – “Why make him do school work?”
Instantly I was embarrassed at how rude of a question that was. But she only paused for a second before saying that Ryan really just wanted to be like any other kid as soon as he could. She said he was looking forward to catching up to his classmates and coming back to school before Christmas. Since she was without transportation I agreed to bring her what was needed for Ryan to resume his studies.
Ryan was indeed a sick little boy. I was shaken by his gaunt appearance when I first saw him at his home. Obviously his treatment had been very aggressive and hard on him. My heart went out to him and I wondered how this experience might have changed Ryan’s personality. Would he be serious and glum? Would he be sad? Would he be bitter at the hand life had dealt him?
Ryan was anything but sour or upset. His eyes lit up when he saw me. His brilliant smile spoke of hope that I could not understand. I gave him a pile of books and a folder stuffed with assignments. I made a commitment to visit him two or three times a week to check his progress and to help him catch up until he felt strong enough to come back.
The community rallied around Ryan. Both churches in town held fundraisers to help the family with medical bills. The school sponsored an event to help. But privately Ryan’s parents warned me to be aware of the behaviors and feelings of Ryan’s classmates because they were told things would get worse before they ever got better.
As it turned out, Ryan never made it back to school. Shortly after Thanksgiving he was back in the hospital with dangerously low blood cell counts. When his situation stabilized Ryan was able to return home and I was able to continue meeting with him. The physical deterioration was so very evident. Whatever this insidious disease was it was killing Ryan.
But to my surprise I never once heard a word of complaint from Ryan. Even when my untrained eye could see that he was not feeling well Ryan would smile and ask me to continue with whatever we were talking about. I found myself fascinated with Ryan’s mind while his body was in crisis. This normal boy who months before had struck me as lacking much in the way of ability or potential for a future now held my heart captive with his cheerfulness and determination in the face of hopeless odds.
On a gray and snowy day, as we sat in his family’s humble living room next to a glowing Christmas tree, Ryan started to ask me some very personal questions. Where were you born? What happened to your parents? Do they ever visit you here? I found myself answering every question honestly knowing full well that my answers were surprising Ryan. Kids tend to see their teachers as anything but normal people. For as ordinary as my life seemed to me it was something to see Ryan’s reaction to my answers.
Ryan’s mother was close by during this conversation. At one point, she chided Ryan for being a little too personal. When I insisted that it was all right his mother came in and sat next to me while we talked. We had a conversation there – Ryan, his mother and me – that anyone might have outside of school. It felt good and healing to just talk instead of focusing on Ryan’s condition.
Out of the blue, Ryan asked me: “Do you believe in Santa Claus, Miss Hayes?”
I hesitated. I looked at Ryan’s mother who looked back at me in wonderment at my answer.
“No, Ryan.” I said. “I don’t.”
“Well, you should.” Ryan flatly stated. “Do you believe in God?”
Now I really was stuck. How could I answer this boy? Here he was a prisoner of his own body and looking forward, as he had clearly been taught by his parents, that he would be soon meeting his creator – how could I say no?
Ryan’s mother saved the moment. “Ryan, that’s none of our business” she softly told him.
“Well, you should.” Ryan stated again. “Mom, can Miss Hayes stay for dinner?”
“Yes,” she said, “please stay.” Shaken by the uncomfortable moments just spent and stunned by Ryan’s bold statements I thanked her and said I would be honored.
Ryan’s father soon arrived home and his two older sisters joined us around the table. Ryan’s father asked him to say the blessing on the meal, invoking the memories of my grandparents.
“…bless Miss Hayes,” he said, “that she might know that thou art God. Bless her for her time, for her service and for caring for me like you care for me.” Never had words so touched me. I found the tears rolling down my cheeks as he prayed. Here was a most extraordinary boy and I was his student. There was a discernible feeling that had come over me during this prayer like no other feeling I had ever felt. Ryan was talking to God – and somebody was listening. I could feel it.
Seven weeks later I attended Ryan’s funeral. In the weeks of his decline I found myself mourning his loss less and celebrating his brilliance. The power of his prayer drove me to my knees and in those weeks as he was dying I felt myself being re-born.
Ryan’s last Christmas, though spent in pain, was meaningful to him and his family. But for me it was utterly inspirational. Christmas does have special meaning to people. I know that now. I learned it through Ryan’s prayer.