I debated taking the tree down on Christmas Eve. It was one of those holidays…
At 2:45 on Christmas Eve, I woke to the sound of my husband, Hank, coughing. When did this come on?
“You ok, Hank?”
“I don’t know,” he replied. “I just started coughing. So weird.”
We’d gone to bed around 11:00pm, having cleaned up the kitchen after having our close friends over for our traditional December 23rd dinner. Hank had been in good form then. Wine. Food. Laughter. We’d had a great time.
But, as the sun came up on Christmas Eve, Hank was no better. In fact, worse.
“We’re going to Urgent Care as soon as it opens,” I insisted.
Once they saw him, they sent us to the ER. Hank had Pneumonia.
“I just looked at your chart,” Marilyn, the ER nurse, told my husband. “Hey, all things considered, you look remarkably good!” she’d laughed. “Not the pneumonia patient I expected.”
“First,” she continued, pulling up a chair and taking a seat close to his bed, “I want to be steady when I put in your IV.” She’d made us smile with her antics.
I zipped up my puffer jacket against the cold of the ER and pulled my chair closer to Hank where he lay scrolling through his phone. He actually did look pretty good for a guy with pneumonia. Looks can be deceiving, though, and he needed a strong antibiotic. I reached over to tuck the warm blanket under his feet while trying to avoid the flimsy curtain separating us in a bay next to a young woman who’d drunk two bottles of wine and needed a CT scan.
This was not our typical Christmas Eve…
Earlier, our daughter-in-law, Anna, had swung by SoulCycle and taken a picture of our granddaughter, Grace, with one of Hank’s favorite spin-class teachers and the behind-the-desk squad at that location to cheer him up. Our son, Allan, had offered to come by the hospital.
“No way!” I’d told him. “Your place is with Grace and Anna. We’re fine.”
Still, I worried. What if the blood test revealed something? What if the EKG…? The mind goes wild when you’re awaiting test results.
Relief flooded me at 4:45pm when Hank was released with a prescription in hand. They’d caught the pneumonia early and he wouldn’t have to stay the night.
“He’s strong,” Dr. Vargas had said. “He just needs to be on antibiotics and ride this out.”
We headed home, our Christmas Eve plans to see our kids shelved, I dropped Hank and set off to Gelson’s for take-out soup and to fill his prescription.
I’d only driven two blocks when Hank called. “Forget Gelson’s. Allan and Anna left homemade soup on the doorstep and a couple presents to open tonight.”
I pulled over to read Allan’s text to me. “Mom, we just wanted to do something for you.”
My heart was heavy as I passed by festive houses on the way to Rite Aid. I could see people shadows against lit windows. I passed a row of sedans with backseats occupied as I waited to cross the boulevard. A woman in velvet pants and a sparkly top hopped out of her car to grab a last-minute something at the market, her husband waiting with the car in idle.
I felt alone. What many must feel on Christmas. I thought about the many happy Christmases I’d celebrated. Maybe, while I’d been seated at a table with family each year, someone like me, tonight, was out there. Perhaps they’d driven by a house like mine, lit up, seeing people shadows in the window.
Remember this feeling, I thought. Remember this.
Christmas morning, we ate our breakfast at the dining room table. The kitchen island seemed too ordinary for a Christmas morning.
We took our usual places, seated at opposite ends of the table. “Oh my God,” I’d laughed, eyeing the Los Angeles Times by Hank’s plate. “We’re like one of those couples in a 1940’s movie at opposite ends of a dining room table.”
“With no one in-between,” he’d added.
Picking up my fork, I’d added with a cheery lilt: “Well, here we are!”
“I’m so sorry…” he started.
“Stop! You didn’t ask for this. I’m just sorry that you’re not feeling well. That you don’t get to see any of your children or your first grandchild on her first Christmas.”
But, by late Christmas morning I was feeling sad.
“Hank, I’ve an idea. I’m going to deliver the gifts to the kids. Then, we can FaceTime back here while we exchange gifts. Heck, If I’d thought of that earlier, we could have had breakfast with them, too!”
Hank insisted on loading the car and alerted the kids that I was already on my way.
Allan’s house is closest, so it was my first stop. Anna, his wife, a surgeon, wouldn't have me not hold our grandchild, Grace.
“But, Anna, I’m a human petri dish! I’ve been around really sick people. God knows what I may have.”
“Come in this house. Wash your hands and let us hug you! And you,” she’d said, “need to hold your granddaughter, Heath.”
Next stop was Hilary and Oliver’s, just minutes away. Then, I let myself feel the preciousness of the season and of my family and the tears poured. I pulled over on Canyon Drive with the Juniper trees lining the sidewalk front of Hilary’s home in full view, and called my sister, April.
“Heath, what’s wrong?”
“I can’t stop crying, Ape. I don’t know what’s wrong with me?” I took in air between the sobs. “I can’t stop. Maybe it’s a buildup of a lot of things. I just don’t want Hilary and Oliver to see me like this.”
“You don’t know why you’re crying!? Well, let’s see…Joseph, your youngest, is half-way across the world. You spent eight hours on Christmas Eve in Urgent Care and ER worried about Hank. You go to Rite Aid and the bitch in the elf hat behind the counter there tells you it’s a minute after five, that they are closing, and you need to find a 24-hour pharmacy as she slides the window shade down in your face. Hmmm, and then you find one and there are sixteen people in line ahead of you.”
“Yikes,” I’d interrupted, “I guess I called you a lot. I’m so sorry to have bothered you…”
“Shut up and let me finish. Then, some woman at CVS behind the counter somehow whips your prescription through in minutes.”
“Cassidy was her name,” I said. “I’d wanted to reach over the counter and hug her. I think I did!”
“Cassidy, right. Ok, then, oh, I don’t know, Heath, you finally get home and your Christmas Eve dinner is a bowl of soup in front of the TV watching Mrs. Maisel when your children are fifteen minutes away spending both nights with their in-laws and not with you.”
I wiped the tears that had gravitated to my chin. “Oh my God, you nailed it. But, April, there are so many people out there who really suffer during the holidays. The homeless, those who’ve lost a loved one. Think of those people. This is nothing.”
“Yes, true, but this is your something this year. Quit being a martyr and policing yourself. It’s ok to feel like sh**t. Now, go to Hilary’s and call me after. Wait,” she added. One more thing. “You can tell Allan and Anna you had a meltdown. It’s ok!”
Christmas night, Hilary was hosting a gathering at her house. I sat home quietly with Hank, but, at 6:30, the doorbell rang. There she was, bathed in the porch light above. “I slipped away,” she’d said, her coat wrapped tight around dressy black pants, the cream lace of her blouse peeking above her collar of her coat.
“You didn’t need to do this,” we told her. “You’re hosting!”
“Traffic was so light from Hollywood,” she commented as she handed Hank a Christmas Tri-tip dinner in a bag. “Oliver cooks,” she smiled. “I just deliver.”
So, today, on this first day of 2020, we celebrate. The antibiotics have kicked in, and Hank is back to himself, having ridden out the holiday on a leather club chair in the den.
I’d like to phone in the holiday except for one thing. I got the best gift ever: Perspective. Next year, I won’t be worried about the trivia, the décor, the gifts, the cards, and who goes where. I’ll have that ten-minute drive to Rite Aid to remind me what it felt like to be alone. I’ll remember Cassidy and Marilyn and all those who leave their own families to take care of others. Our children and their spouses, their kindness and love. Even “the bitch in the elf hat.”