Monday, December 27, 2010

My Band of Angels - Christmas, 24 Years Ago

I wasn't going to write this story but in following a holiday writing prompt from Mama Kat over at SITS, that uber blogging support site,  it seemed that maybe it's time. [Warning: This is a long post, but something I couldn't break up into parts, and for that, I apologize.]

Christmas, 24 years ago, would be the last one my youngest daughter would share with us before Ewing's Sarcoma would take her at the tender age of twenty. Although it was never spoken aloud, we both knew, and I spent a fortune making photo memories because this was before the miracle of digital cameras. Saving our forests should have been the noble high road, but truth is, our little artificial tree replaced a live one that had dropped all its needles two days before Christmas! My husband bought it when the girls were toddlers, I was in the hospital, and he was in charge of everything. Little did we know, then, that it would become a way of keeping him part of our future seasons, too. (He had succumbed to a different cancer six years earlier.) Although the little tree had served us well, it was time to let it go -- too many wiry limbs, too few needles. When given a chance to buy a beautiful new artificial tree for almost next to nothing, I jumped at the chance to make my daughter's last Christmas special.

And, the new tree was beautiful. Seven feet tall and looking very much like the fir tree it represented. For the first time, all our handmade ornaments could be displayed at the same time. It was going to be a surprise and I was pretty caught up with the memories associated with each ornament as I took my time getting it decorated. Waiting for my girls to see our beautiful new tree with all the decorations was torture; but, it was worth it. They oohed and aahed -- pointing, laughing, and sharing forgotten moments. But, a little later, I noticed that my youngest had become very quiet and, when I asked what was wrong, she said it was nothing, she didn't want to upset me. After some gentle prodding, my beautiful young daughter finally admitted that she really missed our old tree because it was more like Christmas to her. "Mom," she said, "I think this is my last Christmas and I guess I was really looking forward to seeing that old pitiful tree with all the Christmas memories of when Dad was with us. Please don't be mad; but, could we use it, again, one more time?"

I couldn't be mad because I knew exactly how she felt and the three of us began the process of undressing the new seven-foot artificial fir tree now filled with a mixture of old and new memories and replaced it with our scraggly but dearly loved five-foot sparsely-needled old artificial tree. Our real Christmas was back, just as it always had been. Well, it was almost "just as it had always been." Some of the ornaments had to be put away and, more importantly, we didn't have our beloved father and husband with us. I had wanted the tree to be extra special because I had some bad news to give my girls -- news I had been putting off telling them for weeks. There literally was no money to spend on Christmas -- no money for presents; no money for a special holiday dinner. Nothing -- simply, nothing.

Even with insurance, cash requirements for drugs, gas, hospital parking fees, and incidentals for caring for my daughter were staggering. Money is usually tight when you have teenagers, and this was my reality. We weren't starving but I definitely knew how to get every ridge off a dime. There was no getting around it. I had to tell them and I was dreading it because, like every parent, I wanted to be a hero in my children's eyes. And, if possible, you want to at least maintain the illusion of Santa for your older children, in some way or another. I felt like a failure, that I had really let them down. I knew the ball had been passed into my court after their father died and I simply couldn't get it back over the net. Not only did I not have enough money for presents, I was working 15-hour days, which left little time for handcrafting.

When explaining the situation, I suggested that, if they wanted to enjoy a real holiday dinner, they could accept their friends' invitations and I could find something else to do for the holiday. The most we could hope for was peanut butter sandwiches with raisin faces (something we rather enjoyed, on any other occasion). Without a second's hesitation, they both hugged me and said it was all right, at least we were all together. We could go to the candlelight service at church, come home for hot cocoa and cinnamon toast, and just enjoy each other's company.

There was this one thing I could do. My youngest had been filling her time learning how to crochet and had only the edging to complete before her afghan was finished. As her cancer had progressed, she lost feeling in her fingertips and it was hard for her to hold both the crochet hook and yarn. I decided I could complete the afghan for her and have it ready by Christmas morning.

One of my three jobs was singing in a country-western band. In my part of the country, clubs paid more for that kind of music than rock and I wasn't working four hours a night for the experience. We usually worked every weekend and were paid in cash. Cash that was spent the minute it hit my hand. Unfortunately, this was one year we were not booked for Christmas Eve. But, at 1:30pm, the afternoon of Christmas Eve, the phone rang. It was a local club owner wondering if our band couldn't come in on short notice to play at his club, that night. The band they had scheduled backed out when they received a better offer. (Now, this is a real no-no in the band business, but there's very little a club owner can do about it when it happens besides hope he can find another one to fill in for the night.) I gave him our price, saying we would only work if he promised we would be paid in cash and that I would have to contact the guys in the band before I could really commit to anything, but would get back to him within the hour.

Christmas Eve is a difficult night to get anyone to change plans and the guys had really been looking forward to spending time with their families. The only advantage I could offer was the promise of a cash payment and we only had to do two sets for an early closing. I didn't know what their situations were, but that money would save the day for me. Within the hour, they had all returned my call and agreed to do the gig. I was going to be able to give my girls a Christmas, after all. I couldn't believe it. I thanked God, my guardian angel, and everyone else I knew on the other side. I even threw in a thank-you to Wal-Mart and their open-all-night policy.

Since I wouldn't be able to get back home in time, I arranged for the girls to attend midnight candlelight services with friends. We performed our sets, the club owner made good his promise, and I decided to head to Wal-Mart before heading home to unload the van. I was a little surprised to see the other band members pulling in beside me, but figured they wanted to get some last-minute gifts. I ran around desperately trying to figure out how to cover two teen-aged girls, gas and parking fees, and still manage a little extra for a Christmas dinner on $75.

Shopping finished, I rushed to the registers in time to find the guys just standing there, waiting for me on the other side. Just a brief glance at their baskets made me wonder who would be receiving their presents. I knew their wives and the gifts were definitely too young for them. Of course, they saw me checking out their carts and with great big grins, told me how they had already discussed it with their wives, only agreeing to perform so that their share could be used for my girls' Christmas. That was their present to me. Their wives had come up with the list of presents for them to buy my girls and I just had to do the wrapping and place them under the tree. How do you say thank-you when your eyes are filled with tears and your throat is constricted with love? All I could do was hug them tight in gratitude and wish them and their families a very Merry Christmas and Happy New Year.

It was 3:30am by the time the van was emptied and the presents wrapped. I checked to make sure the girls were asleep and sat in my chair to reflect on my day and the special blessings that filled my life. As I gazed at the little tree, I noticed an envelope perched on an upper branch, addressed to "Mom." Officially, this was Christmas morning. I decided it was okay to read it. I had to sit down as I read, "Dear Mom, Please don't feel bad about not having any money for presents this year. We all know the reason. What's important is that we have each other and are able to be together for this Christmas. We love you and want to spend Christmas Day with you. And we love peanut butter sandwiches with raisin faces. All our love, ________"

Okay. There was no way I was going to sleep that Christmas Eve, but I could put one more round of edging on my youngest's afghan. And, I did, finishing at 6:35am, just in time to hear the alarms go off in their rooms. They walked out, slowly, not expecting to find anything under our little tree and were stunned to discover that Santa had been there, after all. I couldn't keep the secret and shared what the guys in the band had done for our Christmas -- and, that I had read their note. Then, came the explosion of hugs, tears and kisses because, underneath it all, we knew this really was our last Christmas together. The little tree with more metal on its branches than needles would have to go; but, for just a moment, when I looked at the angel on top of that little bedraggled tree full of memories, I could have sworn I saw her smile.

Do you have a special Christmas memory where angels touched your life? Link in and share, won't you?


Anonymous said...

What a fantastic story!


Brenna @ Almost All The Truth said...

That was an amazing story. Has me in tears... life can really be incredible sometimes.

Terria Fleming said...

What a beautiful, miraculous, Christmas story. I too read it with tears in my eyes.

Lisa said...

Oh Sharlene. I'm in tears. What a beautiful story. The kindness of people can sometimes be so overwhelming. But so welcome and so good to hear. Thank you for sharing these special memories with us.

Jane said...

This was a beautiful christmas story! God blessed your little family,Blessings Jane

SharleneT said...

Thank you. Each of you. Writing about it has made the memory more poignant than painful -- something I wasn't expecting. But, it still hurts... I don't think that goes away.

I hope you all have a Happy New Year and that your dreams come true (well, not all of them, because then you would have nothing to do for 2012!).

Emma said...

Oh dear me...I can barely see through my tears to leave you a comment!! It's heart warming that people do come through to help you but more so that your girls wanted nothing more than to be together with you. I'm not surprised it still hurts now to have written it. Hope that you are well and that 2011 is a good year xx

Pricilla said...

What a wonderful memory to have - happiness to cradle the sorrow.

The Mom Chef said...

Ok, so my eyes are watered up so badly that I can barely type. This is an amazing story. I am SO glad you shared it.

Big, big hugs, my friend. You're a blessing.