The year was 1984 and the song “Do They Know It’s Christmas” was on the radio. We were at a toll booth on our way to the airport and all I wanted was to be back at home. We weren’t on our way to a fabulous holiday vacation or off to see family. We were catching a plane to Rochester, Minnesota so I could go to the Mayo Clinic and have what turned into the first of dozens of operations I would end up having for Crohn’s disease.
My sisters were at home with my grandparents and Christmas was going to wait until Mom and I were back home.
The operation was performed on December 18 and I was petrified even though I put on a happy face. It seemed so weird to be wheeled down a hallway decorated with Christmas trees and sparkly garland when the gurney I was on seemed so sterile and drab. Part of me felt like this was part of a punishment of not wanting to eat, having stomach aches and always being in the bathroom. I knew it was supposed to make me better in the long run but those moments I never felt worse.
I woke up in the Intensive Care Unit with the sounds of beeping all around me. The lights of the machines lit up the room and there was a quiet hustle of the people in the room. There were also rows of children in their beds all around me. Some had surgery, some were waiting for organs and there were those who just weren’t thriving and may not even see Christmas day.
As I tried to start to move I felt my stomach, it hurt in a way that words can’t express. It burned and felt numb all at the same time. It was sunken in almost hollow and there were tubes everywhere. I couldn’t move my hands without hitting something.
I know I spoke to my parents and was just so relieved to see their faces again even though they looked a numb and hollow themselves.
One of the nights I was in ICU, Santa came to the ward and he patted my head. I couldn’t lift my head but I had never been so happy to see Santa in all my life. He was real and he was there with me holding my hand. It felt so soft, welcoming and safe.
Within the week, my dad headed back home to be with my sisters but Mom stayed with me at the hospital. It meant she would miss Christmas with them but she couldn’t or better said she wouldn’t leave me. (This was before the days of letting parents stay in the room so she had to sleep at the hotel.) I’m not sure if I ever have said it but I’m sorry that my sisters had to sacrifice their “normal” holiday for something that was so out of all our control. They were young too and none of this had to make sense to them either.
As the days passed, Mom and I celebrated milestones like walking, getting into a “regular” room and drinking a cup of broth. You know the typical things on a 14-year old’s holiday wish list.
We met other families who were having the same kind of holiday separated from family and yet grateful in our hearts for the gifts that life gives you.
Christmas morning arrived and a cleaning lady entered my room. She asked me if Santa had come and I said he was waiting for me at my house…..and then I cried and cried. I felt so alone and couldn’t wait for that moment when my mom would walk through that door.
When she arrived, I was distraught. I was sadder than I had been during this whole experience. She hugged me tight for it was hard for her too but she wasn’t going to show it. Mom was a pillar of strength.
She went to the room closet to hang up her coat and then started to act surprised. “Barb, did you see this?” Mom turned around and in her hands was one of my tube socks all out of shape with little lumps of what could only be gifts.
It was nothing huge in the sense of kids today expect but it was one of the most wonderful surprises I’ve ever gotten. It was the true meaning of the saying “it is the thought that counts.” I still have the little tin that held some candy and the yellow ornament that looked like our dog, Sunshine. It was perfect.
That night the hospital did a rare thing and ordered a tray so Mom and I could have dinner together. We laughed when we saw the mashed potatoes and shared a memory of the roommate I had had recently who said the mashed potatoes were “yummy delish.” It was so nice to laugh and to have Mom by my side.
I don’t recall much else of what happened on that day but I will always remember it as the best worst Christmas ever.