Thursday, December 23, 2010

This Christmas

Some of my sixth graders sent home get well cards with my husband John.

One of them was written by a small boy I had just scolded the week before my surgery.

"I seen you at the mall, Mrs. Howard!" he chirped one morning.

"SAW!" I snapped. "You saw me at the mall."

His eyes rolled to the ceiling. "Who cares? Why do we have to learn this stuff?" he whined.

"So that you don’t sound like an idiot at cocktail parties," I said.

He groaned. "I’ve never been to a cocktail party in my whole life!"

"See?" I said. "Nobody invites idiots to cocktail parties."

He must have recognized a homemade get well card as his golden opportunity for revenge.

"Remember when I SEEN you at the mall, Mrs. Howard?" he wrote. "I SEEN you looking at shoes, and I SEEN your face when you SEEN the black ones. Now I wish I could SEEN your face when you SEEN this card!"

Another little boy, best friend to the mall rat, also penned a touching card.

"Thenks to you Missus Howerd I am the vary best speler in the hole middel schol. Are you a grat teecher or waht?"

These sixth graders really crack themselves up.

My operation was a week ago today, but it seems like another lifetime. I miss my students, even the smart alecky ones. And by God, they better be missing me. In spite of that, it’s been a good week. John rises early to ply me with medication and check out my drainage tubes. My son Tommy, with his grizzly bear paws, gently washed my hair the first day I was home from the hospital. Deb washed it again on Tuesday while Mary cleaned our house. Then they both presented me with a Christmas present - a Columbian fleece jacket with a matching hat, gloves and a fuzzy scarf. Deb arranged the scarf around my neck so that each long end draped over my boobless chest.

"See that?" she guided me toward the mirror. "Now nobody can even tell."

I’m lucky to have two sisters navigating the waters ahead of me. They know the answers to all my questions about draining tubes, the best way to sleep sitting up, and when to start the Milk of Magnesia. It turns out that starting it before a three-hour car trip home is never a good idea.

But to be on the other side, as Terri and Deb like to say, is an enormous relief, pure and simple. It must be a little like dying and waking up in Heaven.

I wasn’t exactly sure how the big unveiling of my new chest would occur, but it all happened in the hospital with very little fan fare.

"Let me sneak a peak at your dressings," the morning nurse smiled cheerfully as she pulled apart the velcro tabs of the corset wound tightly around my incisions.

And just like that, John and I were staring at my scarred chest. He didn’t flinch, and neither did I. It wasn’t so very shocking, really. It was just that every thing was gone except two horizontal wounds on the chest of what appeared to be an adolescent school boy.

"It looks good, Cath," John said.

My husband. He’s a terrible liar, but in that moment, he was the loveliest man I’d ever known.

Now that I’m home, I don’t like to look at my chest unless I have to. Sometimes, however, I force myself to examine it from all angles, and I am reassured that it’s still me - just a little bit less so.

While I sleep and rest and heal, I think of the kids at school. This is my favorite time of year. In English class, we always draw names for a gift exchange. Even the juniors enjoy the secrecy and delight of choosing a random name from the hat. But I didn’t have time for a gift exchange before my surgery this year.
And yesterday was Christmas Cheer, a day set aside for games and class competitions. My favorite event is the age old "Bat Spin", a relay race in which each student leans over to press his forehead against the end of a baseball bat and spins in reckless abandon. The kids then come up for air, dizzy and disoriented, tumbling into each other and colliding in confusion. Every year, I laugh until my sides ache.

But the best part of the day is Mass followed by the annual school Christmas pageant. Our seniors play the parts of Mary and Joseph and the angels. Some of the sturdier boys wear ancient bathrobes to portray the lowly shepherds, and there’s always a real Baby Jesus. Last year, Baby Jesus wailed piercingly on Mary’s lap until one of the shepherds, who in reality was the oldest brother of the infant, discreetly slapped a pacifier into Baby Jesus’ mouth. Even though the kids feel a little awkward donning angel wings and bathrobes, they sincerely try to portray the story of that long-ago miraculous birth, and their earnest reverence never fails to choke me up.

I missed out on all of it this year. Now tomorrow’s Christmas Eve, and I’m already sad that I won’t be squeezing into a church pew with John and Kenny and Tommy for Christmas Mass. Afterwards, Kenny and Tommy will join the rest of my sprawling big family at Joe’s house. My brother Joe, who reminds me so much of Dad, will greet everybody warmly at the door, and there will be singing and praying and eating and drinking and laughing.

But John and I will spend the evening quietly at home. At precisely 10 o’clock, my faithful husband will help me drain my tubes and change my dressings. Then we will wait for Kenny and Tommy to return home so that we can exchange our own gifts.

But I’ve already received my best Christmas present in the form of a phone call from Dr. Grange.

"Good news!" I could hear the smile on her face. "Your pathology report came back today - no evidence of any cancer at all!"

I was speechless for just a second, and then I thanked her over and over again.

"You’re welcome!" she laughed warmly. "And Merry Christmas!"

I sat for a long time cradling the phone in my lap. My sisters and I have never taken life for granted. We’ve learned to savor every holiday and graduation and wedding as if they might never occur again. But for the first time ever, I felt the possibility of a long future folding out in front of me.

Tomorrow is Christmas Eve. I will have missed out on all the school festivities, the beautiful Mass celebrating the birth of Our Lord, and precious time with my family. But Christmas will come again next year. And the year after that, and the year after that.

In the meantime, I will enjoy this quiet holiday with my husband and the cats. As it turns out, it’s been the very best Christmas of my life..

I hope it is for you, too.

Merry Christmas.