A Kettle Boils on Christmas

This Christmas, I vowed not to buy any gifts. No malls, no presents, and especially no racking up credit card debt to obtain objects I really can’t afford to please acquaintances I really don’t like.

I’ve always thought about doing a D.I.Y. Christmas, but each season I’m lured into the malls, compelled to spend money. Each year, I’d vow to be financially responsible, but then I’d break the seal. It’s like when you’re drinking: you go pee once, and that’s it, you’re pissing all night. The same thing goes for Christmas spending: you buy one gift— one twinkling ornament or embroidered pillow— and suddenly, you’re spending money everywhere, swiping your credit card for every aunt and step-cousin you’re related to.

Six dollars and sixty-nine cents. That’s what I spent on Christmas this year. The cost of a pack of red cardstock from Michael’s craft store. I spent my Friday night in Oakville making Christmas cards. Seventeen cards to be exact. Cards that I crafted from wrapping paper and stamps for the V.I.P.’s in my life. I personalized each card with a long, handwritten sentiment that reads more like a letter than a Christmas greeting.

I celebrated Christmas morning in the palliative care unit at Credit Valley hospital. In the days leading up to December 25th, our family was told my Nonna (Italian for grandmother) has only days to live. We’ve been told this before over the course of her seven-year long battle with Alzheimer’s disease, but this time, the doctors assure us it’s serious. The nurses administer steady doses of morphine to ease my Nonna’s pain, and it won’t be long before she closes her eyes for good.

It’s an odd thing, waiting for her to die. On Christmas Eve, I’d checked my Nona’s fingernails for the telltale white crescent-moons. Perhaps it’s an old wives tale, but a few years ago, when my grandfather was sick, my aunt told me that once that half-moon in your fingernail disappears, you don’t have much longer to live. One day, the whites in my grandfather’s fingernails disappeared, and shortly after, so did he.

As I held my grandmother’s frail hands in mine, I search for her half-moons and find only the faintest whisper of this mark, like a distant moon in a heavily overcast sky.

This morning as I drove to the hospital, in countless living rooms around the world, children wiped the sleep from their excited eyes and gathered around brightly lit Christmas trees to sip hot chocolate and unwrap gifts. I distantly remember these Christmases; they replay in my mind, the picture out of focus, the image black and white; they’re the Christmases when I believed.

As I walked the sunlit halls of the hospital, wearing my fight face and armed with a cup of coffee, I was stopped in my tracks by the sound of a voice.

“Merry Christmas” it said.

The voice belonged to a man who was sitting on the faux leather couches lining the hospital hallways. He looked right at me—right into the whites of my puffy eyes—and he smiled. I hadn’t thought about what I must have looked like walking those halls, but I could imagine my hollowed eye-sockets gave me away. My pale face told my story; it said I was exhausted beyond belief, and that I just want this to be over, and please make it stop.

The man’s words fell from his mouth and spilled onto the tiled floor in front of my feet. I watched the thick words come alive and form a barricade before me, an army of black letters that wouldn’t allow me to pass until I acknowledged them.

I turned to the man, my eyes filling with tears , and I reciprocated the greeting. I haven’t cried in a long time, and the hot tears were a relief, like steam spilling over the top of a boiling kettle. The tears washed the letters away, and I was allowed to pass, but not before I took some time to recuperate. Not before I took some time to cry.

The man was a stranger. Thinking back, I can’t even tell you what he looked like, but his kindness jarred me, forced me out of my head and shoved me into the moment. His greeting slapped me into my reality, compelling me to come to terms with what I’d been ignoring all morning—that yes, it’s Christmas, and yes, we’re in a hospital, and yes, my grandmother is dying.

The stranger gave me my tears, and this year, it was just the gift I needed.

-LM

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