Thursday, December 15, 2011

A Tree for Christmas

          I didn't know how I was going to get through the holiday season this year—I hadn't even looked for a tree.
My husband had died five years ago. I'd learned to deal with that, but my daughter, away at State University, suddenly seemed so independent she no longer needed me. Looking for a shoulder to cry on, I called my sister Celia a week before Christmas and told her my sob story: My daughter Ashley had called and said, if I didn't mind, she'd like to go home with a friend just until after Christmas Day.
Please, Mom! She'd spend all the rest of her holiday with me.A young man was involved. Someone "very special."
"Didn't you tell her," Celia wailed over the phone, "that she was leaving her forty-year-old mom high and dry?"
"I didn't want to ruin her plans—I remember being that age. Being in love."
"Tell you what," Celia said. "Why don't you help me this week?"
Celia spent a lot of time during the week before Christmas at the Children's Hospital, delivering little gifts she purchased during the year from a novelty store. She and her husband had lost their only child to leukemia. The boy had spent a long time in the hospital, and this was Celia's way of cheering up other youngsters who were ill. I told her I'd be delighted to help.
During that week, in the afternoon, Celia and I sported Santa hats—hers red, mine green—and delivered tons of little gifts that we each carried in a basket: Christmas pins—angels, Santas, reindeers, snowmen, snowballs. And candy canes tied with a red or green ribbon. Miniature cars, trucks, dolls, dogs, kittens.
Suddenly I felt my own spirits lifting because I was lifting someone else's.
On the third afternoon, just before getting ready to leave the hospital, I sat in the waiting room on the third floor waiting for Celia. She'd gone to the restroom.
While I browsed though a magazine, a tall man with sandy hair stepped into the waiting room. "Nice hat," he said, and smiled.
My heart did a little flip-flop, and my hand flew up to the green Santa hat I wore. I pulled it off. "I'm pretending to Mrs. Claus," I said. "Sort of..."
I felt myself blushing.
"I know. I saw you and your friend yesterday in the first-floor hallway, and today my son said you'd visited him. Room 2030."
I prayed the boy's illness wasn't serious. "His name...?"
"Danny. Danny Wilson," the man said. "He's ten. He has mono—pretty serious—but he's recovering. Though I don't know if he'll make it home for Christmas. It'll be a pretty lonely house without him."
"I know what you mean. My daughter is gone."
The man looked stricken. "I'm so sorry..."
"Off to college," I said quickly, waving a hand. "Not like you were thinking..."
Just then Celia appeared. She smiled at the tall man and they both said hello. I rose and told him I hoped his boy got better soon. As Celia and I left the hospital to get our cars in the parking lot, she told me she knew the man—Patrick Wilson. His family and he had once lived down the street from her. He was a widower. His wife, in her late thirties, had died during childbirth. "He's handsome," she added, pointedly. "Don't you think?"
I wanted to tell her I hadn't noticed. But I opted for the truth. "Very handsome."
I met Patrick again the next day, accidentally. We were both climbing out of our cars in the hospital parking lot, all bundled up because of the cold and snow.
"Where's your buddy?" he said, puffing out a frosty breath.
"Probably waiting for me in the lobby."
"We haven't been officially introduced—I'm Patrick Wilson."
"Ellen Thompson."
"It's a wonderful thing you're doing, Ellen, cheering these kids up during the holidays."
"Thanks. I'm having a lot of fun."
"Watch out!" He gripped my elbow, guiding me around a patch of ice hidden under the light snow that was falling. His touch sent my heart flip-flopping again.
"I'll find out today for sure if Tommy will be home for Christmas—I've got to get a tree tonight. I've been so busy—I manage a furniture store in the mall, and sales are booming."
"I don't have a tree either. Tying it onto the roof of the car, lugging it into the house, getting it balanced in a stand—my daughter always helped me with that."
"Your husband....?"
"I'm a widow. Five years now."
"I'm sorry."
"I'm getting along fine," I said.
Inside the hospital lobby, where I met Celia, Patrick and I parted. But before he stepped onto an elevator, he smiled and waved at both of us.
"I think he likes you," Celia said.
"Don't be silly." But I wondered if it could be true.
After Celia and I finished our rounds, emptying our baskets, we headed for the hospital doors. We both spotted Patrick sitting in a chair in the lobby as if he were waiting for someone.
"He's waiting for you," Celia whispered.
"He is not!" I hissed.
"Why do you think he's sitting there?" She tugged the empty basket from my grasp. "I'm going home. Talk to him." With that she gave me a nudge in the back.
When I approached Patrick, he stood up looking so uncertain I thought something might have happened to Tommy. But he said, "Tommy will be home for Christmas—and I wondered...well, I wondered if we could look for trees together."
I blinked. I was so surprised I couldn't talk for a second.
"I'll help with the lugging and all," he said. "Even the balancing."
I tried to breathe evenly but couldn't. "I'd love to look for a tree."
He smiled at me again. "Nice hat."
But this time I left the green Santa hat perched atop my head. The hat, it seemed to me, echoed the warm holiday spirit I felt bubbling inside myself.

The End
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