A Christmas Song


A Christmas Song

My mother died in March, not from the arthritis that she had fought for several years but from pneumonia. I didn’t even know someone could get pneumonia that way. I mean she hardly ever left our home.

They say the hardest time to get through is the first Christmas after something like that happens. I guess that’s true. It’s like a complicated puzzle somebody gives you that you never wanted. You work on it hour after hour but never solve it. My thoughts keep going back to last Christmas—sorting through each detail, measuring each gesture, weighing every word. Lately I’ve been trying to remember what I gave her for Christmas, but I can’t. But I do remember what she gave me.

Arthritis is a slow disease. From day to day there doesn’t seem to be any change. I don’t even know exactly when it began, maybe four or five years ago. During that time it took my mother’s hands and deformed the joints, and bent her neck so she couldn’t hold her head erect, and weakened her knees so she couldn’t walk.

At first Dad and I had hope about getting her well. They’re doing lots of research, we thought, and any time they might find a cure. Besides, there were always people talking about a relative who ate sunflower seeds or drank goat’s milk and was cured.

“I wouldn’t mind being sick,” my mother would say, “if I could look pretty at the same time.” She was pretty once. Sometimes I look at my parents’ picture taken outside the Salt Lake Temple when they were married. My mother looks so young in the picture. My dad has dark hair and is still lean. Of course, now he’s lost most of his hair and put on a little weight around the belt.

There’s something strange about that picture. All over the temple grounds, except on the sidewalk where it’s been shoveled, there is newly fallen snow. But my mother in her white wedding gown is holding a large bunch of lilac blossoms in her arms. It must have been a late spring snowstorm that came after the lilacs had bloomed. I wish I had asked her about the lilacs.

After the disease started to win, my mother had Dad take down the mirror in the hall so she wouldn’t see herself when we wheeled her from the bedroom into the living room. She weighed less than 90 pounds.

My mother was a good musician. She was in charge of the ward choir as far back as I can remember. She also played piano in Primary. When anyone wanted a special number in sacrament meeting, they would call her up and she’d arrange it. Every Christmas she would get music together for a special presentation in church. But a year before she died, she had to ask to be released because of the arthritis.

Last year at this time I was a senior in high school. Kara Erickson and I went together to most of the ward activities. We weren’t really going steady, but in our ward there weren’t many others our age, and besides we liked each other.

One Wednesday near Christmas at Aaronic Priesthood and Young Women activity night, they turned the time over to Sister Robbins. She and her husband had just moved from Utah, where they had both been going to school.

“The bishop has asked me to be in charge of a special youth vocal number for the program before Christmas. What do you want to sing?”

There were a few groans from the Scouts.

“‘Silent Night,’” one of the Beehive girls said.

“That’s too slow,” someone else complained.

“Yea, something that doesn’t drag.”

“Christmas is such a happy time. Let’s do something with some life to it, like ‘Deck the Halls.’”

I got up and walked out into the hall and waited for them to finish singing so I could go to class. Somehow I felt depressed that they would have Christmas music without my mother there to help.

Later I drove Kara home.

There’s something you should know about Kara. She’s really beautiful and smart and everything, but in high school she didn’t get asked out as much as you’d expect. One day in early morning seminary when we were 16, we were talking about dating. She told the class that she had decided she wasn’t going to date nonmembers and she wasn’t going to kiss any guy until she was sure she loved him enough to marry him. Some of the kids in the class thought that was dumb about not kissing. But she wouldn’t change her mind.

There aren’t that many LDS guys in our small Montana town. By the time we were both seniors, I was the only one dating her, although we never decided to go steady.

After we had been dating for a long time, guys at school would come up to me and ask, “You mean you’ve never even kissed her once?”

“No.”

“I don’t believe it. That’s not normal.”

Of course, I would have liked to kiss her. But sometimes I wonder if we weren’t closer that way. I mean we talked a lot. And I began to see how lucky the guy would be who did marry her.

But that night I wasn’t very good company. We pulled up in front of her house and stopped.

“Steve, Sister Robbins was asking about you. Why didn’t you stay for the practice?”

“I didn’t feel like singing.”

“She really needs you; she only has two others singing bass.”

“I won’t sing.”

“She’s got some arrangements of things they did at BYU. She says it’s going to be the best ever.”

“It was the best when my mother led the singing.”

Another thing about Kara and me—we ended our dates with prayer. We didn’t tell anybody about that; they would have really laughed about that.

We got two weeks vacation from school for Christmas. At the same time the lady who stayed with my mother during the day asked for time off to visit her sister in Kansas. My dad asked me if I would stay home during the days of my vacation to help out my mother.

Each day of the vacation seemed much like the one before. When she woke up I would lift her out of bed into the wheelchair. I helped her wash up, getting the washcloth wet with warm water, putting soap on it, and handing it to her. When she was finished, I would rinse it out, let her get the soap off, and hand her a towel.

Eventually we got to the kitchen, and I fixed her something to eat. After breakfast I’d get her some aspirin and a Darvon. Then I wheeled her into the living room and turned on the TV. It didn’t really matter what was on. Just anything to take her mind off the pain. About 11:00 the mail came. At noon I fixed her lunch. In the afternoon she tried to walk. I’d stand beside her and hold onto her, and she’d put one foot a couple of inches in front of the other and slowly move forward. After going a couple of feet she’d be exhausted, and I would put her on the couch so she could rest.

Thursday before Christmas she had an appointment with the doctor. My dad came home from work early. He moved the car into the driveway, opening the right front door. Then he came inside and picked her up in his arms and carried her to the car.

As he began to slide her into the front seat, he stumbled a little. Her legs hit the door post.

“You clumsy!” she screamed at him. “Can’t you see you’re hurting me?”

On the way to the doctor my mother cried, first from the pain, and then because she’d said that to my dad. But he understood how it was for her.

When we got home after the appointment, Dad carried my mother into the bedroom and let her rest. Then he had to go back to work.

I turned on the TV. There was something secure about sitting there. It was as if I could plug my mind into it and let it guide me so I’d never have to remember my mother screaming with pain.

Later I went to our bookshelf and looked a long time at my parents’ wedding picture. I wondered what my dad would have done if somehow before the wedding he had been told that 20 years later that young girl beside him would turn brittle. And I wondered what disease might lay locked up inside Kara—or myself.

That night I had to get away, so I took Kara to the movies. The movie was as depressing as the day had been. After the movie I took her right home. As soon as the car stopped I opened the door and went around to the other side to let her out.

“Aren’t we going to pray together tonight?”

“Don’t ask that tonight. Just go inside.”

“Steve, please.”

“Okay,” I said harshly. “Will you offer it?”

She knew I felt rotten, and she was trying to help. “Could we kneel? We could go in the backyard by the trees.”

“Whatever you say,” I said angrily. We walked out into her backyard.

When we got to the place, isolated by some trees, she knelt down. I stood there looking at her, unable to make myself kneel down.

“I can’t, Kara. You go ahead.”

“Why can’t you pray?”

“God doesn’t listen to me anymore,” I said with bitterness.

“He loves you, Steve.”

“No, not me. The only thing I’ve ever asked him recently is that my mother would get better. Kara, she’s getting worse. But you go ahead. Don’t let me stop you. Pray for good health for your family. God listens to you.”

“Don’t say those things,” she said, hurt and disappointed.

“Well go ahead and pray if you want to pray!” I yelled at her.

She began to cry. After a few minutes that seemed a hundred years in which I couldn’t seem to force myself to move or help her, I finally broke loose and helped her to her feet. I took a tissue and wiped away the tears that I had caused.

“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to take it out on you,” I said.

“I know. It’s not easy for you at home.”

We walked into the front yard. The Christmas tree lights glowed delicately from the living room window. I could see Kara’s mother busy sewing a dress.

“Merry Christmas,” I said grimly. “Are there really people on the earth who have a merry Christmas? I’m so afraid of Christmas this year. I wish I could take a pill and go to sleep and not wake up until January.”

“Steve, if you would sing with us Sunday, it would be good for you.”

“No, the words would choke me. My mother used to do so much in music that it’d haunt me. You go ahead. I’m sure it will be fine. Just don’t ask me to sing.”

Friday morning was the same as Thursday morning. The TV was showing a lot of movies about Christmas. I saw White Christmas with Bing Crosby three times that week.

In the afternoon my mother slept for about an hour. When she woke up, I got her a glass of milk with brewer’s yeast in it.

“What time is it?” she asked.

“Three o’clock.”

“Can you change it to channel four?”

I got up and changed the channel. There was a documentary on fish farms in the South.

“Are you sure you’re on channel four? It’s supposed to be Search for Tomorrow.”

“It’s the right channel. Do you want me to leave it there?”

“If they say they’re going to show something at a certain time, why don’t they show it?”

“I don’t know. What do you want me to do?”

“Change over to channel seven,” she said.

“Do you want that?” I asked, looking at a program on French cooking.

“I don’t know what I want,” she said numbly. “Turn back to channel four, but turn the volume down so we’ll know if Search for Tomorrow comes on. Do you think I should take some aspirin? What time is it?”

“A little after three.”

“I guess I’ll wait so they’ll be still working when your dad comes home. Can you put me on the wheelchair and roll me out by the window?”

I pushed her next to our picture window. “Still no snow,” she said, looking out at the grays and browns. “It doesn’t seem much like Christmas, does it?”

“No.”

“A few years ago I’d be busy now getting ready for the musical program on Sunday. Do you remember when we sang parts from the Messiah? We invited the whole town. One year we had the Primary children sing the whole program. Once we even had a string quartet. I wonder if anyone in the ward remembers that.”

I said that they did, although people move in and out in our ward so fast that I doubted if very many people were still here that were here then.

“I’ve been away for so long. I don’t even know the people in the choir now. Have you met Sister Robbins? Kara’s mother told me she’s the choir leader now. I bet they’ll be singing this Sunday. Will you tell me how it goes?”

“I’m not going.”

“Steve, you’ve never missed before.”

“I’ll go to Livingston for church, but I’m not going to our ward. Don’t ask me to do it. I wish it were over.”

“What’s wrong?”

“When they sing, I’ll be sad that you’re not up there singing. In the talks someone will get up and say what great blessings he’s received. Well, we live the gospel, and you’re sick. Where are our blessings?”

“Steve, I’ve never heard you talk like that.”

“It’s just Christmas. I’ll be okay after it’s over.”

I know that really bothered her. Maybe I shouldn’t have said it. I guess if I had known she was going to die in a few months, I would have held my tongue. But I didn’t know that.

I sat down, turned up the TV, and tried to plug my mind into its security.

After a few minutes, during a commercial, I got up and rolled her back to her chair. I got her an aspirin, a Darvon pill, and a glass of water and then sat down and watched Lucy.

After Lucy there was the Brady Bunch.

“Steve, turn the TV off.”

I turned it off.

“Do you remember when we used to make special cookies for Christmas? Why don’t you and I make some now? We’ll surprise your dad when he comes home. It’ll be just like it used to be.”

I rolled her into the kitchen. She seemed excited about making the cookies. She told me what to do, helping me find the recipe, telling me where the cookie cutters were so we could make Christmas trees, Santa. Clauses, and stars. She said she’d cut out the shapes after we’d finished with the dough.

I started on the recipe, adding each ingredient as it was listed.

“A cup of sugar,” I read, going to the cupboard.

“That’s not enough.”

“It says one cup.”

“I changed the recipe. I put in more sugar.”

“How much more?”

“I can’t remember.”

“How about if I put in a cup and follow the recipe?”

“It won’t taste the same as it did on other Christmases.”

Nothing about this Christmas is going to be the same, I thought to myself.

After I finished mixing the cookie dough, I put down some waxed paper on the table and rolled the dough out.

My mother wanted to help with the cookies to please Dad. She picked up one of the cookie cutters and placed it on the dough and pressed. Although she made an indentation in the dough, she couldn’t seem to push hard enough to actually cut out the shape. She tried it again. I wanted to help her, but she wanted to do it herself so Dad would be proud.

Suddenly she just quit. “I can’t do it. I can’t do anything. There’s nothing I can do. I’m no good to anyone.”

I picked up the dough, ran with it to the disposal, and got rid of it.

I pushed her back to the living room. Tears rolled down her cheeks. She couldn’t use her hands very well to stop them, and so they streamed down and fell from her face.

We turned on the TV and sat there silently watching a documentary on raising African violets. After that we watched Password.

“Steve, I don’t want to watch any more TV.” I turned it off.

“What is this disease doing to us?” she asked. “You asked where our blessings were. Don’t you know?”

“I want you to be well. That’s all I want. Why can’t God hear me?”

“I used to wonder that too. He hears us. But if he rewarded everyone who loved him with good health and everyone who disobeyed him with sickness, who wouldn’t follow him? But then there would be no free agency. The glory of the gospel is that even in pain we can maintain our faith. This is not going to defeat me. I’m going to fight it all the way. And someday I’ll walk.”

I looked at her weak legs, feeling she’d never walk, and said weakly, “Sure you will.”

“I will. If not here in this life then in the next. I’ve memorized a scripture. ‘For I know that my redeemer liveth, and that he shall stand at the latter day upon the earth. And though after my skin worms destroy this body, yet in my flesh shall I see God.’

“I’ll see him. I’ll stand. I’ll walk again. Because of the Savior I’ll stand.”

She’d never talked to me like that before.

“Steve, when I dream in the night, I dream I’m walking. I’ll walk again. Your dad and I have been through the temple; we’ve tried to do the best we could. I want so much to stand someday beside your father and be with him in the celestial kingdom, not with this deformed body, but with a body that can stand tall and walk. That hope is one of my greatest blessings. Don’t you understand?”

I nodded my head.

“Can we have a prayer before your dad comes home so he won’t have to bear any more burden than he has already?”

“I can’t pray, Mom. I don’t even know what to ask for anymore.”

“Please, son, honor your priesthood.”

“Father in heaven, please help us get through Christmas with some happiness. In Jesus’ name. Amen.”

My dad came home about 5:00. I helped him cook supper. After that we took out our plastic tree, assembled it, and put a few ornaments on it. We put our presents under the tree. Then we sat down and watched TV.

About 8:00 we heard some car doors slam, and in a minute our doorbell rang. My dad opened the door.

It was Sister Robbins, Kara, and a bunch of kids from church.

“Could I talk to your wife?” Sister Robbins asked.

“I’m sorry to bother you like this, but we need your help. We’re supposed to put on a part for the Christmas program Sunday, and I’m afraid I’ve gotten in over my head. The kids told me you used to do this all the time. I was wondering if you’d mind listening to us and giving your suggestions.”

They got around the piano and began to sing. When they finished, my mother gave some ideas to help it. We sang another song. You should have seen my mother. The body was deformed, the old pale robe hiding weak and spindly arms and legs. But her eyes came alive. She listened and helped with such enthusiasm. Before long she had us singing parts.

I’ve found out since then that Sister Robbins is really a good musician. I’m not sure she needed as much help as she said she did. That night she asked my mother about every little thing. My mother lit up. The more she helped, the more spirit came into her face.

“Why didn’t I think of that?” Sister Robbins said at one point.

“Well, remember, I’ve had 20 years working on choirs.”

While they talked I went into the kitchen. Kara was talking to my dad while they both set out plates and glasses.

“Your dad says you’re becoming quite a help in the kitchen.”

“He’ll make somebody a fine husband,” my dad said with a grin. “After his mission, that is,” he added.

Kara set out a fresh batch of Christmas cookies she had made that afternoon. She had planned the whole thing with Sister Robbins. She was the way in which Heavenly Father answered my prayer.

We had cookies and milk. After that we sang more Christmas songs. My mother led us with nods of her head.

Of course, I sang with the choir that Sunday. My dad brought my mother to Church long enough to partake of the sacrament and listen to the musical numbers, and then the pain got too bad for her, and he had to take her home.

When I remember my mother, I can’t altogether forget the pain she had nor forget the savage way arthritis dealt with her. That’s a part of my life.

My thoughts often go back to the picture of her as a young bride holding those lilacs in the midst of all that snow. At the same time I remember her saying, “I’ll stand. I’ll walk again. Because of the Savior I’ll stand!”

That’s what she gave me for our last Christmas. Somehow I think that is what she would want me to remember.

[illustrations] Illustrated by Ted Henninger