The Christmas Present


Three of the interns had already told me that I was well enough to leave the next day—the day before Christmas—and then come back to the hospital after a short holiday respite. I was sure that I would get final confirmation of this pleasant news from Dr. Sherman, department chief of staff, when he made his usual rounds later in the day. He finally appeared and stopped at my bedside. His examination was routine; in fact, it was too routine.

“You’re doing fine, just fine,” he assured me, and turned to leave the room. But he had nothing to say about me leaving the hospital for Christmas.

I gulped down my alarm and asked, “I’ll be leaving tomorrow for a few days, won’t I?”

The only indication of his surprise was the way his gray eyebrows lifted themselves a little higher on his forehead. He slowly answered, “I’m sorry, son, but you’re not going anywhere for at least two more weeks.”

His voice was kind, but it was also firm and definite. I lay there speechless as he left the room. The one thing I had been holding to for the last few days was gone. My one firm hope had just been stepped on, had just been crushed.

It wasn’t fair—none of it was fair! I had been on my mission for over a year when it happened. I was happy in my calling; teaching the gospel in New York City was challenging and exciting. And lately it had begun to be productive—our labors were being blessed with success. And I had been blessed with good health—at least I had been healthy until two weeks earlier when my right arm suddenly became paralyzed for a few minutes and my speech left me for more than two hours.

No one knew what had happened to me, so I had been brought to this hospital in the Bronx to find out. No one at the hospital seemed to know for sure just what had happened to me either. I had overheard whispered conversations about strokes, seizures, tumors, and syndromes. Dozens of inconclusive tests had left me exhausted and more ill than when I had entered the hospital. It just wasn’t fair for me to be wasting my time in the hospital when there were investigators to be taught; it wasn’t fair that the mysterious affliction had appeared in the first place.

I called my folks in Utah almost every night, assuring them that I was all right and that there was nothing to worry about. My mother wanted to fly out and be with me, but I knew that they couldn’t afford it and that I would feel even more self-conscious about my hospital stay if she were to come. So I joked about my mysterious malady over the phone and carefully acted the role of nonchalant victim so they would not worry about me so much.

The small hospital in the Bronx, famous for its work with neurological problems, had to be the most desolate and cheerless place on earth; I was sure of it after spending just one night in the place. As the days became weeks, my hopes of leaving for the Christmas holidays had made my suffering bearable. Thoughts of Yuletide excitement and activity alleviated the boredom and discomfort.

“You’re not going anywhere for at least two more weeks.” Dr. Sherman’s pronouncement lodged in my mind and filled it with a sense of nostalgia and finality. As a child, I would dream of Christmas for months ahead. As a young man, I found that my childish pleasures had been only partially replaced with a deeper appreciation of friends, family—and Jesus Christ.

I lay unmoving in the hospital bed for at least 15 minutes before I shifted position enough to reach the radio and turn it on; it had been my only pleasure and diversion in my lonely room since coming to the hospital. But even listening to it made my mood darken. My disappointment had been replaced with resentment and anger; I was totally miserable. I felt it within me, discoloring my personality from some corrupt inner well.

Still, I stubbornly listened to the radio, preferring it to the routine sounds from the corridor and the nearby kitchen. Every station seemed to be blasting me with Christmas carols. Happy voices proclaimed joy to the world. Singers reminded me again and again that “there’s no place like home for the holidays.”

I wasn’t full of joy. I wasn’t home. I wouldn’t even be going home to my missionary and member friends here in New York. For me there would be no Christmas this year.

December 23 slowly passed and became December 24. Then it was Christmas Eve. The hospital was hushed and quiet. Many of the patients had been allowed to go home for Christmas. But not me. I was alone. I was lonely, small, and unimportant.

I glumly lay in bed, listening to the radio carols, mocking them in my mind, and fervently wishing that the night would quickly pass. Around 8:00 there was a knock at the door, and Ed Cazakoff, one of the recent converts I had helped teach, walked into the room. His arms were full of packages, and his face was covered with a big grin. He greeted me with a cheery “Merry Christmas,” put down the packages, and warmly shook my hand.

It was astonishing to see him away from his family tonight. This was not just Christmas Eve—it was Hannukah, a special family time in Judaism. There had been much family difficulty because of Ed’s conversion to Christianity and the restored gospel, and he spent as much time as possible with his family to reassure them of his continued love and loyalty.

Ed’s face was radiant as he talked with me that evening. His warmth and enthusiasm and vulnerability made him seem younger than his 24 years. He smiled continually as he talked about his Church work, his delight in the gospel, and his concern and love for our mutual friends and for his family. For several hours we talked, listened to the radio carols, and opened the gifts he had brought with him. Some were from him; others had been gathered and sent by other friends.

After he left, I thought about the hours he would now spend waiting for the subway and traveling home this wintry night. I looked around at the once bleak room. Holiday paper tumbled from the waste basket, a small stack of opened gifts graced the solitary chair, and a row of red and white candy canes paraded around the sides of my bed. But more than the room, I must have looked vastly different. My heart had been touched; his happiness and radiance had warmed my soul. I had been wallowing in momentary concerns when I should have been thanking God for the rich blessings I could enjoy forever.

This had been Ed’s first Christmas Eve, and he had given it to me. His sincerity and loving concern exemplified true Christianity. He had sacrificed for me—he had cared. He had been deeply aware of the significance of Christmas—I had been ignoring it. The pleasures I had lamented missing weren’t really important at all. They were, by themselves, artificial and shallow.

For the next several hours, I lay there in the darkness and listened to the radio carols with a humble awareness of their meaning. I thought of a night many years before in a land across the sea; I delighted in the life of the Child born that night and thrilled at the spirit of the approaching day. I peacefully fell asleep, grateful for the Christmas presents I had been given by two of my brothers.

[illustration] Illustrated by Craig Fetzer