I shifted the screaming toddler in my arms and cast my eyes at the clock against the wall of the crowded terminal. There was still another two hours before our connecting flight would be here. “It’s okay. We’re going to Grandma’s for Christmas.” I told him with a smile, but my eighteen month old was so tired that words had no meaning. He continued flailing much to the annoyance of the dozen people within five feet of me. What he needed was a nap, but there was no space on the floor and I feared that if I stood I’d lose my seat and be forced to stand the rest of time.
Beside me, my husband held our three year old who slept in his arms. The day before Brian had a slight fever but seemed fine that morning. He slept during most of the flight, and I envied him. As Marcus’s cries intensified, I reached into my large carryon and pulled out his last full bottle. He finally took it, but I knew the reprieve would be a short one.
It was my own fault. To save money I had purchased tickets with three layovers which meant we could afford to rent a car. But between the snow, fog and other delays it took us over twenty six hours before we finally arrived in Medford. Then we began the three hour drive to the ranch where my husband grew up with Marcus still crying, and Brian still sleeping, As we rolled past the vast snow-dusted pastures filled with fat cattle huddled together to stay warm, my only thoughts were of how much I couldn’t wait to flop in a soft bed and close my own eyes.
We pulled up to the door in the middle of the chilly December afternoon and were greeted by an exuberant crowd. Greg’s parents, brothers and sisters swarmed around us. Yolanda, his older sister, was perhaps the most excited. She had arrived the day before from Utah with her two sons who were just the same ages as my own. The boys had never met, and we were all looking forward to seeing the young cousins become friends. After exchanging hugs we entered the main room where the bedecked tree in the corner sat swaddled in hundreds of homemade ornaments, the result of many crafty family nights over the years. Underneath it laid a fan of brightly covered packages. One of Greg’s younger sisters ran out to the car and got the bag that added our offering to the mix. It looked to be the perfect Christmas.
I volunteered to go upstairs to try and get the children settled down for a nap, hoping I might be able to steal one at the same time. Greg deposited the sleeping Brian on the bed beside me and headed downstairs to his family. Poor Marcus, still hiccupping and blotchy from his hysterics, was covered in sweat. As I peeled off his wet clothes, there was no question the child needed a bath. I started the tub, left him on the bathroom floor playing with a bottle of soft soap and hurried back to the bedroom to wake Brian.
“Honey? Come on.”
With his eyes still half closed, he sat up, took my hand and shuffled to the bathroom where Marcus was lifting the toilet lid to play with the water inside. I yanked off his diaper and stuck him in the half-filled tub and then turned to his older brother. Brian stood before me swaying slightly.
“Hey, can you believe we are here? This is going to be so much fun.” I said, trying to get the child alert and excited. “Tomorrow we’re going to see Santa in town, and the very next day is Christmas!”
Brian let me pull his shirt over his head and begin to unbutton his trousers, when I looked in his eyes and stopped. “Brian?” I said taking him by the shoulders. “Look at me.”
I could tell he was trying to comply, but he could barely focus on my face. There were dark rings around his eyes and his lips were pale, almost white.
“Brian?” I said again.
He said nothing in reply.
An awful fear gripped me, and I screamed for my husband who rushed upstairs. “We need to take Brian to the hospital right now. Something’s wrong.”
“Are you sure? I mean,” Greg stammered.
“How many times have I ever said that? Listen, I know something is seriously wrong. Please, we need to go now.”
Clutching Brian in my arms, I grabbed a blanket and ran to the car. Greg was right behind me, pausing only to give his mother instructions on caring for Marcus. The entire twenty-minute ride I tried to get Brian to respond, but he seemed to be fading further and further away. When I lifted his arm, it fell with no resistance and his eyes looked is if they had sunken slightly back in his head. I felt as if he was struggling to cling to life and had no idea why.
With the hospital in view I was filled with relief and threw the door open while the car was still moving. Rushing through the emergency doors, I screamed, “Help, my son is dying!”
The doctor was standing right there and without triage rushed him into a room and began an IV while asking for details. Through my tears I told him of our arduous plane ride and that he hadn’t been feeling well before we left. The older physician looked in my son’s eyes with his pen light and gave a faint smile. “Little Brian here was severely dehydrated. Twelve percent of children under five who pass away do so from dehydration. Your gut was entirely accurate. Another half an hour and he might have not made it.”
“But he never said he was thirsty. I didn’t think about it.” Guilt washed over me.
“We’ll need to admit him and run some tests to see if this stress has affected his organs. If all goes well and he’s eating and alert, you’ll be home for Christmas.”
Greg left, and I stayed that night, cuddled beside my small son in the narrow hospital bed. Brian smiled at me now and then but said very little and would only take a sip or two of the bright red, yellow and blue liquids I offered. The next morning he opened his eyes but still looked so tired. He drank a bit more but would only nibble at his food. In the afternoon the family arrived, hoping for the best only to have their Christmas Eve ruined by the news that Brian would be spending Christmas in the hospital.
I hugged Marcus and patted Greg on the shoulder. “Have a great day tomorrow, and don’t worry about us. We’ll be fine.” As I watched them leave, I wished things could have been different. I wondered why we couldn’t have a miracle of healing where Brian suddenly recovered and would be magically home on Christmas day. Instead, I looked down at my normally talkative three year old and sighed. He lay in bed without enough energy to even care that he was missing the day he had looked forward to the last four months. The evening hours inched by and somewhere in the night Christmas began, but not for us.
The day was lonely and uneventful. A few good Samaritans came caroling and delivered stale candy canes. Some people I never met before came by to tell me they knew Greg as a child and heard we were there, but that was usually followed by awkward silence before they left. Greg came alone and spent the afternoon reading Brian a story and bringing me a much needed change of clothes. When I bid Greg goodbye at the hospital entrance, I could tell we both felt more somber than the season should allow. Walking back into my son’s room, Brian looked at me and said, “Mom, is it really Christmas? It doesn’t feel like it.”
I smiled and brushed his blond hair from his forehead. “You know, sweetie, we can celebrate Christmas whenever we want. Christ was really born in the spring, but we remember the day in the winter to make us happy. We’ll have Christmas as soon as you get home. It will still be there waiting for you.”
He seemed comforted, but I wondered how he would feel when he saw that his brother and cousins had all opened their presents. I knew he’d miss the anticipation of being surrounded by family and the wonder of walking down the stairs to a room filled with plenty. There would be other Christmases, but in that hospital room with my arm around my frail son, I felt abandoned and alone- like Christmas had left us behind.
Still weak, Brian slept through the night again. I watched the clock on the wall tick away the last minutes of Christmas before falling asleep beside him. Any hope of my Christmas miracle ended at midnight.
The next morning I awoke to someone shaking my arm back and forth. Brian was kneeling up and smiling. “Am I going back to Grandpa’s now?”
Seeing his bright blue eyes sparkle, I nodded. “I think so.”
The doctor was impressed by his recovery and discharged him first thing that morning. By ten we were headed back to the ranch. Brian was talking away in his booster chair. “I can’t wait to see Grandpa. Justin’s my age, right? Where’s Marcus?” He looked at the empty car seat beside him.
“They are all home waiting for you.” Greg smiled over his shoulder as he turned into the driveway.
It looked like a repeat of three days earlier as the family congregated on the front porch and greeted us with hugs and cheers. But when I stepped into the living room, I had to stop. It was like Déjà vu. Under the tree the bright presents sat still unopened. Suddenly from the kitchen the sound of sleigh bells jingled through the air.
“Uh oh,” said Grandpa. “I think Santa finally found our house. You boys better hurry upstairs and jump in your beds as fast as you can so he can come or he’ll have to make his way back to the North Pole.”
Brian’s mouth dropped open in surprise. “I knew we didn’t miss Christmas. I knew it.”
All four little boys hurried up the stairs, Marcus managing each step as best he could and hid under the covers of the big guestroom bed, giggling and wrestling in anticipation. Before long it was time to line up on the stairs with all the children, Greg, his sisters and parents. We descended the steps to a room filled with wonder and spent the day celebrating the best Christmas I’ve ever had. So in the end, we really did have a miracle. Despite illness, time and common sense, that year Christmas waited for us.