Ivy’s Christmas Gift
Ivy walked into my life the morning after our son, Evan, was admitted to the hospital on cold December afternoon. She was Dr. Wong’s talented and timely nurse. She was older, had been through “the Depression,” and told me time and again that after the Depression, every day for her was like Christmas. How she loved December! How she loved life!
I couldn’t see her point of view. Our Christmas was going to be ruined. It was a rough time for our family. Four sons at home with my husband; me at the hospital tending our thirteen-month-old son, all while Christmas celebrations swirled around but did not seem to include us. I was confused, frustrated, and shell-shocked. But though I was tearful and somber, Ivy came day after day during that December with small surprises to distract me and a cheerful hello full of interest about how I had slept on the hospital bed, if I had liked the food that morning, and how Evan was faring.
She seemed an angel of sort, the kind of angel that prepares you to gather strength for the tragedy that is ahead, even while she encourages you to treasure present moments. From the beginning she brought me photographs and told me the stories of patients that had struggled with different kinds of pediatric cancer. She would tell me that this child had gone home and was in remission, that this child had lived fourteen months and then passed on, and that this child wasn’t expected to last much more than four weeks, but the parents had decided to spend those last precious days at home.
She spoke about each of these current and former patients in a matter-of-fact tone, with no rancor, sorrow, or pain. There seemed to be great peace in her soul. At the time I couldn’t see ahead far enough to appreciate what she was trying to tell me. It was only later that I understood that she was getting me ready for the inevitable. But even as she stood as my angel of preparation, she also stood as my angel of joy. In her own way, she told me again and again that no pain I would suffer was greater than the joy I could know; and, that this joy could be in the middle, on the left, and on the right side of the agonizing pain. For her, these two opposites co-existed in tranquility.
Dr. Wong, our pediatric oncologist, was frank and open when he finally got the results from the numerous tests that were done. Evan’s leukemia was of the worse kind, terminal within thirteen months even with treatment. The words stung, though his tone was kind. Although it was Christmas Eve, he wanted to start chemo immediately. We begged a twelve-hour delay so as to have Christmas morning at home with our little family.
After he left our room, Ivy was there, reminding us that photographs were good to take during holiday celebrations and offering a wrapped gift for each of our healthy sons. And, so husband and I swam through Christmas morning with tears in our souls and a little sick son that seemed almost relieved when we returned to the security of the hospital room at noon.
Just as she had been there on Christmas Eve, Ivy came again on Christmas Day looking more than ever like a real angel with her white curly hair. She cheerfully asked about the presents Santa had brought, what we had eaten for Christmas breakfast, and how little Evan had survived all the excitement.
She told me the chemo would look like orange Kool-Aid and would come in a small bag, so I shouldn’t feel too much alarm. Initially, she hinted, I would wonder what one small bag of orange “Kool-Aid” could do to our son. And like so many times I would know in upcoming difficult days, she calmly explained that both the worse and the best was yet to come.
And when the chemo had been administered, Ivy came back to tell me more. It was late that Christmas afternoon when she kindly told me what to expect. Chemo was sort of like a bad dream that grows into a nightmare. The worst part would be when Evan’s hair fell out, but he wouldn’t mind it as much as I did, so I might just want to gather it up calmly for a keepsake and then retreat to the bathroom for my cry. Small children usually didn’t remember the baldness, she proffered, especially if their parents didn’t make a big deal of it. And so again, Ivy reached out to make the road a bit smoother. (Yes I struggled when the pillow was covered with hair one morning, but I smiled at Evan and we played “put our hairies in the bowl” before breakfast.)
Ivy sensed that I was antsy as the long hours wore on and in the evening she returned to our hospital room one last time with crewel threads of various colors, a needle, and a small piece of cross-stitch fabric. I might want to sew a bit, she offered. Here was the thread, the fabric, and a simple pattern. Maybe I could make a cross-stitch piece with my name and a heart. She would put my project together into a button I could wear on my shirt. Then people could more easily know my name around the hospital. Again, she was telling me that cancer was a long-term situation and I should settle in.
The crewel thread, needle, and fabric were three small gifts, given with a little bit of precious Christmas Day time. How it made Christmas seem a bit lighter and more special for me. Though I was in the hospital alone with Evan and our four sons were home with my husband, yet Ivy had made sure my Christmas was the best it could be, because she had come on her day off, it seemed, just for me.
It’s been more than twenty years since Ivy walked into my life and shared her soul on those December days. I will always remember her gift of time and care. I am remembering Ivy, too, because this Christmas there is a teenage girl from my neighborhood in the hospital struggling with her own kind of cancer and my cousin’s daughter is the last stages of relapse from a brain tumor. How can it be Christmas and still be so hard? How can it be a time of joy and still hurt so badly? I don’t know all the answers, but I am ever so grateful that when my Christmas was upside down and backwards, Ivy was in my life to give me the perspective, hope, and confidence that I could do this hard thing, and that she would help me along the way.
And, so as you plan your Christmas Day celebrations this year, maybe think about going to the hospital and visiting the chronically ill patients that will be there. They often can’t go home over the holidays and a friendly hello, a small gift, and a bit of your time will make their Christmas bright and lighter, much like my difficult one was softened and surrounded in peace. You can be an angel Ivy to someone who needs you, just like my Ivy was an angel to me.
Photos used with permission of sxc.hu.