The Little Girl Who Was Afraid of Missing Christmas

atkins-bookshelf-xmasThe Santa suit hung forlorn in the mahogany wood cabinet, a layer of dust marking the passage of exactly one year since Jacob’s wife lost her long battle with cancer on Christmas eve. He reached to touch the bright red garment, feeling its velvety finish, punctuated by perfectly even stitching around its hems. Clara was a talented seamstress; this was the last thing she sewed for him before the illness robbed her of her abilities.

He watched a movie play in his mind — Clara sat in her favorite rocking chair by the fire, needle in hand, working the thread through the red cloth that was draped over her knees like a massive blanket. She looked up and caught his glance. She smiled and said softly, “You know, you were born for this. When I am through with this, you will be the jolliest, best-looking Santa south of the North Pole and…” Suddenly her voice was drowned out by the sound of the phone ringing. It was Jacob’s friend, Martha, who was an ICU nurse at a nearby hospital. He immediately sensed the urgency in her voice: “Jacob, I know you are retired, but I didn’t know who else to call… there is a little girl here who doesn’t have much time and she doesn’t want to miss Christmas. She really wants to see Santa. Can you help the family?”

Jacob dusted off the suit and put it on slowly, with a sense of reverence. It felt so comfortable, so familiar, like another layer of skin. He collected his props and headed to the hospital, recalling the hundreds of times he had played Santa to the delight of hundreds of children over the years — who had squirmed on his lap while they tugged on his whiskers and whispered their wishes in his ear.

Soon Santa was navigating his way through the labyrinthine hallways of the hospital to reach the ICU. When he arrived at the unit he surveyed the sterile white walls, festooned with the barest of Christmas decorations: twinkling lights and cardboard cutouts of wreaths and angels. There was a small crowd gathered in front of a patient’s room where Martha was talking with a family. As he walked to the somber group, the nurse turned to him, “Thank you for coming, Jacob. I know this wasn’t easy for you but this is a very difficult time for this family. Their eight-year old daughter, Belle, does not have much time. She isn’t afraid of dying — she’s afraid of missing Christmas.” Santa was listening — there was a lot to take in; he looked at the nurse and the parents, nodding in understanding. Suddenly, he felt the sadness that he felt a year ago wash over him. Tears started forming in his eyes. “I am so sorry that you are going through this,” he said softly. “If I am going to do this, I need to stay focused. If you enter the room with me and start crying, I don’t know that I can go through with this. I want to make sure I stay in character, to stay jolly and happy.” Everyone nodded in agreement.

Jacob paused at the door, closed his eyes, and traveled back to Christmases long ago, to happier times, when Clara was alive and watched from afar as he cheerfully performed his role at schools, hospitals, churches, and the occasional mall. He opened his eyes, just as the door opened; as he stepped in he cast his eyes on the tiny form before him. Belle was lying in the hospital bed, her pale skin disappearing under the folds of white linens. The silence was broken by the digital chirps and beeps from the monitoring equipment surrounding the bed. As he approached, her tired eyes caught his gaze and followed him, spellbound, as he walked across the room and sat next to her.

Jacob bellowed his best “Ho! Ho! Ho!” with as much jolliness that he could muster. “What’s this I hear? Are you worried that you were going to miss Christmas, Belle?” Santa asked. She looked up at him with a faint, angelic smile. “Santa,” she whispered, “my Mom and Dad are scared that I am dying. They say I am going to heaven. I’ve tried to be a good girl, but I feel I disappointed my parents because I got sick. Do you think God will let me in?” Santa cast his eyes downward, taking a moment to gather his thoughts. “Little, Belle,” Santa responded, “you are the most delightful, courageous, well-behaved girl on my ‘nice list.’ Never think for a second that you have disappointed your parents in any way. When I looked into their eyes, I could see the depth of their love for you. They are so very proud of you — we all are. The gates of Heaven are wide open for you. I really wish I could take you in my sleigh, but heaven is far away. I know that God is waiting for you to come home.” Belle sat up, a peaceful smile on her face, and said, “Thanks, Santa — that’s the best Christmas present I could ever hope for…” her voice trailing. She leaned in to hug Santa; he felt her fragile body against his plush garments. He reached around and hugged her tenderly, feeling her shallow breaths. And in just seconds, he felt Belle take her last breath. As her soul slipped away, Jacob’s heart splintered into a million pieces; he could not hold back the flood of tears. His crying was eclipsed by the burst of crying from her parents as they rushed into the room, seeking to hold their precious daughter one last time.

Through his tears, Jacob uttered his condolences and rushed out of the ICU room, down long dimly lit corridors, past bewildered faces at several nurses station as they witnessed a bawling Santa dashing through the halls. He jumped into his car and drove off, heading anywhere as long as it was far away from the hospital. He was crying so hard, Jacob had difficulty seeing the roads clearly. He kept seeing Belle’s angelic face and hearing her final words repeating in his head. As a steady snow began to fall, he realized he had to pull over. As he sat there, his body shaking, tears streaming down his face, a ghostly but familiar face seem to appear out of the swirling snow. Was it an apparition or was it real? Instantly he felt at peace, and out of the stillness of the night he heard Clara’s voice whisper in his ear: “She’s home now, Jacob. Thank you for putting your suit on once again. Don’t ever forget, you were born for this…”

The Santa suit that Clara made for Jacob never gathered dust from that day forward. Jacob never forgot Belle and never missed another Christmas. He dedicated himself to reprising his role as Santa at hospitals, churches, and schools, delighting children who needed to believe in the magic of Christmas and the redemptive love of Santa Claus.

Merry Christmas from Bookshelf

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The Literary Christmas Price Index

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