An unlikely Christmas

Roxanne Henke

I don’t like to talk on the phone much. Even more, I don’t like to talk on the phone after supper. So, when the phone rang about 8:30 p.m. that late-December night, I was tempted to not answer. But, I also have an inability to not answer the phone. “Hello?”

“This is a call from the hospital. Your mother is in the ER. You need to get here.”

My mom was in the emergency room? Yes, she was in her early 80s, but except for a bit of high blood pressure, she was perfectly healthy, spunky and funny. She and my stepdad had planned to attend the Christmas wreath lighting at our local hospital that evening. What in the world? We live one block from the hospital, so I threw on a coat and ran to the ER. There lay my mom, surrounded by the doctor, a couple nurses and my stepdad. Mom locked eyes with me. That was a good sign. But, obviously, something was wrong.

“What happened?”

After attending the lighting ceremony, Mom collapsed. Our local doctor scooped her into his arms and carried her to the emergency room, where it was quickly determined she had a stroke.

And, so it began. The timing could hardly have been worse. But is there ever a “good time” to have a stroke? It was the week before Christmas. My mom and stepdad had just sold their beloved and much-used motorhome. We had cleaned out the large house where Mom had lived for 50 years. (My childhood home.) They had just moved into an assisted living apartment, and Mom was looking forward to socializing with friends who already lived there. No more house to maintain. No more lawn to tend. And now it seemed there may not be “more” of anything.

An ambulance took her the 100 miles to Bismarck. My stepdad, my husband and I weren’t far behind.

Mom was admitted to the hospital. And then, a couple days later, things got worse. My mother-in-law had a heart attack. She was admitted to the “other” Bismarck hospital. So, there we were, spending the days leading up to Christmas dashing the few blocks between hospitals, praying and trying to keep up with doctor reports and therapy plans. When both “moms” were stabilized, my husband returned home (he had a business to run) and I stayed in Bismarck.

Days found me at my mom’s bedside, where she continued to have mini strokes. Strokes I watched, as her face and hand twitched. There was nothing to be done, but wait until they were over. Her left side was weak and her mouth drooped. Swallowing was a problem. She could eat “food,” but liquids needed to be thickened – a lot. She loved her morning coffee and called her new drink “coffee gravy.” (Her sense of humor was alive and well.)

Then it was Dec. 24. I was stressed and needed just one sort-of-normal night. I talked to Mom and she was fine with me going home for Christmas Eve. Feeling guilty, I drove home. All I remember of that evening is sitting in church with my husband, soaking in the familiar peace of carols, the little kids stumbling through their pieces acting out the manger scene and the passing of candlelight through the whole sanctuary. Then, as almost every year my whole life, we sang,“Silent Night, Holy Night” in English, then “Stille Nacht, Heilige Nacht” in German. I breathed it all in. Oh, how I’d needed this.

Early the next morning, I was back at the hospital. I’d brought my favorite Bible along. A nurse helped Mom into a wheelchair and we went through the halls, where Mom could see the Christmas decorations. Then, we came to an alcove where there was a Christmas tree by a fireplace, as if prepared just for us. I pulled a chair near Mom. Sitting almost knee-to-knee, I opened my Bible and began to read, “About this time, Caesar Augustus, the Roman emperor, decreed that a census should be taken and Joseph had to go to Bethlehem and took with him Mary and while they were there she gave birth to her first child, a son. She wrapped him in a blanket and laid him in a manger.”

I glanced at Mom, not sure if these familiar words would hold her attention. Not to fear, her eyes were locked on me. I closed my Bible. Mom gave a small nod. And there we sat. Silent. But together.

That so-different Christmas, there were no gifts to open. No cookies to eat. And, scary as the road ahead looked, sharing those familiar words with my mom, just her and me, was all that mattered. After all, isn’t that the essence of Christmas – mother and child?

There’s a bit more to the story. A month-and-a-half later, my sister-in-law unexpectedly died. My mother-in-law died two weeks later. My mom recovered enough to go home, but never got out of her wheelchair. She worked hard in therapy and finally got “real coffee.” She lived another year-and-a-half. The only time I heard her complain was about the hamburgers served in the dining hall. No offense to the kitchen folks – her tastebuds didn’t recover much. Her sense of humor never left. She called them “hockey pucks.”

Roxanne (Roxy) Henke lives in rural North Dakota. She knows the truth her youngest daughter once said, “The magic of Christmas is Mom.” You can contact Roxy at Merry Christmas!