By Nan Rockey
Friendship is a sheltering tree.
~Samuel Taylor Coleridge
Everyone knew that this Christmas would go in the family books as the worst Noel in Johnson family history. I was nine years old, and my family had made the move from Los Angeles, California to a completely invisible, forgettable town in northwestern Ohio. Both of my parents, my little sister, and I were living with my aunt as my dad struggled to find work as a minister. All the while, I was fighting a rare blood disease that kept me confined to the hospital most of the time. On the days when I was able to attend school, I kept to the library and isolated myself by the swingset, trying to keep my distance from the strangers I called my classmates. As the Christmas season approached, I was again confined to the medical ward and my parents still hadn't found any work. Yes, this would be the worst Christmas ever.
It was December 16th and my classroom was in a tizzy, preparing and decorating for the class Christmas party, to be held the next week before we were released for winter break. I had the lonely job of cutting out paper snowflakes while I watched the other children hang garlands and discuss how they were finally going to sneak up on Santa this year. My teacher, Miss Endicott, called for me across the room, but I shook my head and averted my gaze to the white printer paper shreds in my hand, pretending not to hear. Of everyone in my school, Miss Endicott was the individual who was always encouraging me to interact with my classmates, and I could almost see her shoulders sag a little at my avoidance of company.
It would be the last time I would see my class until February.
Early the next morning, my parents drove me to the operating room where I was scheduled to have another tumor removed. I could see Christmas decorations out of the corners of my tear-filled eyes, hear "Jingle Bells" playing over my begging to go home, and the faint smell of mint mixed with the sickly sweet stench of anesthesia. As a masked face loomed over my field of vision and said, "You are being such a good girl, you will be home in time for Christmas," I prayed that God would take away Christmas and carry me from this terrible place.
The surgery was a success, but I experienced complications and was confined to bed for several days. As my body recuperated, my boredom was satiated by homework my dad picked up for me from school.
On the last day of classes before school ended for holiday break, my dad brought home a stack of textbooks, folders, and atop the teetering pile of paper, a VHS tape. My mother lay beside me as my dad pressed play, and I became confused as the first image to appear on my television screen was my classroom. All of the decorations were up, and my classmates were all lined up against one wall. My teacher's warm face appeared in the corner of the screen and explained that since I couldn't come to the class Christmas party, then the party would have to come to me. The camera panned back to my peers who were holding up a bright yellow sign with "Get Better Soon" scrawled in crayon. One by one, Miss Endicott placed each classmate in front of the camera to say uplifting words, wishing me a Merry Christmas, asking if I would play with them when I came back, saying they would leave my gifts and candy on my desk until I got back to school. My mom's hand gripped tighter around mine as she whispered through tears, "This is incredible, this is so incredible."
I was shocked that I was cared for by people I barely knew. I watched the video again, just to be sure it was real, and my first day back at school I hugged Miss Endicott and thanked her over and over again. I don't remember what gifts I received, whether it snowed that year, or even the rest of my recuperation. What I do remember is that the Christmas when I was nine years old remains the greatest Christmas I have ever had.