It was Thanksgiving Day, but I was feeling anything but thankful as I sat in the cramped hospital room. I tried to make eye contact with Lisa without exposing my terror. I could hardly believe the fading figure in the bed had been able to survive a two-hour aerobic class less than a year ago. Where was the robust, demanding friend that had done countless jumping jacks beside me for years?
“Roger,” Lisa barked to her husband who was sitting in the chair beside her bed. I smiled There’s the Lisa I know. “Get that box in the corner and give it to Elizabeth.” Roger’s eyes hadn’t stopping leaking since I’d arrived, but he dutifully rose and found the box.
Lisa turned to me. “This is the advent wreath I was telling you about. I know you’ll do it with your kids.” It was more a command than a statement.
I opened the box and pulled out each piece of the wreath which, when fit together, formed a nativity scene. There were four parts, each with a candle holder. “It’s beautiful,” I said sincerely. “The kids will enjoy doing this.”
“There’s a booklet in there that lists scriptures you’re supposed to read each Sunday. You light a pink candle the first three Sundays in December and a purple one the last.”
“Thanks. We’ll do it.”
At my words Lisa seemed to relax and leaned back on her pillow. She shut her eyes for the briefest of moments. I didn’t particularly want another Christmas obligation or tradition, but there was no way I’d deny Lisa anything at this point.
Suddenly she opened her eyes. “Roger.”
“Yes?” he said, trying to be patient. When Lisa was healthy, she never stopped moving, accomplishing and directing. Cruel cancer limited her productivity, so she depended on Roger to complete her lengthy to-do lists. I could read in his eyes the conflicted emotions he was feeling. He was losing the love of his life, yet she was exasperating him. Sorrow, irritation, and guilt were intertwined to make one very miserable man.
“Under the chair are Elizabeth’s kids’ Christmas presents. Give them to her.” She shifted her eyes toward me. “I’m sorry they aren’t wrapped. You’ll need to wrap them for me. And use bright colors.” She stopped to catch her breath. “Please.”
“I know it’s kind of early to be giving Christmas presents, but....you know.” Unfortunately I did know. She wasn’t expected to make it past Christmas. I swallowed a lump in my throat.
The first Sunday in December I called the kids into the living room for the advent wreath. As I lit the first pink candle it occurred to me that Lisa might not be alive by the time I lit the purple candle. Each candle didn’t just represent a countdown to Christmas, it brought us closer to the end of Lisa’s life. Mechanically I read the scriptures and lit the candle, but my hurting heart wasn’t in it.
I began to dread the advent wreath and all it represented. In rebellion, I completely skipped week two.
“How did the advent ceremony go this week?” Lisa asked on Monday when we talked on the phone.
Rats! I had hoped I could avoid the subject. “We didn’t get to it yet,” I confessed in shame.
As a former Episcopalian, ritual seemed important to Lisa. “You have to do it on Sunday.” I could tell she was disappointed in me.
I could never lie well, especially to Lisa, so I surrendered to honesty. “I’m sorry, Lisa, but I just don’t want to countdown to Christmas this year. We’ll use it next year.”
“Why on earth not–“ she started and then stopped suddenly. “Because of me?”
“Yea,” I whispered.
Lisa was silent for a moment. “If you think about it, I’m the perfect illustration of what Christmas is really about. I may be dying at Christmas, but because Jesus was born, I’ll live forever.”
I smiled into the phone as I wiped my tear-stained face. My heart still felt like it was being wrung like a wet towel, but at her words I felt a glimmer of peace. “You’re right, Lisa. I won’t miss another Sunday. I promise.”
True to my word, we lit the next three candles on their assigned days. After lighting the purple candle on December 25 I called Lisa to wish her a Merry Christmas for the last time. At least, that is, until we’re reunited in Heaven.
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