“Oh, look darling, here’s one from Auntie Joan.”
I took the card she put into my hand, wondering idly who Auntie Joan was. It was a pretty card with three tall candles on the front. I placed it with the other cards on the table beside the bed.
She brought a glass of water.
“Thank you, nurse.” As I raised the glass to my mouth, a thought occurred to me. “This water has been boiled, hasn’t it, nurse?”
She replied in a muffled voice. “Yes, Mrs. O. I made sure it was boiled this morning. It s quite safe.” I relaxed and drank. Cholera is a terrible disease. So ravaging.
I watched her stand Auntie Joan’s card among the small forest of paper and cards. She was an attractive girl, very kind, very attentive. She must be a “special” – she seemed to be always near.
Hospitals had changed, too. I was very tired, but not so tired that I couldn’t appreciate the quiet luxury of this private room, the soft furnishings and filmy curtains. I closed my eyes and let the pillows hold me, felt the gentle, tapered fingers smooth the hair at my temples. “Sleep a little, Gram. I’ll take you for a walk when it gets cooler.”
I strode through the long, open ward, crowded and jumbled with dark skinned patients. The outbreak had been severe, the mission hospital not equipped for the numbers or the severity of the epidemic. There was little rest for the staff. The doctors were hollow-eyed with exhaustion. The school was closed. The teachers came in as nurse-aids. Joan was the tall one; dark haired, dark eyed, always laughing. It almost seemed she loved the children back to life. She met each challenge with a smile, no task demeaned her. I alone shared her tears. We prayed together, digging through the Psalms for comfort, the words of Jesus for guidance, saluted each morning with Paul’s greeting: ‘Grace be with you.’ Joan, fellow-soldier, faithful friend.
At last, the worst was over. Patients left on their feet, not via the morgue. We straightened up and thought about normality. Someone looked at the calendar: “Would you look at that! Only a week left to Christmas!”
One of the teachers went to town and came back with a bulging post-bag. “Come along, everyone. Christmas cards galore!”
We pinned the cards around the walls to decorate the hospital, singing carols while we worked. We found a small tree for the dining room, tied bandage bows, ‘snowed’ it with cotton wool. In place of lights we used cotton buds dipped in Mercurochrome, Gentian violet and acriflavine.
I awoke, holding the precious memory fast. Pushing myself up on the pillows, I reached for Joan’s card. Three perfect lights – Father, Son and Holy Ghost. I opened it and read, “Dear Fellow-soldier, I have been thinking of our cholera-Christmas so many years ago, and wondering how many more years we will have to celebrate the Savior’s birth before He comes again. Just so you know it is really me thinking of you – ‘Grace be with you.’ Joan.”
As I replaced her card among the others, granddaughter Sheryl came through the door. Reaching for her hands, I smiled at her. “Sheryl, precious girl. I have been forgetting so much lately. So before I forget again, I want to thank you very much for your love and care, and to wish you a very happy Christmas. And may His grace and peace be always with you.”
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