Merry Christmas!

It's February.  Morning.  Cold, gray, windy, wet.

     Winter conditions outside and inside.  A morning to crawl back into bed, pull up the covers, and wait for something better to happen.  Like spring, for instance.  Instead, I am in a doctor's waiting room in a small-town hospital.  In a state of nonspecific ill health.  Miserable in body, soul, and mind.  Don't know why.  "You're going in for a checkup," says my wife.  So here I am.  Fix me.

Across from me is an aged couple, sitting side by side, holding hands.

     Neat and clean, washed and pressed.  In her white hair, the woman wears a flowery arrangement -- holly with red berries and some red poinsettia leaves.  Odd.

     The old man catches my eye, breaks into a grin, and says, "Merry Christmas!"  My automatic pilot shoves "Merry Christmas!" out of my mouth at the same time that my brain wakes up and asks, "What, what, what...?"

     The old man sings softly, "Oh, you better watch out, you better not cry, you better not pout, I'm telling you why: Santa Claus is coming to town."  He finishes the song, chuckles to himself, and again addresses me with a cheerful, "Merry Christmas!"  His wife smiles.

     Just then the nurse sings out from behind her desk, "Merry Christmas, Uncle Ed.  The doctor will see you now."  From down the hall, the doctor shouts, "Merry Christmas, Ed!  Good to see you."

(Right.  Maybe it's me.  Maybe it really is December instead of February.  Mind is going.  I knew this would happen someday.  Why now?)

The nurse and the old man pass down the hall to an examination room.

     Uncle Ed's wife crosses over to sit by me.  A bit embarrassed, she apologizes, pats me on the knee, and explains:

     "I hope he didn't upset you.  The doctor says he's had a minor stroke or two and may be in the beginning stages of Alzheimer's.  But in our family we know it's just that he's getting old and feeble.  He's eighty-eight, and his wiring's coming loose.  Most of the time he's OK, but every once in a while something a little crazy happens.  Like this Christmas thing.  A couple of years ago he shouted down from upstairs something about how he'd forgotten it was Christmas Eve and hadn't we better get the ornaments out and the packages wrapped.  I didn't know what to think.  Because it was March.  But we didn't have anything else to do that day, and I thought I might as well humor him.  So we spent the morning getting ready for Christmas.  I called the girls -- we have three grown daughters -- and they came over for lunch and helped untangle the lights and wrap some packages.  We sang carols and made cookies and had a wonderful time.

"When the girls left, he asked me to tell him about Christmas when he was a boy -- because he was having a hard time remembering.  Now I've known this man all my life.  He had a terrible childhood, father was a drunk -- beat him and his mother all the time.  His father ran off with a woman from the drugstore, and his mother took sick and stayed home in bed most of the time.  Ed never had a Christmas when he was a child.  Well, how could I bring all that up again?  I just didn't have the heart.

     "We've been married sixty years.  And I've never lied to him, ever.  But I decided I'd just make up some good memories for him.  What harm would it do?  So I told him about the year he got a tricycle, and the year there was a wind-up train under the tree, and the year he saw Santa Claus, and the year he got to be in the Christmas pageant at church.  It made him very happy -- me remembering the Christmases he never had but always wanted.

"You know, we never did get around to Christmas that March.  Just Christmas Eve.  Because by evening his mind was back in the present.  Christmas Eve and good memories seemed to be enough.

     "But four months later it happened all over again.  I heard him singing carols upstairs one morning, and here came Christmas down the stairs.  MERRY CHRISTMAS!  Again in July.  Also in October -- instead of Halloween.  Twice in December.  And now in February.

"Every time, he wants me to tell him about his childhood again, and I do.  I'm getting so good at lying about how wonderful his Christmas used to be that I half believe it myself.  I call the girls each time, and they come over to help out.  They're really into it now.  They bring him presents and sing carols and bake cookies.  And twice we've even got as far as putting up a tree.  They love to do it.  See, they don't think of it as Christmas anymore.  They think of it as Father's Day."

     Just then the old man comes shuffling back up the hall.  He and the nurse are finishing off a last chorus of "Jingle Bells."  They both shout, "Merry Christmas!" at me, and I shout "Merry Christmas!" right back at them.

     The old lady patted my knee again, smiled, and rose to leave with her husband.  He gallantly held the door open for her, and they went off into another day, hand in hand.

     I didn't have time to ask her what they did when other holidays came up.

     But I guess every day is Valentine's Day for them.


-excerpted from Maybe (Maybe Not : Second Thoughts from a Secret Life), by Robert Fulghum