It was going to be the best Christmas ever. We say that every year of course, and every year we mean it. But last year was definitely going to be the best Christmas ever.
We had planned everything in tiny detail – not remembering any of that “if you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans” thing.
Subtle questions were asked to small excited people in the latter days of November; “So, if Santa isn’t able to make a chocolate-coin-maker, what would be your second choice?” and ideas were eventually crystallised on specially chosen red paper.
We deliberated over food lists – Brie and St Agur and Irish smoked salmon; rich, spicy Christmas pudding and creamy brandy butter. And Baileys – there’s must be Baileys at Christmas-time. The big decisions to be made: Roses or Heroes or Celebrations? And Birds custard of course; some childhood staples endure.
We planned Christmas Eve in detail – we would watch Home Alone, make hot chocolate with marshmallows, then light candles all over the house and watch out the window for signs of reindeer in the darkening sky. Looking back, I think I had seen one Christmas movie too many – the kind with the perfect children who are happy to sit still gazing out windows and not trying to blow out the tea-lights.
Eventually three little people would do their best to fall asleep, and we would quietly (or as quietly as creaky attic ladders allow) carry out the final but very important steps to prepare for the following morning. Then on to exchanging our own gifts, over a glass of wine or two, and many, many Roses (or Heroes or Celebrations)
Tiny details mapped out, everything just so.
Then Emmie caught chicken pox. Which was fine. After all, as Google will tell you, it’s a “mild childhood illness”. Then Sam caught it. And he was fine too. The week before Christmas, it was Clara’s turn. She seemed more bothered than her siblings had been. She was lethargic and teary, and telling me that her skin was sore. I had all sorts of creams for itchy skin but sore? I asked in the chemist but nobody had heard of chicken pox causing sore skin.
The Saturday before Christmas, she seemed worse, She moved slowly from bed to couch that morning, then back to bed in the evening, wincing in pain with every step. That night she cried out in her sleep when she moved, bringing us running every time, not knowing what was wrong but wanting to comfort her. She wouldn’t allow anyone to touch her, so our comfort was verbal only. I continued to Google, to ask online – why would her skin be sore instead of itchy? On Sunday morning, I finally convinced her to let me look at her skin. I carefully lifted her vest. There were two large sores, one on each side, that even to my inexperienced eye looked infected.
We took her to hospital – she was seen quickly, an infection diagnosed, and IV antibiotics started. She would be kept in overnight. She was going to be just fine, but they wanted to get the infection under control as quickly as possible.
Nevertheless I worried about her; right from the rational part of my mind that knew she’d be fine, to the pit of my stomach that was sick with fear. But my daughter rescued me from my worry – she started to perk up and was soon in high spirits – delighted with the unlimited cartoons on her very own television. The worry and fear subsided.
I spoke to the doctor – she reassured me that it was looking good, but then said that she didn’t think we’d be allowed home the next day – the next day was Christmas Eve.
Faced with spending Christmas Eve night in hospital, our carefully made plans floated around us like tiny pieces of ripped paper; like swirling snowflakes but without any of the Christmas movie romance.
I knew we were lucky – our daughter was fine, and if we did have to stay in it would be for just one more night, but I couldn’t help feeling a little miserable. Feeling sorry for my little girl who would have to be away from her home and her siblings. Feeling sorry for my two smaller children who would have one parent instead of two tiptoeing down the stairs with them on Christmas morning. Not a catastrophe, not even a crisis, but not what we had planned.
On Christmas Eve, I was at home looking after Emmie and Sam while my husband stayed with Clara, with a plan to switch if she had to stay in, so that I could overnight with her. I waited for an update, watching the phone, willing it to ring with good news. Eventually at 6 o’clock that evening, I got the call I had been hoping for – the doctor had agreed that she could go come home – she’d be home for Christmas.
I raced around the house – oven on, kettle on, tree lights on. I lit candles, then knelt at the window with Emmie and Sam, peering out into the darkness; not looking for reindeer as planned but listening for a car.
Eventually bright headlights swept across the window – they were home. I opened the front door – Emmie ran past me, out into the drive-way, just as Clara was lifted out of the car by her dad.
The girls ran into one another’s arms and hugged tightly. I will never forget that moment; I watched from the doorway, my throat tight, my eyes filling up with tears. Small girls embracing, visible only as dark silhouettes. The perfect Christmas reunion.
And as we made our way back through the front door to the warmth inside, we were pretty sure we heard sleigh-bells. Christmas at last.