My Little Christmas Story
by Hilde Huus
Christmas last year was bittersweet for my family. My father died nine days before Christmas, on December 16, 2014. On top of frailties caused by multiple sclerosis, he had suffered a series of “mini-strokes” before becoming significantly disabled by a major stroke in the summer of 2013. This led to his having to move to a retirement residence in Bells Corners that fall, and then to “The Grove” nursing home in Arnprior. My mother visited him there every day. He became gradually wearier and slipped back and forth between this and other worlds, but somehow he always recognized his family and was always very happy to see us. He coped remarkably well with his disabilities - checking the newspaper to find the date, coming up with innovative ways to describe something when he couldn’t find the word. The nursing home is right on the edge of the beautiful Arnprior grove with its historic giant white pines, and he liked to sit at the large window in his room and look for birds and squirrels. One day he reported to me that he had seen “one of those… one of those… RED PRIESTS!”. “Oh”, I exclaimed, “you saw a cardinal”!! “Right - a cardinal!” he replied happily.
On the morning of December 16, it was suddenly apparent that he was very ill and he was sent by ambulance to the Arnprior Hospital, and from there to the Civic Hospital in Ottawa. My mother, my brother and I gathered around his bed and waited anxiously for reports on his condition and what, if anything could be done. He seemed to be mostly unconscious but occasionally he responded to a touch or to something that was said. It became clear as the afternoon progressed that we would have to let him go, but it was impossible to say how long he might be able to hang on. It could be several days, we were told We were encouraged to look after ourselves-to eat, to rest, to take turns with the bedside vigil.
So I went to the cafeteria and had supper while my mother and brother stayed with him. Then my brother took my mother home with him to have supper with his family. Alone with my father but unable to really communicate with him, I started to sing softly. I sang a couple of little Norwegian songs I knew from my childhood, and then hummed some tunes that drifted into my mind. I think there may have been some Norwegian fiddle tunes among them, but I’m not sure. I sang bits and pieces of some Christmas carols. I tried to sing “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear” but I found I was crying and I couldn’t continue. And then my father died.
Late that night I drove my mother back to Arnprior through a sleety rain. Numb and exhausted, I went to bed and while trying to fall asleep, I suddenly remembered a conversation I had had with my father. I could not and cannot remember where we were or when it took place. It may have been while he was staying at the retirement residence in Bells Corners the previous Christmas. I remember we talked about Christmas carols. “I like that quiet one, you know,” he had said. “Silent Night?”, I asked. No, not that one. “O Little Town of Bethlehem?”. No, no, that other one. “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear?”. Yes, that’s the one! And I remember thinking to myself that this was important, and I needed to remember it.
My father’s own father had died just before Christmas when my father was a young man. It would be like my father (who was such a planner) to muse that he himself might also die just before Christmas, and that in that case, we could sing “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear” at his funeral.
And we did sing “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear” at his funeral a few days before Christmas. It was the last song in the service we had prepared for him, and it was perfect! Several people in my family sing in choirs, and many of our choir friends came to the service. So we sang with feeling of “Angels bending near the earth to touch their harps of gold”, of “Peace on earth, good will to men”, and “The world in silent stillness lay to hear the angels sing”.
A few days later we surprised ourselves by having a very pleasant family Christmas! It was quieter than usual, but we were all happy to be together and we all felt very much at peace. My father had made it clear to us that he was ready to go, and we all felt in our hearts that we had looked after him as well as we possibly could, and had done justice to him at his funeral.
On Christmas Day, my mother’s neighbour dropped in to pay her respects. She and her husband, a pastor, had lived next door for a couple of years and were on friendly terms with my mother, but they did not know each other well. She hadn’t come to the funeral because she hadn’t seen the death notice in time. She is a lovely woman and we sat and talked and drank tea for a while. As she was leaving, she handed my mother an envelope. My mother saw her out and then opened it. Inside was a beautiful Christmas card with a traditional landscape in white, grey, blue and silver. “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear” was the Christmas message written on the front.