It was a crazy Christmas. I spent the night of the winter solstice in the ER with stomach pains and a doctor obsessed with the possibility I’d had a heart attack. For women, it sometimes manifests as stomach pain. My heart was fine, but it was a surreal night spent tied to an IV and heart monitor in a cold little bed watching feet move beyond the yellow curtain that divided my cubicle from the rest of the emergency department.
As the pains subsided into my usual gastritis-acid reflux-IBS-too much stress gut ache, they gave me something called a “GI cocktail” and sent me home at 4:45 a.m. I drove myself both ways. It was a clear night, bright under the full moon, with no other cars around. I turned on the radio. NPR’s nighttime jazz came on, and I felt glad to be alive and free.
Later, standing outside in the dark watching Annie relieve herself, I cried from the fear I had felt and the emptiness where a loved one should have been, waiting and worrying, keeping me company as I have done so many times at so many hospitals for my husband and our parents, as my children might have done if I had them. I had texted a friend from the hospital, but I didn’t tell any of my family until it was all over. They’re too far away to help.
That was the Saturday before Christmas. Christmas is a marathon for church workers. With the holiday falling on a Tuesday, that meant four days of Masses in a row with many hours at the piano leading our tiny choir through oh-so-many songs. If I don’t play “Away in a Manger” or “The First Noel” again for a while, that will be okay. My hurting stomach made it more challenging this year.
But here’s the weirdest thing that happened. Halfway through the early Christmas Eve Mass, our priest got sick. Stomach sick, the kind where you can’t stop throwing up. He left during Communion and came back to wrap up the Mass in a hurry. As we headed out to dinner, we all wondered what would happen with the “midnight Mass,” which happens at 10 p.m. at our church. Anyone who has had the stomach flu knows that when it hits, you can’t do anything until it subsides.
We found Father resting on the floor when we came back to church. He crawled to his feet, started to discuss options with my friend Sandy, our director of religious education, then broke off to run to the restroom to throw up. Nope, he couldn’t do the midnight Mass. What would we tell the crowd gathering in the sanctuary, many of whom only come to Mass on Christmas and Easter? This is a small town on the Oregon Coast. There are no other priests to fill in, especially on short notice. It would take a substitute priest at least an hour to get here, and they were all busy with their own parishes on Christmas Eve.
Sandy saved the night. She put on a white cassock and pulled together a prayer service, offering the parts of the Mass that a non-priest is allowed to do. We sang, and she led us through the readings, a Christmas meditation, prayers and Communion, using hosts that Father had already blessed. It was short but beautiful. I loved that a woman, the same woman who had spent the day before baking nine kinds of cookies for Christmas, was leading us in the oh-so-male Catholic Church. She was the only one with the training and experience to do it. I’m calling her Father Sandy now.
Our priest was back Christmas morning, worn but capable, surely glad that Christmas was almost over. He told us he was about to drive himself to the ER on Christmas Eve but knew the staff at the hospital would scold him for driving himself. Maybe. I drove myself three days earlier, and they didn’t seem to care.
The choir family had a wonderful dinner between Masses on Christmas Eve. I joined Sandy’s family on Christmas Day. I got lots of presents, including ones from the family which I finally had time to open on Christmas night. This year, the niece and nephew added to the loot, which made “Aunt Sue” happy—and weepy. I now have a framed photo of my niece to put where I can enjoy her pretty face.
At the end of Christmas Day, I was back on the love seat with my dog Annie, making phone calls to family and friends, telling them about my trip to the ER, about the priest, and about the mouse who has moved into my kitchen and seems especially fond of dog treats. It even chewed through the empty Milk-Bone box last night, leaving little bits of cardboard on my counter. I’m buying traps today. Like the priest, I am celibate and childless, living this strange, challenging and wonderful solo life here in the coastal forest.
So that’s my Christmas story. Please tell me yours in the comments. Did your families drive you crazy? Was it better than you expected? Did you struggle with nosy questions and with being around other people’s kids? Did you run away for the holidays? Did something weird or crazy happen? Please share.