He had just turned four when he was admitted once again for aspiration pneumonia, another round in the war to keep his lungs clear. This one was nastier than most and the battle took us beyond our capabilities; Berr ended up in intensive care. Christmas was approaching and no kid wants to spend it in a place where you have to scrub in.
His condition improved to a point where we could manage him at home on five liters of oxygen and pulse/oxymeter telemetry to keep track of his oxygen saturation and his heart rate, along with nebulized meds for breathing treatments. It was Christmas Eve day when we got him out and my parents had invited us over to their home for the traditional dinner and gifts. Growing up, it was tradition in our home to exchange and open personal gifts after dinner, leaving Santa’s gifts for Christmas morning.
Understand, this wasn’t unusual for us to be out and about with a boy who did a very good, though much smaller version of Darth Vader. He enjoyed being out and we welcomed the food, aromas and Christmas ambiance of my parents’ home. My mother loved Christmas and she expressed that in baking and cooking and decorating. My dad loved Christmas, too, and he expressed that in eating.
Which was about where we were in the progression of Christmas Eve festivities, except we weren’t all that festive. Dinner was consumed, conversation ebbed a bit but died out long before pie. The old Magnavox record-changing console stereo was even quiet, quite unusual given the tradition of Henry Mancini holiday music, and all that could be heard over the picking of the meal’s remnants were five liters of oxygen blowing through Berr’s cannula into his little nose, and the muffled beeping of the telemetry. It was a blue Christmas.
Bang! Bang! Bang! at the front door startled us all out of the conversational lull. My dad got up from his chair and headed out of the dinning room muttering, “Who the hell could that be?”
We were all curious and started a little migration from the dinning area through the living room to the front entry. The Berr and I were just arriving, with all life supporting things in tow, when his grandpa opened the door to find its heavy handed knocker, a Saint whose banging on our front door did him justice. It was Ol’ Saint Nick himself.
He ho-ho-hoed his way into the entry, tall and grand and impeccable in his Santaness. Berr about bolted out of my arms, his eyes wide and bright. Santa lit onto one of two overstuffed chairs that flanked the Christmas tree and set down his sack of gifts and called out, “Where’s that Berrett?”
We were all stunned and incredulous, except for Berr. My dad was giving him the eye, looking him over, trying to figure out who the hell he was. My mother already had tears in her eyes. I handed the boy over to Santa while Berr’s mom wrangled the O2 hose and telemetry cables. The oxymeter was beeping a little faster. Berr was a little nervous at first, overwhelmed like the rest of us at our world-renowned visitor.
Santa visited with him a bit. I have no recollection of what was said, caught up so in the moment of curiosity and wonder. And then Santa reached down into his bag and pulled out a gift. It was wrapped and had Berrett’s name on it, spelled correctly even, and Santa helped him open it up. A toy, ability-appropriate for this boy who had limited use of his hands. Santa reached two more times into his bag and produced two more gifts, again perfect for this boy’s age and abilities.
My dad was still trying to figure him out when Santa finished and declared he had more stops to make. He carefully handed the tethered little boy to his mother, grabbed his bag and wished us all a very Merry Christmas and left.
It was in that moment that I felt it, the lifting of the burden of mortal worry, shored up by the emotion that transcends all the levels of goodwill towards men, that blanket of gratitude for that Santa who made my son’s Christmas joyful. He made it joyful for all of us.
Later that night as we were leaving my parent’s home I was putting the slumbering Berr into his car seat when his mom figured it out. I got behind the wheel and she pointed to the open garage of the neighbor’s home. Hanging over the tail gate of the pickup truck inside was Santa’s suit. His wife worked in the ICU where Berr was released earlier that day. She knew his telemetry, our telemetry, our needs, and the two took time out of their Christmas Eve with their own children to perpetuate the holy myth of Saint Nicholas.
Students often ask me over the course of the Interpersonal classes I teach how they can know if they’re really in love. I tell them this story and it chokes me up every time, because what I feel for that couple is the purest expression that love has ever known. It’s gratitude.
It’s not real sexy, not very romantic. It doesn’t sell a whole lot of greeting cards. You can’t really market it or exploit it, because I’m not certain everyone knows what it is. But when you love someone so much that this same feeling overwhelms you at just the thought of that someone, and it drives you to your knees or lifts your hands to the sky to thank your Maker, the universe, Mother Nature, or whatever force it was that drew the two of you together, I’d say that’s a pretty good indication that you’re really in love.
Gratitude is love’s purest telemetry.