The Christmas season has always been hard for me. Bittersweet, one could say. Every time I hear the song 'Little Drummer Boy' I go back to the 3 months I spent as a 4 year old at Barnes hospital in St. Louis, Missouri with my mother visiting my father every day ... my mother praying desperately to God to save my father's life. As an adult i've never put a Christmas tree up. This year with the ending of a long-term relationship and some major health issues I find myself having to reach deep inside of myself to find strength, and to reach outwards to my friends and family and animals, and to God and my Papa to help pull me through a painful and uncertain time in my life ... it's like i'm walking on a thin sheet of ice ... days of crashing through and feeling like i'm going to drown while other days I feel like I will make it to solid ground.
Yesterday we (Minnesota) were hit with a major blizzard. About 18 inches of snow. I am living now with my friend Laura and her son Walker as we go through this transition. She played Christmas music as we decorated the Christmas tree ... and the house was filled with warmth and love as she made chili and biscuits. And as she reached for the last ornament in the box, she pulled out The Little Drummer boy ornament. She knows my story and significance of The Little Drummer boy. She handed it to me and said I need to put this ornament up. Laura remembers the story behind all her ornaments except for this one. She said, "I think The Little Drummer boy ornament has been waiting for you and for your story." So as I clasped the ornament in my hand I could feel Papa; I could feel him carrying me; and I whispered to him ... this will be a new beginning.
Here are excerpts of the piece I wrote in 2006 along with excerpts from more recent writing ...
Friday, September 14th, 2006. I’m at my veterinarian’s office as the dreaded words come out of his mouth, “she may have cancer – cancer of the spleen.” I look at Shen, my 11 year old collie/shepherd mix. She doesn’t look or act sick. How is it even possible she has cancer? Over the past month she has had occasional episodes of lethargy, weakness and loss of appetite. I’ve been on a seesaw of emotions as contradictory and inconsistent test results have come back from the time I took her in to be checked out “just to be on the safe side.” My vet shared with me the possibility at the very early stages, that these inconsistent results, the deep lethargy quickly followed by what appears to be a full recovery and normal behavior, are indicative that she may have a mass in her spleen. On my drive to the vet’s office that morning, Shen sat on the passenger seat, as she always does, resting comfortably while peeking out of the corner of her eye to ensure I was still there. Traffic lights along the way were a welcome chance to give Shen extra pats of love, as she responded with kisses on my hand. We talked that morning, as we always talked, on car rides, one of Shen’s many joys in life. The difference this morning was that her brother Shadow, a 36 pound black lab/pit mix, wasn’t stepping all over her as he insisted on looking out the windows. This morning, Shadow remained at home. September 14th is a day with special meaning for me – it’s my father birthday. If he were still alive, he would’ve been 77 years old. I prayed that my Shen would be spared from the wrath of cancer. I had just returned from a trip from St. Louis, Missouri visiting my mother and helping her in selling her house so she can move back home to the Philippines. Upon my return, my partner shared with me that Shen appeared to be acting “depressed.” We have joked in the past how Shen has a somewhat perpetual sadness about her. I believe it’s the depth of her spirit speaking. Her demeanor has a depth about Most of the time, she’s her usual spunky self, however, Just one day earlier on what would’ve been my father’s 77th birthday, those How powerful memories are. I’m in a time warp, returning to December 20th, 1968 – a Friday afternoon as well, at Barnes Hospital in St. Louis Missouri, gateway to the west, so they say. I’m four years old. That Friday afternoon, I lose my father. St. Louis, Missouri, known for the arch – gateway to the west. That afternoon, it was the gateway to heaven. To my mom, it was the gateway to hell.
Fast forward. It’s Friday afternoon 38 years later - a sunny, crisp fall day in St. Paul, Minnesota. Our 11 year old collie/shepherd mix, Shen, is in surgery at the University of Minnesota’s small animal hospital. Two days ago she was full of life. That morning, I lifted her 47 pound body into the passenger seat of my 2004 burnt orange Honda element, a vehicle I purchased, certainly not for its looks, but for the functionality and ease of transporting our dogs. Her eyes had always pierced my soul. Her eyes, a window, not into her soul, but into mine. In a daze, I made the drive down Jefferson Avenue to University Avenue, turned right onto Raymond Avenue early Friday morning. “Is this her last car ride with me? Is this it? Is this goodbye?”
The ultrasound confirms a golf-size tumor in her spleen. It’s cancerous, and has spread. The prognosis – grim. “She is dying – we can remove the tumor. Only after we go in can we assess how far it has spread. Any efforts are palliative – you may only get days with her; if you’re lucky, weeks”, the vet says gently. I am not ready to let go. I try to fight back tears. It’s useless. A tsunami of uncontrollable emotions rushes over me. I am drowning, yet expected to make a decision on her “fate.” I realize now, that desperation, that sense of helplessness, that overwhelming anger at the injustice of it all – that’s what my mother must’ve felt that Friday afternoon, December 20th, 1968, when my father, a mere 39 years of age, was ripped from her, just as Shen was being ripped from me.
My decision. I have to try. I give her a kiss and a hug. I whisper to her “I’ll be here, waiting for you. If you choose to move on, I’ll be okay.”
The vet comes out to tell me “she needs another blood transfusion. It’s worse than we expected. The cancer is everywhere. She’s bleeding to death.” I realize, it’s time to let go. Shen wasn’t the one hanging on for dear life – I was the one. My dad wasn’t the one hanging on for dear life – my mother was, and unknowingly, so was I. At four years of age, I sat perplexed in the corner of the hospital room, not understanding the chaos and desperation that filled the air, as doctors and nurses came rushing to my father’s room, as hospital staff wrapped their arms around my mother, as she screamed and cursed the God above for savagely ripping from her, the love of her life.
It’s Friday afternoon, December 20th, 1968 and the hospital PA system is playing Christmas music. It's five days before Christmas, a day to honor, reflect, and celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ. Or, to a four year old, a day in hopeful anticipation of Santa arriving with Christmas presents. He arrived the year prior with Papa and Mama watching me as I gleefully ripped wrapping paper off of large boxes I’m sure Santa had trouble transporting from the North Pole. Santa traveled a long way to make the trip from the North Pole to Bangkok, Thailand where I lived in bliss with Papa. Somehow, this year, something felt very different.
I am sitting in the corner of a room at Barnes Hospital in St. Louis, Missouri. In October, 1968 my mom was told by doctors in Thailand, “your husband is dying – there’s nothing we can do.” Papa resisted going to the doctor for months. “ I feel fine,” he insisted as he continued to lose weight. One day my mom noticed the color of his skin changing – there was a yellowish tint to his skin and the whites around his eyes were turning yellow. “Whether you like it or not, you are going to the doctor!” my mom tells my father. He quietly concedes. After a series of tests, my mother hears words she never imagines she would hear, “your husband is dying.” We travel half way across the world to St. Louis, Missouri. It’s been two months since we arrived, and every morning, my mom and I would spend the day in Papa’s hospital room. I’m four years old - too young to be in school. My mom’s brother lives in Godfrey, Illinois, and tells us Barnes Hospital has great doctors and maybe they can save him. My mom, desperate, is willing to try anything so she brings our family to St. Louis – my dying father, my 7 year old brother and my 5 year old sister.
Outside the hospital window I see a huge stainless steel arch in the distance – the St. Louis Gateway Arch. My father is laying quietly on his bed while I play with my Etch a Sketch. Over the hospital intercom system plays “Little Drummer Boy.” My mother is sitting by my father’s side. She’s talking to him. There’s no response. My mother has placed a rosary in his hand and has been praying non-stop for weeks. As I watch my mother lean over and into my father, I notice my father’s grip loosen. The air in the room comes to a standstill. As my mother runs out of the room into the hallway, I hear her frenzied, desperate, quivering voice say to my father “There is no light. There is no light. Don’t follow the light.” Years later, she tells me “Your Papa asked me that morning what’s that shining light I see? It’s so beautiful.” She said he looked so peaceful. She also acknowledged she knew in her heart it was God’s way of telling her the time had come. Yet how could the God she had placed her faith and unwavering trust in turn her back on her now? How could she accept that the love of her life was being taken from her?
She tells my father there is no light as she frantically shut the blinds. Moments later, the cross breaks loose from the rosary my mom placed in my father’s hand, and falls to the floor. “The chain of life has broken” she tells me, decades later. “I knew God was taking your Papa away. I was so angry with God and I was so angry with your Papa. How could God take your Papa from me? From you? How could your Papa leave us?”
In minutes, my father’s hospital room is filled with doctors, nurses and machines. My mother’s cries continue to echo and vibrate in a time tunnel connecting us and cementing me to that moment when my father’s soul left his body. The stench of stale air mixed with ethanol stings the insides of my nose. Is this what happens when life stops? Does time stop – the frames of our life’s movie frozen. Only I am sure my mother wishes the frames could’ve frozen years earlier, maybe even the first moment my father laid eyes on her – it was a moment a decade earlier, in Bloomington, Indiana where they both in graduate school and a mutual friend introduced them at a dinner party. My father had traveled from Bangkok, Thailand to the small town of Bloomington, Indiana; and my mother from Manila, Philippines. “I remember your Papa that night. He didn’t say much. Quiet. Humble. Handsome. Oh yes, very handsome. And he always smiled.”
“No, no. Don’t take him from me.” She grabs the cross off of the pale beige floor, clasps it in her hands, and cups her hands over my father’s left hand. She pushes the cross in the palm of his hand and wraps his fingers over it. She won’t let go. The nurses gently wrap their arms around my mother and ask her to wait outside. She won’t let go. “There is no light. There is no light. You have to stay with us. You promised me you would,” she wails.
I don’t remember how long it was. I sat in my corner not understanding what was happening. The beat of the Christmas carol “Little Drummer’s Boy” playing in the background. Not long after the nurses escorted me out of my father’s room, the beat of my father’s heart stopped. He was 39 years old. His death certificate reads: “Cause of death: liver disease.”
The melody, rhythm and beat of the “Little Drummer boy” are etched in my memory, in my cells, and in the fabric of my being. The drum beat fades off into the distance, as the spirit of my father is set free – Friday, December 20th, 1968 at 3 PM. Now, Friday, September, 15th, 2006 at 3 PM, I bury my face in Shen’s body, clenching tightly to what is now an empty shell, as her spirit, like my father’s, is set free.
The holiday season is here again. It’s always a time of reflection for me. Little Drummer Boy is playing again. I hear the music; I feel the beat.
As Christmas 2010 approaches I wonder where Papa will lead me ... where will I be going as I follow the beat of the Little Drummer Boy? Wherever it is, as long as I have my Papa carrying me and I am surrounded by the all the angels he continues to surround me with ... I will be OK.