“Cece! Those cookies look lovely.”
“Thank you, Granma,” Cece’s voice was subdued as she shook sprinkles on to the frosting covering an angel shaped sugar cookie on the table.
“I’m sure Phil will love them when he sees them,” Betsy told her granddaughter as she kneeled next the girl perched at her chair in the Halpert kitchen.
“Hey, you guys ready to go!” Jim walked in the kitchen rolling up the sleeves of his shirt.
Betsy looked up at her son. She saw he was smiling and trying to put some joy in his voice. His eyes spoke a different story. Despite his brave front she could see weariness and strain reflected at her. It was the same tiredness she saw in Pam’s eyes when it was her daughter-in-law's turn to be home with Cece. She felt the same low dread in her own heart as did every other member of their family. Even so, she tried to tamp down her own anxiety.
“Cece’s just finishing the last cookie.”
Jim looked at the table which was a mess of frosting and sprinkles. Sugar cookie snowmen, trees, angles, and stars covered half of the table. It was clear which ones Cece had decorated from the overuse of decorations. His face brightened up as he reached for a tree covered in red frosting and gold sprinkles.
“These look great Kiddo! I’m gonna eat them all up!”
“No Daddy! Cookies for Phil!” Cece lightly swatted Jim’s hand away.
Jim backed up and chuckled under his breath. “Just like Mommy.”
Betsy leaned in and hovered her head over Cece’s shoulder. “Can you go get your shoes and coat please? I’ll wipe down the table and pack these up.”
“Ok Granma.” Cece slid off her chair and walked towards the front door.
Jim and Betsy watched her walk away for a second before Betsy turned to the table and started packing cookies in a metal tin.
“How are you doing Jim?”
“Hanging in there. Hopefully we’ll hear something new today.”
“You’re doing great being there for everyone.” Betsy finished packing the cookies and put a hand on Jim’s arm. “I know it’s hard.”
Jim swallowed the frog in his throat. “Thanks Mom.” He nodded back towards the door. “Come on, we need to get going.”
Betsy loaded the cookie tin into a canvas bag along with some toys, coloring books, and a box of crayons. Jim bundled Cece up in a light jacket and quickly buckled her up in her car seat. As it always did the other empty car seat made Jim’s throat tighten.
“Shouldn’t she have a thicker coat on?” Betsy gently teased as she sat down in the front seat next to Jim.
“She’ll be fine Mom.” Jim felt the corner of his mouth quirk up at the question. “We’ve got an hour on the road. First time we made the trip she had a bit of a melt down because she was so uncomfortable. Also, I’ve got her thick coat in the back in case we need it.”
Nodding to her son, Betsy pasted a smile on her face and turned around to look at Cece. “Want to listen to Christmas songs?”
“Okay Granma,” came the quiet reply.
Betsy blinked away the tear in her eye and turned back around. Jim reached above his visor and pulled a Christmas CD out of the holder to hand to his mother. The drive out of Scranton was soon filled with the familiar sounds of Frosty the Snowman, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, and Santa Clause is Coming to Town among other holiday favorites.
The suburban landscape soon dissolved into more rural scenery as they drove. Jim’s eye kept flicking up to watch Cece in the rearview mirror. Her eyes stayed fixed out the window. He remembered fondly a little girl who would enthusiastically play, “I spy,” ask a million questions, or do her best to sing along with the radio when in the car. The silence coming from the backseat pressed harder on his heart. A weight that unlike previous trials he knew there was absolutely nothing he could do to resolve. No coal walk courage or parking lot epiphanies could lift this burden. All he could do was try to bear it.
“Cece honey,” Betsy’s voice broke through Jim’s review like an electric shock. “That’s the farm where Grandpa’s going to meet us tonight to get your Christmas tree. Won’t that be fun?”
Jim’s eyes darted again to the mirror to watch Cece’s reaction. The girl leaned forward to get a better view out of her window. The lifeless tone in her face melted as she looked at the snow-covered rows of pine trees flashing past them. The weight pressing down on Jim lifted ever so slightly as he saw a soft smile bloom on Cece’s face.
“The snow will make a puddle Granma.”
Jim and Betsy shared a smile and a laugh that let some more of the tension melt from the car.
“You, Mommy, and Grandpa will have to brush it all off,” said Betsy.
“Then you guys can decorate it when you get home,” Jim added.
“Phil too?” Cece’s eyes started to sparkle.
As quickly as it had gone, the weight crashed back down on Jim. He was only able to squeak out one word. “Maybe.”
“Oh, okay.” Cece’s smile disappeared and she slumped back down in her chair.
Jim set his jaw hard while his knuckles turned white on the steering wheel. Betsy reached over and put hand on his arm. Not trusting himself to say anything, Jim nodded stiffly as the speakers belted out the wish for a Christmas hippopotamus.
The rest of the drive was only filled with more Christmas music from the stereo. Eventually suburban sprawl overtook the farms and fields again. Salty spray covered the windshield and the snow turned from white to gray. The route to Janet Weis Children’s Hospital was a familiar route by now. Jim steered the car into the parking garage with a muscle memory he wished he never had. Betsy unbuckled Cece from her seat while Jim pulled a backpack and the canvas bags containing the cookie tins and toys from the back of the car. Cece wrapped her hand around his finger as they crossed inside to the front desk.
The line of visitors inched forward. More Christmas music could be heard coming over the lobby speakers while they waited. When it was their turn, Jim led Cece and Betsy to the counter.
A young woman was sitting behind the desk and smiled at them as the approached. “Names?”
“Jim, Cece, and Betsy Halpert. Here to see Phillip Halpert.”
Jim sighed as the receptionist did the now familiar double take when his name registered. Her eyes grew big and she slowly looked up with wide eyes.
“Oh my gosh! You’re really Jim! From that show on PBS!”
A tight smile formed on Jim’s face as the receptionist continued to gush.
“I love your show. I mean it feels more like a sitcom than a documentary! Oh my god! I have so many questions. Is Dwight really like that? No, that’s a dumb question. What was the craziest thing Michael ever did? No! No! No! Oh! I got it! What did you write to Pam in the note in the teapot?”
Jim looked over at Betsy who had wisely started to distract Cece by pointing out the various Christmas decorations adorning the hospital lobby. He took another step closer to the desk and leaned in slightly and beckoned the receptionist forward. When she leaned in eagerly his voice was slow and soft.
“I’m glad you’re a fan of the doc, but right now I’m sorry to say I’m not going to answer any questions. Christmas is in two days and my son is in the ICU. Please, just print out our visitor tags so we can go up and see him.”
Jim leaned back to see the receptionist’s eyes were still wide. However, the tone of her voice was now apologetic. She stammered over herself as she typed in their names and printed off the visitor's stickers. Jim kneeled to place Cece’s on her shirt before handing one to Betsy. He put his own sticker on his chest as they walked towards the elevators. More Christmas music drifted through the air as they rode up to the ICU.
The smell of sanitizer assaulted him once more when the elevator opened. Harsh chemical odors combined with the glare of florescent lighting off the tile floor made the dull ache in Jim’s head creep up another notch. Cece started tugging on his hand as they approached Phil’s room. Rounding the corner, Jim saw Pam with her legs tucked under her on the sofa on the far side of the room next to Phil’s bed. Her shoes rested on the floor while she sketched. A pillow and a pile of linens were shoved onto the far end of the sofa that both Jim and Pam were painfully aware could fold out into a bed at night.
Phil lay sleeping in his bed, dressed in a hospital gown decorated with cartoon tigers, lions, and cheetahs. Antibiotics ran through an IV pump and into the boy’s arm. Other wires sneaked out of his gown to the equipment that was monitoring his heart rate and pulse ox. A small clear tube snaked out of the wall to blow a gentle stream of oxygen into Phil’s nose.
“Mommy!” Cece broke free of Jim’s hand and rushed across the room.
“Hey Cece.” Pam barely had time to set her sketchbook down before Cece leapt into her arms. “Shhhh,” she soothed. “We have to use our indoor voice right now. Phil’s sleeping and you know he needs his rest.”
“Okay Mommy,” Cece whispered while leaning back from her hug. For the first time that morning a genuine grin boomed across her face. “I made cookies for Phil!”
“You did?” Pam’s eyes grew wide and she smiled at her daughter. “That’s so sweet of you! When Phil wakes up, I’m sure he’ll love one.”
Cece looked over at her brother. “When’s Phil coming home?”
“Soon baby.” Outwardly, Pam stayed calm, though Jim and Betsy could hear the tremor in her voice. “He still needs to stay here and get his medicine. Then he can come home.”
Betsy walked forward to sit on the couch next to Cece. “How about we work on coloring another picture for Phil? You know how much he loves looking at your pictures.”
Betsy pulled the tray table close to the couch and adjusted the height so Cece could lay out one of her coloring books. Once she was busy with her crayons, Betsy nodded to Pam. “Go on,” she whispered.
“Thanks.” Pam stood up and slid her shoes back on. She walked around to the other side of the bed where Jim had dropped his backpack and was kneeling next to Phil. As gently as he could, Jim was stroking Phil’s hair.
“Good boy,” Jim whispered. “Sleep well. Get your strength back. Mommy and Daddy love you so much Boy-o.”
Pam leaned down to run her own hand over Phil’s brow. The small forehead was warm but had finally lost the searing heat of fever. “We’ll be back soon buddy,” she whispered.
Tugging on Jim’s sleeve she walked out of the room into the hallway. Jim was right behind her.
“What did the doctor say this morning?”
“The fever is down, so that’s good news. They want to continue the antibiotics all day today and do more blood work. They also want him to try and drink whatever he’ll tolerate.”
Jim stole a glance back in the room. Cece was now in Betsy’s lap working on her drawing. Phil was still asleep. He turned back to Pam and ran a hand through his hair. “So other than the fever is down a bit, nothing new.”
Pam reached out to draw Jim into a hug. “Yeah.”
Jim wrapped his arms around his wife and rocked her back and forth a few times. “I hate this.”
“So do I,” Pam sniffed.
“It was just supposed to be a simple surgery to remove his appendix,” he hissed.
“I know,” she whispered back. “Post-surgical infection was one of the things they said could happen.”
Pam couldn’t say anything she hadn’t said a thousand times before. Instead, she just nodded into Jim’s shoulder and kept her arms around him.
“How was the night?” Jim asked into her hair.
“Not bad.” Pam’s voice was slightly muffled due to her face being buried in his shoulder. “He woke up when they did the blood draw this morning. The nurse also showed me how to turn off the IV alarm when the bag runs out.”
“That’s good. I know how much you hate that thing.”
“Yeah, it sucks. The doctor said the incision site is also looking better. There’s still some redness but not as much as yesterday.”
“That’s good,” Jim croaked out.
After several more long seconds, they leaned back from each other. Taking deep breaths, they steeled themselves for the day and walked back in the room. Betsy had turned the TV on with the volume down low so Phil wouldn’t wake up. Cece was now alternately looking between her coloring and the images of Clifford the Big Red Dog filling the screen. Pam sat next to Cece and helped her to fill out her drawing. Jim took up residence in the hospital recliner they’d been allowed to bring into the room. He pulled the Monday paper out of his bag and turned to the sports section. He’d only gotten into the first paragraph of an article about the Eagles when a small voice piped up.
The newspaper was instantly set aside, and Jim resumed his vigil at Phil’s bedside. Despite the wires and tubes, Phil’s eyes cracking open brought a smile to Jim’s face. “Hey buddy. How ya doin’?”
“Jooce?” Phil started looking around.
“Yeah bud, you can have some juice.” Jim turned around a pulled a covered foam cup off the tray table that had a straw sticking out of it. Gently he put the straw in Phil’s mouth. “Here you go.”
The sight of Phil drinking the orange juice kept the smile on Jim’s face. He was even more relieved when Phil sucked the last of the juice out of the cup.
“Phil!” Cece looked over and saw her brother was awake. She sprang off the sofa and bounded into Phil’s bed. Pam admonished her to be careful. Her eyes were glowing as she held up her newest picture. “I drawded this for you!”
“Sissy!” Phil giggled.
Cece set the paper aside and leaned forward to hug Phil. She avoided his right side as she’d been taught. She also smacked a kiss on his forehead before rolling over to snuggle next to him and watch Clifford.
A different kind of tightness clenched at Jim’s throat while he watched his children. Turning around he saw Betsy and Pam both wore expressions with the first real glimmers of hope they’d had since their hospital ordeal had begun. Turning back to the bed he cleared his throat before talking to Cece and Phil.
“I am!” Cece exclaimed and raised her hand over her head.
“Waffle!” Phil chirped excitedly.
Jim chuckled and picked up the bedside phone. The hospital bedside menu was a well-worn piece of paper by now. Dialing for room service he ordered a late breakfast of waffles, hash browns, more orange juice, and fruit for both children. After the order was placed, he hung up the phone and settled back to enjoy watching cartoons.
A half hour later, the food arrived. Jim helped to cut the waffles and pour syrup. Cece dug into the hash brown she’d ordered with Phil made a sticky mess of his face by using hands to eat rather than the fork. Pam wetted some paper towels from the bathroom sink and walked over to wipe the sticky mess off Phil’s face when he was done eating. The full meal worked its magic on Phil and he drifted back off to sleep. Cece curled her head on Phil’s shoulder and settled down herself.
Betsy walked over and pulled the covers over the children before turning to Jim and Pam. “You two should head down to the cafeteria. Get something to eat. I’ll keep an eye on these two.”
Jim stretched and stood up from his chair. “Thanks Mom. Can we get you anything on the way back?”
“Whatever’s hot,” Betsy replied.
The trek to the hospital cafeteria proved blissfully uneventful. A few times Jim and Pam saw several people give them a double take. They quickly walked on before they were spotted and got in line. Lunch was being set out as they picked up trays. Fried chicken and mac and cheese went onto Jim’s plate while Pam opted for a cheeseburger and fries. They both grabbed bottles of Coke from the cooler before paying for the meal and finding a table.
“He ate today,” Jim commented between bites.
Pam nodded enthusiastically. “That’s the most I’ve seen him eat since before the surgery.”
Jim was about to reply when his phone chirped at him. Pulling it out of his pocket he read the quick text before putting it away again.
“Anything big?” Pam pointed with a fry at the phone.
“Just Dwight confirming the FMLA time is still approved.”
Pam let out another slow breath. “At least that’s one headache we don’t have to deal with.”
They chatted about schedules and made sure they were on the same page about Christmas plans while they ate. After a quick trip back through the line for another cheeseburger to bring to Betsy, Jim and Pam headed back upstairs to Phil’s room. When they turned the corner into the room a warm sight greeted them. Santa was making his rounds and the red clad man was sitting on the sofa with Cece in his lap. An elf stood nearby holding Santa’s bag. Betsy had her phone out and was snapping pictures. Phil was still sound asleep, so Santa kept his voice down.
“So Cece, what do you want for Christmas this year?”
Cece curled her lip up and raised her eyes to the ceiling as she pondered the question. Finally, she settled on an answer and beckoned Santa down to her face level. Carefully she whispered something in his ear. Santa’s eyes grew wide as he listened to her request. When she was done, he sat back up but kept his gaze on the small girl.
“That is a big wish Miss Cece.” Lightly he touched Cece’s nose. “Normally my elves and I specialize in toys for good girls and boys. Have you been a good girl this year?”
“Yes Santa,” Cece nodded her head enthusiastically.
A kindly smile crinkled Santa’s face. “I know my dear. I remember seeing your name on the Good Girl part of my list. You were so good I didn’t need to check it twice. I'll tell you what I can do. I have some other friends I know. We’ll all work extra hard for you. Would you like that?”
Cece’s head bobbed up and down again. “Yes Santa.”
Santa’s smile stayed on his face as his eyes twinkled brightly. “I’m very glad to hear that. Well, if I have an extra big job to work on, I better get back up to the North Pole and get started.”
Gently Santa let Cece slide off his lap. He stood up from the sofa and turned to his elf. Santa reached into the bag and started rummaging around inside.
“Now let’s see here. I know I hid those somewhere. Ah! Here we go!” He turned around and held out candy canes for everyone in the room. “That is as long as it’s okay with Mom and Dad?”
Cece’s eyes were huge as she looked over to her parents. “Please Mommy!”
Pam’s hand had been covering her mouth while she watched Santa talk to Cece. She brought it down and nodded with a smile to Cece. “Of course, honey.”
Cece’s grin was huge as she took the candy cane Santa held out for her and started sucking on it.
“And one for the big boy, for when he wakes up.” Santa set another candy cane on the tray table and turned to the adults. Betsy took hers with a smile of thanks before Santa crossed the room holding out candy for Jim and Pam. “And of course, one for Mom and Dad.”
“Thank you, Santa,” Jim said kindly. “You really brightened up Cece’s day.”
“Thank you,” Pam repeated and stepped forward to give Santa a hug.
“Oh ho ho ho,” Santa chuckled after Pam stepped back. “Think nothing of it. It’s my pleasure. Merry Christmas.”
“Merry Christmas,” Jim replied.
Santa and his elf gathered their bag to depart the room. Santa turned to look back when he stepped into the hallway. With a wave and a wink, he disappeared around the corner.
The rest of the day passed pleasantly. Phil woke up and requested hot dogs for lunch. He and Cece shared them while a nurse came in to change out the IV bag. After lunch, Cece pulled a miniature beachball out of her backpack and the two children amused themselves with a game they made up called Slapball. This consisted of Cece sitting at the foot of Phil’s bed and the two of them slapping the ball back and forth to each other. Phil couldn’t quite get the hang of the game. Most of the time, when Cece sent the ball towards her brother it bounced off his face. Phil found this endlessly amusing and his laughter filled the room while Jim and Pam took turns scooping up the ball from the floor.
Dinner consisted of more hot dogs and waffles for the children. Jim scrolled through the TV listings after helping to cut Phil’s food into bite sizes. How the Grinch Stole Christmas proved to be the distraction needed to lull Phil back to sleep. Cece was starting yawn too. Pam got up from her perch on the sofa to lean over the little girl.
“Cece, come on. We’re going to go with Granma to meet Granpa to get a Christmas tree.”
“Okay Mommy.” Cece reached over her head and clambered out of Phil’s bed.
“Pack up your stuff please,” Pam told her.
While Cece scooted about the room to re-pack her backpack, Pam walked over to where Jim was pulling out a novel in preparation for his turn to stay overnight with Phil.
“You going to be okay?” she asked.
“Yeah,” he replied. Jim looked over at where Phil slept peacefully. “I think that’s the best day we’ve had so far.”
A grin formed on Pam’s face and she reached forward to hug Jim. She raised up on her toes to plant a brief kiss on his lips. “I think you’re right. And that’s the best I’ve ever seen him sleep.”
“He needs it too,” Jim commented.
Betsy helped Cece pack the last toys and crayons away and held out a thick coat out for her to slide her arms into. Pam stuffed the last of her overnight supplies in her own bag and led Betsy and Cece to the door.
“Night-night Phil,” Cece whispered as they got to the door. “Night-night Daddy.”
Jim got up to kneel and give Cece a hug. “Night-night Kiddo. Be good for Mommy.”
“I will Dadddy,” she promised.
“Okay, time to go,” Pam said after Jim stood back up.
They trio of ladies left Jim and Phil and started back towards the elevators. As they passed the nurse’s station Pam sent Betsy on ahead with Cece to catch an elevator. She then waved to get the attention of the charge nurse.
“Yes ma’am, how can I help you?”
Pam leaned over the counter slightly to help keep her voice down. “Could you pass on a message for me? Let whoever it was that dressed up as Santa this afternoon know he did a great job. We had the best day here yet because of his visit.”
The charge nurse looked confused. “What are you talking about?”
“The guy this afternoon in the Santa suit who visited us,” Pam explained. “He was great.”
“I think you must be mistaken ma’am. We didn’t have anyone scheduled to come around as Santa today.”
Now it was Pam’s turn to look confused. “Are you sure? He was right there in our room with a guy dressed as an elf. Gave us all candy canes and everything.”
“I’m sure, I’m sure,” replied the charge nurse. “We have a pretty strict policy of when we allow anyone in costume to visit, especially here in the ICU. There was nothing planned for today.”
Pam leaned back still trying to process everything. “Oh, I guess you’re right. My mistake.”
“Anything else you need ma’am?”
“No, I’m, uh, I’m good. Thanks.” Pam shook her head and walked away from the counter to join Betsy and Cece at the elevator.
Betsy caught onto Pam’s confused expression just as the elevator doors opened. “Everything alright?”
“Yeah,” Pam said with a start. “I’ll tell you about it later.”
Pam’s plan to talk to Betsy in the car about her discussion with the charge nurse was shot to pieces by an overly enthusiastic Cecilia. The girl seemed to have found a second wind. Pam glanced in the rearview mirror as they pulled out of the parking garage to see the return of the warm and energetic little girl who normally occupied that particular car seat. Cece, sang along to every Christmas song on the radio. During commercial breaks she asked about each and every business they passed. Her enthusiasm made the trip to the tree farm seem to fly by.
Large floodlights shone out over the snow-covered expanse the contained row after row of evergreen trees. Gerald Halpert was waiting for them and waved them over as they got out of the car.
“Granpa!” Cece dashed through the snow to fling herself at the older man.
“Hey Kiddo! You look excited!” Gerald was pleasantly surprised to see the energy pouring out of his granddaughter.
“I got to see Santa today!”
“Is that right?” Gerald asked with a wide-eyed expression and picked up Cece.
“He said I was on the Good Girl list and he didn’t need to check twice about me or about Phil!”
Gerald smiled fondly and tussled the locks of hair peeking out of Cece’s hat. “That’s awesome. Now want to go help Granpa pick out a tree?”
“Yeah! Let’s go!”
Gerald set her back down. Cece immediately grabbed onto his hand and led him towards the rows of trees. It was all the adults could do to keep up with her. Cece would run back and forth from one tree to the next. Several times she tripped and went sprawling face-first into a snowbank. She would only jump back up giggling like mad to dash towards another tree. Gerald trailed after her playing hide-and-seek between the branches. Sometimes he would creep up quietly to her hiding spot to knock snow off them limbs to envelop Cece in her own private blizzard. Other times, when it was his turn to hide, he would flop onto his back and make snow angels with Cece when she found him.
While Gerald and Cece played, Pam told Betsy what the charge nurse had told her before they left the hospital. Betsy mirrored the confused expression Pam knew had been on her face.
“That can’t be right.” Betsy reached into a pocket and pulled out her phone. Swiping to her gallery she pulled up the pictures she’d taken of Cece and Santa. “Here they are.”
“Huh, weird.” Pam said and looked over at the pictures. She would have taken more time to think about the conundrum, but Cece’s excited shouts reached her ears.
“Mommy! Mommy! This one!”
Cece was jumping and pointing excitedly next to a tree. Pam’s feelings of confusion melted away as she looked at the tree her daughter had picked out. It was perfectly shaped. Thick green needles covered each limb. Standing on her toes, Pam realized the tree was tall enough to fill with all their ornaments, but short enough that she would be able to lift Cece up to put their star on the top branch.
“Great choice Cece. That one will be perfect.”
Cece beamed at the praise and shifted her gaze once more to look that tree she’d chosen. She continued to hop around while a worker came over to cut the tree and bind it in twine. Gerald and the farm worker loaded the tree into the back of his pick-up truck while Pam put Cece back in her car seat. By the time the two-car convoy arrived back home, Cece’s energy had faded and she was fast asleep.
Betsy carried Cece upstairs to bed. Gerald and Pam wrestled the tree inside and got it set up in their tree stand. Once it was secure, Gerald ran a knife down the bindings to let the branches spread out. Pam walked around the tree to fluff the springy branches.
“She went down like a light,” Betsy reported as she came down the stairs.
“It was a good day,” said Pam. “Nice thing about getting a tree home this late is that the branches will have time to settle a bit before we decorate tomorrow.”
Gerald and Betsy left with a promise to return in the morning to help put up decorations. Pam brewed a quick pot of Sleepy Time tea and curled up in her favorite spot on the couch to add details to her latest sketch. When she finished her tea, she also retired for the night.
The buzz of her cell phone woke her in the morning. Scrambling to put her glasses she read the text from Jim that had appeared on the screen. Her hand came to cover her mouth and tears appeared in her eyes. Her fingers trembled as she typed out a reply and hit send. Leaning back into her pillows, she looked out the window and saw sunlight glinting off the snow. Millions of diamonds sparkled back at her. The sounds of Cece starting to wake up brought her back down to reality and she got out of bed.
The morning followed a variation of their normal routine. Pam sipped tea poured from her favorite teapot and fixed Cece’s breakfast. She helped her daughter change into clothes for the day and ensured Cece made her bed. Gerald and Betsy returned promptly to help decorate the house. Once the tree was trimmed, Cece supervised Betsy and Pam in the kitchen. Fresh batches of Christmas cookies were baked and set to cool. Helene showed up after lunch. She joined the other ladies in a trip to an outdoor ice-skating rink. Pam felt relief settle over her when Cece didn’t seem to realize that Gerald was driving away in her and Jim’s car. After an early dinner, Pam and Cece put on dresses and joined Betsy and Helene back in the car for the ride to their church for a candlelight Christmas Eve service.
Silent Night drifted through the darked sanctuary at the end of the service. A warm glow began to fill the room as each congregant lit the candle of the person next to them. Cece’s eyes were transfixed on the small flame dancing before her eyes as the organ played the last chords. Cece fell asleep in the car again on the way home. Pam scooped her up to carry her inside.
“Thanks again Mom, Betsy,” Pam whispered while letting them all inside. “You did a great job distracting her all day.”
“Our pleasure honey.” Helene ran an affectionate hand across Cece’s cheek. “Best get her to bed though.”
“You’re right. I’ll be down in a second to say good night.”
Pam helped a drowsy Cece change out of her dress and into her pajamas. Prayers were said, stuffed animals were placed next to a pillow, and Cece was tucked in. Pam padded softly to the doorway of her daughter’s room. She stopped to look at Cece who was already fading into a pleasant dream. “Good night my love,” she whispered.
After saying good night to Helene and Betsy, Pam busied herself with the last tasks of the night. She tucked the handwritten card Cece had made for Santa under a plate of cookies. A tall glass of milk rested on the end table next to the treat along with carrots Cece insisted they leave out for the reindeer. She quietly placed presents under the tree from where they’d been hiding in her and Jim’s closet. Pam checked the locks on the doors and turned out the house lights. She reached for the switch to turn off the Christmas tree lights, but her hand stilled. Pam wrapped her arms around her and let the lights from the tree seep into the furthest corners of their living room. A beacon of hope shining out in the darkness. Turning around, she made her way to bed.
Morning came with the same golden light of the previous morning. Cece’s eyes flew open. She tore off the covers and ran to her door. Quick as a flash, she raced down the stairs to the living room. For one of the few times in her young life, she was the last person awake. Her parents and grandparents were already in the living room waiting for her.
“Merry Christmas Cece!” They all chorused.
“Merr Kiss-mas Sissy!,” Phil squeaked, excited to be part of the fun. He was sitting in his kid sized stuffed Clifford chair grinning from ear to ear.
“Phil!” Cece rushed forward, fell to her knees, and threw her arms around her brother.
Jim and Pam joined their children in a multi-armed embrace.
“Are you happy Cece?” Pam asked through the tears of joy leaking out of her eyes.
“Yes Mommy!” Cece still hadn’t let go of Phil. “I got my wish.”
“We all did, Kiddo,” Jim whispered while he ruffled Cece’s hair. “We all did.”
The rest of the day passed by in a state of bliss. Wrapping paper was torn asunder. Cookies and hot chocolate were consumed. Jim and Gerald helped with the ‘some assembly required parts of Barbie playhouse Cece had unwrapped. Penny, Tom, Pete, and Larissa along with their families all arrived later to share in the joy of Phil returning home. Laughter and warmth overflowed the house.
As night fell, everyone bundled up to walk the neighborhood to look at Christmas lights. Cece stayed with Phil in the wagon he was riding in. Their cousins ran up and down the sidewalk dodging snowballs. The family came to the end of their block and started to turn. A faint glimmer caught the corner of Jim’s eye. Looking up, he saw something.
“Pam, look,” he whispered.
Pam followed his gaze to the sky. Her she squeezed Jim’s hand as she saw what had drawn his attention.
Above them the North Star seemed to wink in a very familiar way.