Monday, December 07, 2009

To Wish For a Christmas Miracle

" . . . he was allowed to wish for a Christmas miracle." The teacher closed the book and surveyed the silent classrom with satisfaction. Reading Christmas stories to the kids for the last hour of the day before the Winter Holiday Break had been one of her better ideas. She could sneak in some vocabulary and grammar under the sugar coat of holiday lore; it was the top subject on every kid's mind; and the ptomise functioned as a bribe to keep them on task the rest of the day. We won't be able to have story time unless you quiet down and pay attention, she'd say, and the whole class would settle down. More like snowflakes in a snow globe--a drifting, dreamy, rustling quieting; but she'd take what she could get.

"So, who can tell me what it is to wish for something?" Rhubarb ensued, but consensus was arrived at. You wished when you hoped really, really, really hard for something, hoped with everything you had.

"And a miracle?" After some discussion, they all agreed that a miracle was something that you wanted badly, but was not likely to happen. Like living at Disneyland, or getting a pony.

"So what would a Christmas miracle be like?" Well, that would have to be an extra-special miracle, wouldn't it? Like getting to walk on the moon, or being able to fly like Superman.

Morgan sat rapt in the back of the room. A Christmas miracle, he thought. A really special miracle, as opposed to the everyday, run of the mill miracles, like walking on water. He knew exactly what he'd wish for.

When the bell rang, signalling the end of the day and the semester all at the same time, Morgan put on his coat and mittens, and began the walk home in the late afternoon gloom. It would be dark barely an hour after he got home from school. Normally he loved the winter--seeing the warm lights coming on as he walked home, some of the Christmas lights lit up, the chill in the air. But now it all seemed dead and dry like the last leaves of October. Dust under his feet.

That July, two men in uniform had come to his house to talk to his mother. Morgan had been fascinated by the array of coloful ribbons on thier right breast, and wanted to ask about them, but Mother had turned pale and sent him outside to play while the grownups talked. When he came back in, sweaty and grass-stained, Aunt Christina had been sitting at the table. She told him Mother had gone to lie down for a nap, and he was going to come with her for a week--wouldn't that be fun?

And it was, in an odd way. Aunt Christine let him stay uop watching television after his bedtime came and went, let him have seconds of dessert (even wnen he didn't finish his vegetables), and never ever declined a game of Hearts, Morgan's favorite card game ever.

But sometimes he'd look up, and Aunt Christine would be looking at him thoughtfully. Once he saw her wipe her cheek quickly. like she'd been crying and didn't want to be caught. He'd asked what the matter was, and she said, "You look so much like your father when he was your age, that's all." And then she'd told about catching frogs in the creek behind the house where she and her younger brother had grown up, and then about how proud he'd been when he joined the Army, and then about when he'd married Morgan's mom.

When he went home form Aunt Christine's, his mother looked like she needed another nap. Her eyes were red and puffy, and she moved slowly. She sighed a lot. She'd packed up and put away some of the family pictures, and his father's things weren't hanging in the closet any more. He asked what happened, and she sat down with him at the kitchen table. He knew it was serious then. That was the place they had their serious talks, when Daddy had been sent overseas, or when Morgan had gotten in trouble at school.

"Daddy . . . daddy can't . . . well, he won't be coming home again. He loved you very much, and you should remember that, but he won't be with us any more." Tears filled her eyes, and she hugged him tight. Morgan wanted to ask why, but he didn't want to make his mother cry any more than she was already crying. "Go play in your room, okay?" Her voice stretched high and thin, breaking on the last word. So Morgan did as he was told, and tried not to think about it too much, even thought it hurt that Daddy didn't at least call on his birthday, or the first day of school.

But now school was coming to a close, and Christmas was just around the corner, close enough to taste. Morgan thought about the story, and wishes, and miracles. He thought about things to wish on.

When he helped hang the wreath on the door, he closed his eyes and let his wish bubble up inside him until his ears rang with wishing. "What are you doing?" his mother asked. "Wishing," he said. "Oh. Well, don't tell me, because then it won't come true."

When Aunt Katherine took him shopping for presents and they stopped for pie and coffee, Morgan noticed how she turned her pie around to start at the crust and not the tip. "Why are you doing that?" he asked.

She smiled. "Making a wish," she said. "Save the best bite for last, and make a wish on it." Morgan immediately spun his plate around, even though he often left the crust uneaten. "Pie bones," his father would say, laughing his rough laugh. "Bury it in the yard, son, and grow a pie tree!" Morgan ate every last bite of the crust even though it tasted like dry crumbly salted flour, and as he ate the last bite of the pointed tip, he closed his eyes and wished as hard as he could.

And the days fell away as he opened the tiny drawers on the Advent calendar to reveal tiny candy canes, tin soldiers, miniature cars and somewhere between astonishingly sudden and heartbreaking never, it was Christmas Eve. Morgan put his boots and coat on after dinner and went outside into the cold dark, looking for the first star so he could cast one last extra-hard wish at it.

The chiming of the clock striking midnight woke Morgan up, but what sent him flying out of his warm nest of covers and down the stairs was the crunching squeak of footsteps in the snow. His mother heard something too, as she joined him in the hallway, and they bumped into each other at the head of the stairs.

Mother frowned. "Who on earth could be calling at this hour?" she grumbled, re-tying her bathrobe sash. There was a hollow knocking at the door, clods of dirt falling on an empty coffin.

Morgan grinned gleefully. "I know, I know!" he announced. "It's --" Mother stopped with her hand on the doorknob, flipping the porch light on.

"Honey," she said, "Maybe you should go back to bed . . ."

"No, it's okay. Santa's for babies, but this is real." He pulled on her hand, turning the knob, and the door creaked open. He saw once-shiny shoes, now scuffed and caked with mud and ice there on the mat. His father's shoes. As the chill wind blew the scent of earth and Old Spice over his mother's white face, into the house, Morgan announced, "Daddy's come home. Just like I wished."