"We’ll get you to do Emma’s treatment tonight!" the charge nurse said to me as she was doing her workload assignment. "It’s difficult, takes time, but Emma will put you at ease with it."
It was Christmas Eve, and I was looking forward to the morning when my children would see what Santa had brought to them. Christmas is a hectic time for young, working mothers, and I was no exception. I was totally fatigued. There had been so many Christmas Concerts to attend, parties to which we had been invited, shopping for Santa, baking special foods, and all that we do at Christmas time that I find so excessive. But it had to be done for the children so they could have a memorable Christmas. I was young and could withstand it better than I would today, thirty years later. When I was given my assignment to care for Emma, I detected a sigh of relief from the nursing staff who worked permanently on the unit. It caused me to become apprehensive about my assignment, and made me question exactly what it entailed.
During the holidays our hospital reassigned nurses to where the need was greatest, as they staffed the hospital, accommodating the statutory holidays of their employees. I had already worked a day shift on this particular unit, had heard about how involved Emma’s care was, as a carcinoma was gradually destroying her face, exposing blood vessels and leaving her prone to hemorrhage; however, I had never met the frail little lady at the end of the corridor.
So now I was working a night shift on this long term care unit, known as Progressive Care. Everything was different from the usual on this unit, because most patients wore their street clothes and ate meals in the unit’s dining room. I found it to be a gratifying experience. Many people would be going out of the hospital the next day, Christmas Day, to spend time with their families.
I read Emma’s chart and realized that going home was not an option for her. She was an eighty-year-old woman who suffered in silence with an advanced carcinoma of the face. Many of us only knew what Emma looked like from her photographs. She required too much care to be eligible for a Nursing Home, so she stayed on Progressive Care, a place she now thought of as ‘home’.
Later I went to her room and introduced myself.
"Do you like my tree, dear?", she asked.
Yes, I told her, she had a wonderful tree with twinkling lights, a Christmas tree she could barely see, but the nurses would add ornaments and tell her about how the tree looked so special. Her music tape player kept the Christmas music quietly playing, as her nurses would change the tapes for her so she had music all the time. Before I started her treatment Emma asked me to change the music. I chose a tape, put it in the player, and ‘Silent Night’, my favorite Christmas Carol, started softly playing. I glanced out the window at the glistening snow which was reflecting the Christmas lights that were part of the hospital’s effort to make it feel more like home for those who could not go home for Christmas.
It truly was a ‘silent night’. At that moment I really felt Christmas. It all seemed so surrealistic.
I started to remove the huge bandages that covered Emma’s head and face. I was ill prepared for how disfigured she was, how involved her treatment was, and tried hard not to let her know my shock and disbelief. A carcinoma had destroyed most of her face, and I had never, ever, seen facial deformity so severe. I found myself sweating, and my heart racing. Emma could barely see, and spoke in a whisper. Tiny, frail and ill, she endured her treatments without complaint, often reassuring her nurses that she was OK, and not to be upset for her because it wasn’t too painful if her treatment was done gently.
"You’re not scared are you dear?", she asked in a whisper. I assured her I was not.
"You’re new though, and very young. Do you have children dear?" she queried. (To Emma everyone was ‘dear’). I told her about my children and how excited they were about Santa.
Then I felt her small hands on my face. Emma said she wanted to know what I looked like, and remarked that I had my hair pulled up under my nurse’s cap. She asked if she could touch my long hair. I stopped the treatment, removed the gloves and took off my cap and let my hair fall loose. She ran her hands through my hair, and commenced to tell me about the long hair she had as a youth, how her husband had loved it, how he would tell her how attractive she was and how proud he was of her and their children. She told me about the Christmas traditions they kept, how she loved him and was relieved that he did not have to see her like this, having predeceased her years ago.
Emma’s care took over an hour to do, and she talked in her whispering voice as I did her treatment with a lump in my throat, and listened to the soft sounds of the Christmas Carols filling the room.
When I was through, Emma asked me to sit for a moment. The night was quiet so I sat beside her as she held my hands. She continued to talk, and give me advice. Her amazing perception overwhelmed me. She told me she thought I was tired, and she remembered being tired when her children were small and Christmas so demanding. From under those heavy bandages, she advised me to never take my health for granted, to be thankful I could see and hear, that I could dance around my house with my baby girl in my arms as I told her I did, that I could drive a car, read a book, laugh and sing, and do all the things that make up a life, things I had never thought about to any degree. She felt my wide wedding band, and expressed how she wished she could see it.
A tear fell from my face unto her hand from the tears I could no longer hold back.
She told me not to cry, that she had accepted her fate, and I should too. Emma made me promise to live life fully while I was able, thanked me for my tenderness with her painful treatment, and wished me a ‘Merry Christmas’. The music was still softly playing.
When I left her room that night, I knew that my experience with Emma was exceptional. A weak, elderly woman, clinging to life, understood the angst of a ‘young’ nurse’, wanted to touch my hair, needed to talk, and gave a young nurse and mother great advice. She made me aware of just how much I took for granted, and reminded me to remember the ‘reason for the season’.
I never saw Emma again, because I was then off for the holidays, then returned to work in the Operating Room.
Emma was special and had made me realize so much. She reminded me that my senses of sight, taste and smell, my hearing, my mobility, my youth, my family, and yes, even my hair, were all things for which I should be grateful. I had never really considered how fortunate I was, and never considered how much I had been given. Emma had taught me a lesson.
That night with Emma was thirty years ago. I was just twenty-seven years of age, and quite aware of the gift of a ‘Christmas Lesson’ I had been given. I recall it with amazing clarity.
Later that night I was asked how Emma was doing. I reported that she was fine and had talked all through her treatment, never disclosing the ‘lesson’ I was holding in my heart.
Emma, in my estimation, was a special Angel who reminded me of just how much, in spite of my busy life, I should slow down and treasure. I still believe our paths crossed for a reason. Through all the hurried preparations, the true meaning of Christmas sometimes got lost, but I would never lose it again. It was an unforgettable lesson that this sick, tiny, but kind, woman taught me that Christmas Eve.
Many times, over the years, I would remember Emma’s whispered words, and how they had made me feel so anxious to get home to my husband and children, to hug them tightly, and to never forget the gifts I had been given.
Emma touched my life briefly, but her lesson touched me forever. Her endurance, advice, and caring, negated her dreadful disfigurement. She was indeed a beautiful Christmas Angel, and her words have stayed with me, especially during difficult times throughout my life.
Emma’s Christmas gift of a ‘lesson’ enriched my life forever.
Thank you Emma, and Merry Christmas!
Song Playing: Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas