"Mom," Phil said, "we're here."
"I know. Do you think I'm sleeping? As if I could sleep!"
"Just letting you know."
Inside, Christmas carols played in the entryway, an odd reminder for all of them that the season was proceeding more or less without them. The hospital gift shop, just to the right of the entrance, was filled with Christmas items and festooned with white lights. A pink-clad volunteer looked up and waved as they went by. "Hello, Bernice! I hear Bud's doing well. Do y'all need anything?" Phil and Dee Anna kept walking as their mother stopped for a moment of conversation with the white-haired volunteer.
"She's edgy today," said Phil. Dee Anna nodded, saying nothing.
Entering their father's room, they found Dr. Martin reviewing their father's chart. Bernice came in a few moments later, lips compressed. Dee Anna kissed her father's forehead and then stood at the window, absently watching the snow flakes drift past.
She smiled, remembering Madeline's voice on her cell phone earlier. Little Big Foot was "snow bound," she'd crowed with excitement, and they had already received more than a foot of snow in the morning hours. More snow was in the forecast. School was closed, and she was hoping to go out to make a snow fort with her friend, Dana, and some other children. Charlie the dog was having a wonderful time being petted and played with over at the Halverson household. The Advent wreath had arrived and looked beautiful. The Whitewaters had company and they'd all come to church. One of the boys was cute. Sunday's preacher was kinda boring. She was okay and was having fun at Dana's house, she had said, but hoping her mom could come home soon so they could do some Christmas shopping. Dee Anna had finally been able to interject a question or two, but it seemed Madeline was doing fine without her.
Now, gazing out at the light snowfall and thinking of home, she suddenly realized, with momentary sadness, that Madeline had not asked about her grandfather, except to wonder how long it would be before Dee Anna took a flight back to Wisconsin. Well, it wasn't like Madeline really knew her grandparents, and that hadn't really been such a bad thing. Maybe now it could change. Could her family's uncharacteristically gentle communication possibly last? That question was chased away by the awareness that she had just thought of Little Big Foot as home. She turned, hearing Dr. Martin clear his throat and begin to speak.
Tommy had cut down a medium sized tree with a small hatchet he had brought along for that purpose. They had shaken the snow from the branches, but the tree was covered, before the made it up the bank, around the house and up the steps to their back door. "It's really startin' to come down now," Brenda had said, and Tommy had grinned and answered, "That's the way to cut down a tree, ya know? In the snow, just like a Christmas card!" Brenda yelled and the kids laughed at he shook the tree's branches, spraying them with wet snow.
The next morning Tommy had secured the tree into its stand before leaving for the paper mill. Now he was back, stomping his feet as he shook the snow from his blaze orange knitted cap and peeled off his gloves. "Dad's home!" yelled Doug, the youngest of their four children, pulling him into the warm living room where Brenda was opening boxes of ornaments. "They closed up th' mill and let us go home," said Tommy. " Looks to be a really heavy snow and blow." He crossed the room in his stocking feet and kissed his wife, who pushed him playfully and said, "Tommy, stop it! Your mustache is covered with ice!"
Not long after, Tommy had finished his yearly decorating duty of stringing the lights across the floor and checking for burnt-out bulbs. After stringing the lights around the tree he contented himself with directing Brenda from his recliner. Jeremy, the oldest boy, carefully removed the ornaments from squares of Kleenex and passed them to his sister, Lois, who inserted a metal hook. She, in turn, passed them to their mother, who placed them on the tree. Periodically she stepped back to inspect her work. "Not a bad day to be home from school, kiddos," said Tommy from his chair. "Do we need another log in the wood stove?"
Brenda stopped and turned with a concerned look on her face. "I hope Pastor Dee Anna's father will be all right. Have you heard anything? It's a shame, her having to leave just as we were getting ready for Advent. "
"I've been up a while. Have you looked outside? It's snowin' to beat th' band out there. The coffee's on. Seems like a good day to make a batch of stew with some of that venison Tommy Halverson gave you last fall."
"There will be no school today," said her husband from long habit. "Guess I won't be heading to Rhinelander to buy your Christmas present today either." After a pause, he said, " I think I'll call Pastor Dee Anna in a bit to see how it's going down south."
Lorene came to the side of the bed and leaned over to kiss the top of Jim's bald head. "Get up, Honey. We have decorating to do." Jim sat up and wrapped his arms around his ample wife. "Or you could come back to bed instead," he said with a grin. "It's cold in here."
Satisfied, he headed to the basement to begin hauling up boxes of Christmas items. After about an hour he had erected a small artificial tree, had it lit, and was arranging his mother's collection of Norwegian trolls in front of the books that lined shelves covering most of one wall. The Complete Works of William Shakespeare stood beside the Little House books. Those had come to him from his mother, as had the hard backed volumes of the Chronicles of Narnia series, bound in several deep colors and with the titles etched in gold on the spines. Chad touched the books gently for a moment as he placed the last troll. "I miss you, Mom," he said quietly, "and you too, Dad." He smiled as he added, "And Dad, I do appreciate your books too." He was referring to several books for the home handy man, a series purchased over several months from The Readers Digest. These stood on the bottom shelf next to a red checked volume of Better Homes and Gardens Cookbook.
I walked a mile with pleasure,
She chatted all the way.
Left me none the wiser with all she had to say.
I walked a mile with sorrow,
Never a word said she,
But oh, the things I learned from her,
When sorrow walked with me.
"I don't think I'm learning anything!" He spoke aloud and his voice was angry, surprising him.
"The weather knows how I feel," he thought to himself, dropping his head into his hands. He could hear that Mary had finally gotten up and was in the shower. "What am I going to do about Mary, God?" He felt sorrow rising in his chest like a wave, and he choked back a sob. "God, you know how I love her, and how hard I have tried to be a good husband, to be a loving leader, to help her become the beautiful person I know she is. I've encouraged her to pray, to stick with her devotions, to get more involved, and nothing seems to work. Every December it gets even worse. What more is a Christian husband supposed to do?"
The only answer was the whistle of the wind around the corner of the house and the rattle of the window pane. Lee heard the shower stop, and he lifted his head and typed his password on the keyboard. Might as well get something accomplished. Maybe later he could get Mary to work on Christmas decorating. Or maybe not. Maybe this year they would skip the tree.
"Uh, sure. I guess so. Right now I need to get myself to work." He stood to his feet and moved to the head of the bed. "Dad, I'll make sure things are set for you and Mom." He kissed his mother lightly on the cheek, surprising himself. She smiled faintly and patted his arm. "See you right after work, Dee Anna," he smiled at his sister, "It sure would be nice if you make some spaghetti for tonight."
"Hey," interjected their father from the bed, "I want some spaghetti too!" He frowned. "And how are y'all gonna get the lights to work on that tree? Nobody ever seems to get it right except me."