- ILLUSTRATION BY CLAIRE RYAN
On Dec. 24, 1979, the prognosis on the children's ward at Silver Banks Hospital (SBH) would have been that Christmas was on steroids. Doctors, nurses, desk clerks, cleaning staff were all decorated in festive attire—Santa hats, ugly sweaters, tinsel necklaces, jingling bells and anything that glimmered in hope. It was Christmas Eve after all, and the overriding wish of every child on the ward was to be able to go home for Christmas. Some would get their wish. Some would not.
Little Josephine Pyne still wasn't sure if she would be lucky enough to wake up at home on Christmas Day or not. She had been feeling so much better lately. Josephine, or Jojo as most would call her, hadn't been too hot or too cold in a few days. The blankets didn't stick to her body anymore, like the cotton baton on the construction paper cards her Grade 4 classmates had made for her. Jojo's fever blisters were almost all gone and she was able to eat macaroni and cheese again. She told her favourite nurse, Nurse Kelly, that one of her Christmas wishes was to never eat soup again. Well, Nurse Kelly must be magic, because for breakfast the next morning she brought Jojo a bowl full of warm mac and cheese with extra cheese on it!
"Merry Christmas, sweet Jojo," said Nurse Kelly. "I hope all your Christmas wishes come true."
"Do you think I'll get to go home?" asked Jojo.
"There's a good chance you might if your appetite keeps up and the fever stays away today," Nurse Kelly reassured her.
"Home?" spoke a weary voice from across the room.
Nurse Kelly walked over to the bed and opened the curtain. "Well hello, sleepyhead!" she said. "Would you like some breakfast?"
"No," replied the weak voice.
Nurse Kelly gently buzzed around a girl in the bed. She was 13-year-old Tessa Dawn, who had been at Silver Banks for an entire eight months. Six and a half months longer than Jojo.
Some days, Tessa Dawn would be bright and cheery, shuffling through the ward telling Jojo and the other kids silly jokes or stories of her exciting trips to Hawaii and Disneyland.
Some days, she wouldn't get out of bed at all.
On the good days, Tessa would also strut around with a brand new device called a Sony Walkman. Some kind stranger had given it to her because they felt bad she had to be in the hospital for so long. It was like a mini-stereo that she could play cassette tapes on. Her favorite singer was Billy Joel and she played his tape over and over and over again. Sometimes she would let Jojo and the other kids listen on her headphones. The song she played the most was "Only the Good Die Young."
"So be as bad as you can be, you'll live longer!" she would exclaim.
Many adults and staff on the ward didn't think it was a very appropriate song, but Jojo and Nurse Kelly knew that it somehow made Tessa Dawn feel better.
"Tessa Dawn, sweetie, it's Christmas Eve day. Wouldn't it be nice to sit up and see the sunshine?" Nurse Kelly coaxed.
She opened the blinds on Tessa Dawn's side of the room and let the day blaze in. It was a glistening morning with bluebird skies and sparkling snow.
Tessa Dawn only replied in soft moans. "Home?"
Jojo watched in hesitation as Nurse Kelly wound up Tessa Dawn's bed until the patient was partially sitting up.
"Home?" Tessa Dawn gurgled again.
Nurse Kelly pulled down the bed's sidebar and sat next to Tessa Dawn, stroking her duck-fuzz hair.
"We'll talk to your mom and dad when they get here. OK?"
As if on cue, Christmas carols began their barrage of "in-your-face festivities" over the hospital's loudspeaker. Jojo watched in delight as the staff danced down the halls, in and out of rooms, skipping through their morning rounds, dropping a little love at every child's bed along the way.
Parents, who hadn't stayed the night, started to arrive in droves and Tessa Dawn's were the first. Jojo pursed her lips together nervously as she watched Nurse Kelly sweep them out of the room immediately.
Now, Jojo didn't always understand the inner workings of adult secrets but she knew what bad news looked like. A mother's palm cradling her mouth, sometimes her chest; a father's fists jamming into his coat pockets hard enough to punch the entire world out through the bottom of them if he could, accompanied by the incessant throat clearing of a grown man trying not to cry. She'd seen her own parents do that when she first arrived at Silver Banks, and in that moment she knew Tessa Dawn wouldn't be going home for Christmas.
Jojo managed to get herself out of bed and over to Tessa Dawn. She climbed up into the bed and cuddled into her frail friend.
"I wish Santa and all the Christmas angels were here right now so I could ask them to make sure you get to go home today," said Jojo.
Tessa Dawn turned her head towards Jojo's.
"Can you do something for me?" Tessa Dawn whispered.
Jojo nodded. Tessa Dawn then whispered softly into Jojo's ear.
Jojo pulled back and looked at her for a moment, scared and confused. Tessa Dawn reassured her that everything would be OK.
Jojo's parents arrived shortly thereafter, wearing smiles bigger than crescent moons. Maureen Pyne carried a pink and purple convertible ski jacket that Jojo knew was the perfect size for going home in. Her dad, Teddy Pyne, was giddy and bursting like, well...like a kid on Christmas Day.
"We get to take you home sweetheart!" he announced, "Isn't that just wonderful?!"
Yes, it was wonderful, Jojo thought, but how could she possibly go home and leave Tessa Dawn at the hospital? It just didn't seem like the right or fair or Christmassy thing to do. Like, at all.
"Could we have Christmas Eve here with Tessa Dawn and her family and my other friends too?" Jojo asked, cautiously.
Maureen and Teddy were quick to find reasons why they couldn't stay.
"But we waited so long for this and...and we've decorated the house just for you," Maureen stuttered.
"There are so many presents and goodies waiting for you at home, sweetheart," Teddy pleaded.
Jojo was torn. The eagerness in their voices landed hard on her heart. They had all been waiting for a long time for this, but Jojo knew Tessa Dawn and her family had been waiting longer. Maureen noticed her daughter gazing over at Tessa Dawn and her parents. She understood the situation immediately. A mother knows another mother's pain.
Under a stifled sigh, Maureen suggested, "You know what, you've made some wonderful friends here Jojo. It might be a nice idea if we all spend Christmas Eve together before going home."
Once the decision had been made, Teddy and the other fathers, looking for any kind of task to keep them from punching the world through their pockets, rallied to gather all the things required for a much needed injection of joy on the children's ward today. This meant quick trips home to grab portable stereos, cassette tapes, photo cameras, Santa suits, unopened presents, eggnog and all the things fathers know make Christmas extra special.
The hospital staff gathered cots, beds, blankets and pillows to make sure everyone had somewhere to sleep. Jojo was quick to point out to Nurse Kelly that this would never happen on any other night of the year! Nurse Kelly told her she was right.
The night swelled into a magical soiree of tall tales, caroling, dancing and an endless supply of twinkling moments.
Amidst the revelry, Tessa Dawn smiled, soaked it all in and stayed awake as long as she possibly could. When Jojo noticed her friend starting to fade, she grabbed the portable cassette player that Teddy had brought in. Shuffling stealthily over to Tessa Dawn's bedside with it, she slowly turned down the Bing Crosby's Christmas Classics cassette that was already playing. Jojo then gently placed it on the bed next to Tessa Dawn, ejecting Bing Crosby and carefully replacing him with Billy Joel. Miraculously, the tape was already set to Side B, Song 2. Jojo pressed play and turned up the volume.
As "Only the Good Die Young" echoed throughout the room, their parents reacting in varying degrees of disbelief, laughter and confusion, Jojo wrapped her tiny hand around her friend's fingers.
"Merry Christmas, Tessa Dawn."
Tessa Dawn smiled, lightly looped her fingers into Jojo's and whispered, "Thank you. I guess I'm a good one."
And there, held in the bosom of moonbeam blessings and wrapped with the light of love in its rawest form, Tessa Dawn said her goodbyes and went "home" for Christmas.
Angie Nolan is a Whistler-based writer, actor, educator and award-winning filmmaker.