By Gail Lee Cowdin
Even though Lindsey Patterson’s students were middle level eighth graders, they still got ultra excited about the holidays. Christmas vacation would begin in just hours. The countdown was on! It was a trying time for teachers. It was impossible to teach. Yet the students’ excitement could be so contagious and exhilarating. Lindsey always enjoyed the decorations around the school, the Secret Santa exchange, the Christmas gifts and parties, and the staff party after school, and yes, they even sang Christmas Carols in the halls! It truly was a wonderful time of year.
But this year was different for Lindsey and her family. It would be a bittersweet holiday. She smiled, wished Merry Christmas to her teaching team and students. But she felt none of the true holiday spirit. This year her happiness was a façade.
At the end of the day, Lindsey struggled into her down hooded jacket and winter gloves, gathered her papers into her take home school bag so they could be graded and returned after break, and pushed through the doors to the parking lot. A blast of frigid air forced her to juggle her bag and her purse so she could pull her hood up over her head. Muttering to herself because she’d forgotten her winter scarf today, she tucked her chin down into her coat and pushed on quickly to her car.
The car started but motor turned over stiffly. She could tell it was below zero today. It would take a minute to warm up the car. Lindsey used the time to call her husband, Dan, to let him know she was headed home. He didn’t answer, so she just left him a message. Icy wisps of air drifted from her mouth as she spoke. She shivered, and put the car into gear.
Lindsey found a radio station with Christmas carols and sang along to the radio. Maybe this would put her in the Christmas spirit before the kids got home. Driving home was her time to wind down before switching from her teacher hat to her mom hat.
A half hour later she pulled into the garage, gathered her things, and struggled through the door where she was greeted by the family’s golden retriever, Pandora.
Lindsey hung up her coat, dropped her bags and squatted to pet the dog. “Well, hello, Pandora! Were you a good girl today? Did you have a long day? Everybody’s going to be home for a few days now. You can have fun with the kids. Shall we go outside first, so you can do your business? Then we’ll play, okay?”
Pandora bounced happily in apparent understanding while her tail wagged so vigorously her hips seemed to follow her tail. Her whole back end was in joyful motion. Such a wonderful way to be welcomed home! Lindsey had always talked to Pandora like she was one of her children. And Pandora listened attentively to everything Lindsey said, ears perked up, head cocked to one side while intently staring into Lindsey’s eyes. Lindsey was sure Pandora understood almost everything that was said to her. Pandora was a very smart dog.
She opened the door for Pandora, and she slipped quickly out. Lindsey watched out the window and waited for her to return. Minutes later, Pandora was bounding up the sidewalk and into the open door Lindsey held for her. “Good girl, Pandora!”
Pandora nuzzled Lindsey’s hand and waited for her special treat. This was their special routine every day. Lindsey loved Pandora’s joyful, exuberation. It lifted her spirits. The dog’s complete adoration of Lindsey was mutual.
Lindsey had decided on the way home, that homemade Christmas Surprise Cookies would be a good way to treat the kids tonight. She pulled out her recipe box, and drew out the yellowing, much-used recipe card. “Mom’s Christmas Surprise Cookies,” it read. It had been a recipe her mother-in-law had given her when she and Dan were first married. Oh, the memories, she thought.
She was just adding the eggs to the sugar mixture when Matthew and Michelle’s bus dropped them off in the circle outside their home. They burst through the door, dropping bags and books, and began chattering about their day. Michelle, her oldest, climbed onto the stool at the kitchen table and shared that Susie had worn lipstick to school. That was bad enough in itself Michelle explained. But also, Susie’s mother didn’t know it! And then she added, “And guess what? Sally just got her period for the first time! She was blabbing it all over, Mom. Isn’t that crazy?” Such was the life of a sixth grader.
After Matthew had dropped his coat on the front entry floor, he’d yelled a quick, “Hi, Mom! Tim’s coming over in a few minutes. Okay?” He’d run to the bathroom. Lindsey guessed from there he’d head to his room to pull out his collection of Star Wars figures. His friend Tim would pop in, add his coat to the pile on the floor, and head to Matthew’s room.
This had become an almost daily routine. Lindsey knew Michelle’s friend Jill would be arriving soon, too. The two kids had been inseparably linked with their best friends for a couple years now. That was good, Lindsey thought. She was glad the kids liked to come to their house. She was happy they felt comfortable to be here.
“Mom!” called Matt, “is there anything to eat?” A fourth grader and a sixth grader had insatiable appetites.
“Can you just wait a few minutes? I’ll have some fresh Christmas Surprise Cookies ready for you!”
“Ohhh! Super! Yeah, we’ll wait. Tim can have some, too, right?”
“Sure, I’ll have enough for everybody. You just have to hold on. Okay?”
Lindsey pulled out a small bag of chips for the children. Maybe that would help tide them over. Then she’d have the cookies ready. And after that she’d have to get supper going. Maybe a hot dish would be good tonight. Their eating habits left much to be desired, she knew. They’d probably fill up on the crackers and cookies and pick at the hot dish. Oh well. She’d never make mother of the year, but her kids would love the sugar high.
Lindsey was tired. She realized she was perhaps even a bit cranky. That happened when she didn’t get enough sleep. Lately, she’d been waking in the middle of the night. She’d lie awake for hours. Too much on her mind. All sorts of worries filled her head. Money was short. Since Dan had had to leave his job, they’d had to pinch pennies. They’d suddenly been thrown into living on one salary.
Now with Christmas coming there would be more bills added on top of the usual mortgage and utilities. And they still had to feed these children – and their friends- with their wolfish appetites. And most importantly there was the additional worry of how she would be caring for her husband while keeping the children on their same uninterrupted schedule.
It wasn’t going to be easy. They knew there would be medical bills that were bound to accumulate with Dan’s illness.
They hadn’t told the kids much, yet. They’d have to be told soon. They knew their dad was sick. They weren’t sure exactly what was wrong. She wished the doctors had been more specific. What was going to happen? They had said Dan would probably need chemo. This wouldn’t be a good time to tell them. She’d talk to Dan about it. They could decide together what they’d tell the kids.
The aroma of the chocolate, walnut, and coconut cookies wafted through the kitchen and drifted throughout the house. The children were playing together in the family room when the sweet rich smell reached their noses. They charged up the stairs to the kitchen.
“Are they ready, Mom? Can we have a cookie now?”
“Well, you can each have one cookie. You know dinner will be ready soon. I don’t want you to spoil your appetites. There will be room for more after dinner. How about that? And Jill and Tim can stay for dinner, too, if their Mom’s say it’s okay.”
Matt and Tim raced to be at the head of the cookie line. Lindsey was busy at the stove preparing the macaroni for the hot dish, as they took their cookies. Later, she was just putting the casserole in the oven as she turned to see Michelle take another cookie.
“Michelle! I told you just one cookie! That’s not fair to everyone else and you’ll ruin your dinner.” Lindsey impulsively slapped at Michelle’s hand. The cookie flew out of her hand and onto the floor in a shattered, crummy mess of chocolate chips, nuts and coconut. Michelle looked from the crumbled cookie on the floor to her mother’s angry glare and burst into tears.
“Mom! I did take just one. This was my first one! Matt just took a second one a minute ago. He showed me. You didn’t say anything! Why are you being so mean to me?”
Lindsey was stunned. “I didn’t see that…”
Michelle turned on heel and ran out of the kitchen.
Lindsey watched her daughter run away in tears and felt another wave of despair. What had she done? Another black mark on her motherhood record! She sat down at the table, head in hands. She just couldn’t do this!
Pandora stood up and moved to Lindsey laying her head in her lap. Lindsey reached down and absently patted the dog’s head. Pandora raised her head to look up at Lindsey with her liquid brown eyes and gave her a small kiss on the back of her hand. Pandora knew what her mistress needed. It was her offer of a bit of consolation and assurance.
“Do you think I really ruined everything, Pandora? Will it ever be okay?”
Pandora wagged her tail a bit in understanding and snuggled in closer to bury her head in Lindsey’s lap.
“I guess I need to talk to Michelle. I suppose I could take a cookie as an offering.”
Just then, Dan walked in the door, looked at Lindsey, and asked, “What’s going on? Is something wrong?”
“Oh, I just screwed up – again. I accused Michelle of disobeying me when she hadn’t. I’ll try to make it right in a minute. How are you?”
“Well, I met with a friend over coffee this afternoon. I think we may have a bit of hope.”
“What do you mean?”
“Mike Champlain is a fellow I know from work. He has a brother-in-law who is a doctor at Mayo Clinic. He wanted to tell me that he has already paved the way for me to get in for an appointment next week. He said he had explained my symptoms to his brother-in-law, Dr. Weston. Dr. Weston is a specialist with blood diseases. He’d like to re-evaluate my diagnosis of leukemia and look at my records. He thinks that if this what it sounds like, this is something they can treat successfully.”
“Really? Really?” Lindsey could feel a small wave of relief begin to flow over her. Maybe there was a bit of hope. What a wonderful surprise!
“Yes! From what he tells me, my type of Acute Myeloid Leukemia can be treated successfully with stem cell transplants. I’m hopeful, for the first time since my diagnosis.
“Oh, Dan! You can be cured? I knew it! Our prayers have been answered! We just had to find the right person! And he found you! I’m so relieved!”
Dan pulled Lindsey from her chair and wrapped his arms around her. The hug was warm, secure and full of hope.
Pandora, being a very wise golden retriever, sensed it was the right time to join in the joy. She pushed her head between Dan and Lindsey, nuzzling them happily. They pulled apart giggling and looked at Pandora. Pandora’s ears perked as she looked up at them giving a gleeful, “Woof!” She wagged her tail and began her little happy hip-hop dance swaying from paw to paw and spinning in circles. “Woof! Woof!”
Hearing their parents’ laughter and Pandora’s excitement, Michelle and Matthew followed by Jill and Tim came into the kitchen looking expectantly from Dan to Lindsey. Lindsey picked up a chocolate chip cookie from the counter and offered it to Michelle.
“Here’s your cookie, honey! I’m so very sorry! I didn’t know.”
Michelle looked up and took the cookie hesitantly from her mother.
“It’s going to be okay, “ assured Lindsey. “Really okay! Your dad and I have some good news to share with you. We are going to have a very merry Christmas! ”
Lindsey grabbed the children and pulled them into a family hug with Dan. Jill and Tim laughed as they were also pulled in. It was their family, too.
Pandora, sensing the change in mood, ran to pick up her Christmas toy – a pink, plush teddy bear. As her long, feathered tail wagged excitedly, she pushed her way into the group hug with such force that they lost balance and toppled into a laughing heap. Pandora excitedly jumped into the pile and bestowed wet, sloppy kisses on each of them in turn. Knowing that her people were happy made her a very happy dog! This would quite probably be known as their best Christmas Surprise memory – cookies and all!
Merry Christmas Surprises to One and All!