She stirred in her sleep. He noticed. She was doing less and less of it as the days passed by, and he knew that it would be all too soon before she goes to sleep for the last time. So when it came, it came as a welcome interruption to his slumber. He forced his weary eyes open to the dark hospital room and pulled his tired bones off the chair he had fallen asleep in, moving to fetch her water from the other side of the room.
Her cold fingers wrapped around his wrist with surprising quickness but a fragile strength, asking him to stay. The fingers reached up to tug on the fabric of his sleeve. Come closer. He did.
“Merry Christmas,” she whispered when he was close enough, her voice hoarse. He bent over her, holding her tiny, icy hands in his as he kissed her on the forehead.
“Merry Christmas to you too,” he said, not having the heart to tell her that she was five days too early. But perhaps it was a good thing. They were not even sure if she would wake to see Christmas morning this year. It was a cold comfort to think that in her little way, she managed to celebrate her last Christmas on this earth.
She looked through glassy eyes to where the windows were. “Is it snowing?” she asked, peering into the darkness beyond. “It’s freezing in here.”
“Doesn’t look like it,” he said, “But I can go check and let you know.”
“No,” she said hastily. “Stay with me.”
That was the moment his heart broke. God only knew what darkness her eyes beheld in that hour before death, or what immeasurable coldness gripped her spirit as the end drew near. He held a hand to her face, and she pressed her cheek into it.
“I will,” he said, doing his best to be the stronger one.
There was an overwhelming silence in the space that followed. He felt her jolt in his hands, startled – and before he could say a word, she had already spoken: “Did you hear that?”
“A sound,” she said, “Like… Like chimes. Light. Magical.”
He hesitated, and then said: “Yes, I heard it too. It’s really something, isn’t it?”
A smile broke over her face like the light of dawn when he said this, and as she turned to face him, it was as though the little girl in her was alive again. “Do you think it might have been Santa?”
“Of course it was,” he said without hesitation this time. “Can you see him there, sitting in his sleigh? Pulled along by one, two, three, four, five… six! Six reindeer! One of them even has a bright red nose – what was his name again?”
“Rudolph!” she exclaimed, the cry of joy unmistakeable, “And behind Santa is a great big sack, loaded with lots and lots of presents!”
“Presents for you,” he began, and she joined in the oft-repeated phrase: “And presents for me.”
They broke into giggles at this, a warm lightheartedness escaping into the air, their shared moment warming the place better than any central heating system could. She then sighed and gripped his hand, saying: “Do you think Santa has a gift for me this year?”
“Of course he does,” he nodded. “He always does.”
“Mmm,” she hummed in satisfaction, “I wonder what it could be? Something I want? Something I need?”
“Maybe,” he said, “Maybe both.”
Now she sank her head into her pillow, snuggling up against the soft material; then a lazy hum came drifting through the air and into his ears. It was unclear at first, but he soon realized that she was humming the melody to the song they loved best. Stroking her hair, he joined her in the song:
Have yourself a merry little Christmas
Let your hearts be light
From now on, our troubles will be out of sight
Have yourself a merry little Christmas
Make the yuletide gay
From now on, our troubles will be far away
Here we are, as in olden days
Happy golden days of yore
Faithful friends who are dear to us
They draw near to us once more
Through the years, we’ll always be together
If the fates allow
Hang a shining star up on the highest bough
He paused here, waiting for her to begin the first note to the final line of their song. When no sound came, he concluded, with voice breaking, the song that they shared:
And have yourself a merry little Christmas now
Daylight came three years before he was ready to face it. He had fallen asleep, still holding her hands; and when he woke, the tears were there, staining the woolen sheets. The hand he held in his was as still and as cold as the marble statues they once marveled and playfully poked at in the museums. Soon the doctors will find them here, and he knew that he would have held her for the last time.
He squeezed her hand in his, readying himself for the final goodbye.
What he didn’t expect, however, was for the hand to squeeze back, however weakly. He looked up – startled – and found her eyes looking into his, bright as the sun, and ten thousand times warmer.
“Santa came last night,” she said, “But you were already asleep. He brought a gift, like you said he would – except it wasn’t one for you and one for me. It was one for the both of us to share, he said.”
He worked his mouth, but no sound came. Yes, if he pressed his fingers against her wrist, he could feel the steady pulse pumping away beneath the frail skin. He continued to look at her, searching for an explanation; but as the morning sun brightened and shone its rays directly into the room, lighting up her face, he knew there were really no words to describe what must have happened.
They have been sent a miracle. And the gift of life was for them both to share.