It was the last Christmas they would ever spend together. And the worst.
Betty felt the living cliche of every hokey holiday story ever told. Her only daughter, Marlee, was now officially dying. Despite endless chemo treatments, that had ravaged what life was left out of Marlee, the cancer had won. “We’re sorry,” the hospital staff had said but Betty thought they really meant, ‘we’re tired.’ After weeks of living without heat, except for what could be generated in the small and inefficient fireplace in their apartment, the landlord successfully evicted them – during Christmas week.
Betty still had the old Chevy and the heater worked all right in it – so what little possessions they had, they piled into the car and made it home. “Merry fucking Christmas,” she yelled and waved to Irv Stanley, her ex-landlord as they drove off toward God knew what.
Betty was still able bodied and knew she could get work and that in fact there was work to be had. However, Marlee couldn’t be left alone. She was too weak and too sick and Betty’s worst nightmare was to come home to find her only child had died alone in the cold. There would be time enough to find work and to work again after Marlee was gone.
Instead, Betty drove the streets of the neighborhood, looking for recyclables and safe places to stop and park for a while. Marlee slept most of the time and when she did wake she talked about Santa Claus and wondered how he would be able to find them if they were driving around in an old car.
“Marlee, you’re sixteen years old honey, you know there ain’t no Santa Claus,” Betty said gently.
“Oh mama,” Marlee’s voice was high and reedy and Betty could hear the cancer in it. “I know…but I might as well pretend, don’t you think?” She tried to laugh but ended up coughing for what seemed forever.
Betty gripped the steering wheel as she listened to the life pour out of her daughter’s body with every wheeze and cough. “God damned genes,” she muttered and cursed the family heridity that visited disease upon them.
“It’s not the genes, Mama,” Marlee said, “just bad luck. Just bad luck.” And then she drifted off to sleep or unconsciousness, Betty never knew which. Uttering a few sentences exhausted Marlee so much that she would need hours to recuperate from a small conversation.
There was nowhere to go – all Betty’s relatives were far away and struggling themselves. It would hardly make sense to drive hundreds of miles to see them to ask for help – and even if she did, Marlee wouldn’t survive the trip. So, she drove and she drove and she drove. At night, she went to the Dunkin’ Doughnuts for coffee and two plain doughnuts. “Please try to eat it, honey,” she would beg Marlee.
“I can’t, Mama. I don’t want food. You eat it. You need it.” Then she would drift off again.
Betty would pull the old blankets up around her to make her warm, even though she knew Marlee would never be warm again. “I love you, baby. Mama’s here. Everything is all right,” she whispered, certain somehow Marlee heard her and it made a difference. That she knew in Betty’s eyes she was still the beautiful blond-haired, blue-eyed beauty who was going to conquer the world someday.
“She will go with God,” a melodic voice came from nowhere.
Betty’s eyes roamed the interior of the car. No one there but she and Marlee. No sounds but the chug of a tired engine, Marlee’s labored breathing and Betty’s sniffles. “I’m losing it now. Maybe it’s for the best. I should just shut off the engine and go to sleep with my baby. Let them find us and let it be done.” Betty put the car into drive and found a good parking spot. One that was sheltered from the wind by an old birch tree and the overhang of the building. No one would notice them there for a while. She could just turn off the engine, wrap sleeping bag around her and let the cold take them both. Why not?
“It is not your time,” the voice came again.
Still no one there – not even an apparition or gossamer vision dressed in silk and haloes. Betty wondered if hyperthermia had already begun. She was hearing voices. She tried to remember if that was a symptom of a stroke or something else, then she recalled it was something to do with smelling and smiling and so knew that the voice was not an anuerism coming to visit.
“Let’s go to church, Mama,” Marlee wheezed.
Betty saw Marlee’s face in the rear view mirror and it seemed to glow. She was sure it was the halogen lamps in the parking lot but maybe it was something else. “Okay baby, we’ll go to church but you know I don’t believe. There are no angels or miracles, just a building with pretty windows.”
Marlee nodded and the glow remained with her. Betty drove slowly through the cold night that dusted everything in powdery white. The church was a silver beacon in the bitter night. It took much effort to get Marlee out of the car, and still swaddled in blankets and up the steps of the church. “But why do you want to go in?” Betty asked her frail little girl.
“They’re waiting for me,” Marlee said but this time in her own voice, somehow recaptured. Or maybe it was just what Betty wanted to hear.
The door was heavy and Betty fought with it before it to obeyed and gave them entrance and it closed with authority and a thud behind them. Then they stood in the dark but candle lit sanctuary for a moment and then Marlee led her mother toward the front pew, where she sat and motioned Betty to join her.
“Honey, we can’t stay here. They won’t let us,” Betty whispered, her eyes darting and on the look out for annoyed priests.
“Quiet, Mama,” Marlee shushed her. “They are telling me what to do.”
“Who is telling you what to do?” Betty asked and felt a cold climb up her back.
Marlee put her arms around Betty and squeezed as tightly as she could. “It’s okay now. I can sleep now. Merry Christmas, Mama.” And then she pulled away and lay down on the bench of prayers.
Betty nodded and squeezed Marlee’s hand. “That’s right baby, you sleep for now. You get your rest and then we’ll go.
‘It is done,’ the voice of melody returned.
Betty shook her head but she knew that the voice, whether it belonged to an angel or was part of her own madness was right. Marlee had taken her final sleep and Betty was alone. It was done.
As tears streamed down Betty’s face, she tucked in her daughter one last time and kissed her forehead. “Good bye, my angel.”
She looked to the altar and said: “On this Christmas day, I give to you, my only child. Please take her to your safe place, your heaven, your kingdom and never let her feel pain again. Amen and thank you, God.”
And Betty walked out into the snowy night, knowing that her angel was in God’s hands and he would keep her safe from that day forward.