When my parents divorced, it was decided that they would rotate the holidays. If my sister and I spent Thanksgiving with our mother, we would spend Christmas with our father and visa-versa. The year I turned 12, we spent Christmas with our Dad. I was always excited to spend Christmas with him. I only saw him on vacations as he lived in NY and my sister and I lived with our mother in Massachusetts. My Dad was a big kid when it came to Christmas. He and my step-mother always made the house look beautiful. The tree lights burned brightly, including my favorite: old-fashioned bubble lights where the heat of the lights would make the liquid inside bubble-like water on the stove. Somehow it made the tree seem alive. Holly berry lights decorated the entrance from the living room into the dining room. A Christmas “town” was laid out under the tree, each little building emitting its own glow.
The days leading up to Christmas were spent making cookies, watching movies, playing games and if we could brave the cold, taking walks along the beach.
Depending on where Christmas fell during the week, we’d usually have a day or two in Long Island before Christmas day. My step-mother’s birthday fell on the 23rd and I loved when we actually had the chance to celebrate with her in person. The days leading up to Christmas were spent making cookies, watching movies, playing games and if we could brave the cold, taking walks along the beach. Winter in Long Island had a completely different vibe from the summer. It was extremely quiet. Back then very few people lived in the community all year long. After Labor Day, what used to be a bustling community of families enjoying summer vacation, turned into a virtual ghost town. With most of the houses left empty, it was actually a bit eerie.
On Christmas Eve Day I could feel my breathing getting more and more shallow. I had been living with asthma since I was about 8 years old, although at the time it was not properly diagnosed. The medicines I was given didn’t work and I coughed all night, every night. When I caught colds it was even worse and was downright dangerous. I struggled to breathe and it was terrifying.
My parents, not really understanding the severity never took me to the hospital. There were many times when I would silently scream “please, take me to the emergency room.” To this day I don’t know why I didn’t. I guess I didn’t want to be seen as causing drama. I’m sure my mother thought I was trying to get attention and I remember her saying once, “you won’t die from it.” She had no idea that this was not true and that in fact, children died from asthma attacks every year. I think this was her way of trying to calm me down and it actually worked to a point, because any time I was afraid I would die, I would think of that, and it would literally help me breathe a little easier.
By bedtime, I was wheezing badly. I remember being so upset because I didn’t want my Christmas ruined. Even more upsetting, I didn’t want to ruin anyone else’s Christmas.
My sister and I put on the new nightgowns our mother had bought for us and said our goodnights. My Dad and step-mother took turns checking on me. Even the cat, who I had “rescued” the previous summer by leaving a trail of bologna to entice her out from under a bush, came to sit with me. It was clear to me that she was worried as well. There’s something very comforting about having an animal display so much love.
At some point during the night, everyone went to bed. My sister slept soundly in the twin bed next to me. I could hear my Dad snoring in the next room. I was wide awake, struggling to get air into my lungs. Again, I wanted to go into my Dad’s room and have him call 9-1-1. But I didn’t even have the energy to get up. Then I thought about yelling but I couldn’t. Suddenly, an icy feeling of dread crept up my spine. For the first time ever, I had a very real fear that I was going to die. I was going to die on Christmas.
If you’ve ever had trouble breathing, then you know how scary it is. It induces feelings of panic that only exacerbates the problem. But the panic I felt at that moment was something that I can’t put into words. I KNEW this was the end. I started to feel faint and there was this feeling of letting go. Suddenly I heard a woman’s voice in the direction of the bedroom door. I looked up and saw a small figure glowing in the space between the door molding and the ceiling, maybe about 6 or 7 inches high. She looked familiar but I didn’t know why. She was wearing a light blue robe and what looked to me like a white scarf, draped over her head. She had long brown hair. I couldn’t see the details of her face.
She was talking but I wasn’t catching what she was saying. I was afraid at first. Was I dreaming? Then I heard very clearly “Carol, you will be alright. It’s not your time. I’m watching over you.” Her words wrapped around me like a warm blanket and I could feel my breathing start to improve. I squinted to get a better look at her. It was then that I recognized her. It was Mother Mary! Or at least, she looked like all the images of Mother Mary I had seen throughout my 12 years. I lay frozen in my bed as I watched her image slowly dissolve, just the way it looks in the movies, her words still with me. Then she was gone. The room was dark again. My sister was still sound asleep. A little while later I fell asleep myself.
In the morning, my Dad came to check on me. I was still not breathing well, but it was about 50% better than it had been during the night. Even though I wasn’t back to normal, the fear of dying was gone. I didn’t tell anyone what happened. I didn’t think they’d believe me. I wasn’t even sure that what I had experienced was real. But the words Mother Mary spoke stayed with me. Today I choose to believe the experience was real. It’s still the greatest gift I’ve ever been given.