“Mum, I am so sorry but I can’t possibly come home for Christmas this year.”
“But Lizzy, it’s Christmas, you don’t want to spend Christmas on your own.”
“I might want to do just that this year.”
“Oh, come on, you don’t mean that.”
As usual, I was trying to persuade my dear mother that I wouldn’t be able to come home for the annual celebration of our Lord’s birth. This back and forth between us occurred every year and most times, she had won.
But not this year; this year, I had many reasons not to go home. I wasn’t going home for any reason at all.
The hospital where I work has to treat many accident victims and injured youngsters caught up in the fun and excitement of the season. Previous years, I was only permitted to go home because one of my fellow doctors was ever willing to take up cases for me in my absence. But this sweet lady, Shirley, died of a brain tumor few months back and the hospital has not been able to find a suitable replacement for her.
Previous years, I could look forward to seeing Jake waiting to pick me from the airport. This year, he would not be there. He would be at home, with his wife, Gwen and both of them would not know how much they hurt me. Even though I had dated many times and been dumped over and over again, Jake had always been my first love and Gwen is my childhood friend.
“Mum, I can’t leave this time. It doesn’t matter if we discuss this for four hours non-stop, my decision is final.”
It was five days to the 25th day of December.
I walked into the changing room after the call ended. I leaned my head against the cold, steel frame of my wardrobe and allowed myself to remember the feel of Christmas at home.
All shops will have Christmas lights, hanging above their door frames. They would also have promos encouraging customers to buy gifts and other stuff at discounted prices, just for the season.
Turkey sellers will be having a field day as many people will be hurrying to get the fat ones before other customers do.
The greatest excitement will be in homes where both young and old will experience the joys of sharing Christmas with loved ones.
I snapped out of my reverie and turned to face Franca, one of the nurses based in the nursery. Her job was to monitor and keep an eye, or two eyes if she preferred, on the little ones just welcomed into the world. Especially those ones who had to be kept for some time in the hospital. She was to report to me any sign of trouble in any of these children.
“What’s it, Franc?”
“Joseph aspirated and went unnoticed for some time. We’ve been able to stabilize him but, I still think you should come and check him.”
Joseph was born under very critical conditions. His mother, Anne, a 19 year old, had unsuccessfully tried to abort him. She was afraid of the questions that would be raised if he was born. Joseph was born two months premature. It was not an option to have him go home with his mother. We had to keep him under a close watch.
I walked into the room where he was. As I checked his vitals, I could not help but remember the Joseph in the Bible. In his own case, he wasn’t the one under the risk of being aborted. Rather, he could not understand how his fiancée got pregnant with a child. A child, he was sure was not his and like Anne, he was not ready for the questions that would come with the birth of such a child.
But God intervened in that case because the child in question was His own son, Jesus Christ.
I believe it was God who intervened in the case of little Joseph, lying on his bed in room 4. He was looking fine and okay and that is unvommon in the aftermaths of aspirations by children.
After checking on the other kids in the nursery, I went to speak with the doctor in charge of the next shift. She asked some questions about the state of some of the children. I answered and also told her to check on Joseph as soon as possible.
I left the hospital ten minutes later and went to my house.
In my heart, I knew I wanted to go home this year. I had sounded tough and sure while talking with mother. In some minutes, my older brother would call too and I’ll have to put up the same and he will believe me, just like mother did. The only person I knew I would not be able to deceive is my younger sister, Mary.
On many occasions, she had been the only one to see beyond my smiles and tears and speak the truth to me, without any hesitation.
One of such occasions was when Jake asked me to meet him at a La Bouche dinner. That was the first time he would ask me and I was very excited. Finally, I could get a little time alone with Jake. Excitedly, I called Gwen to tell her the news. Mary was in the room with me as I dialed her number on my phone.
“Liz, you mean Jake really said that? I was supposed to meet with him tonight.”
“Why would you be meeting with him?”
“He wants to teach me some computer programming stuff. Look, I need to call him. I’ll call you later, okay?”
Fifteen minutes later, Jake called. He said we would not be meeting after all. He apologized and promised to make it up to me. He never did. I sat down on my bed beside Mary and just stared.
“Sis, are you okay?”
“I am. I will be.”
“You and Jake are not meant to be.”
“Who told you this?”
To me, that was the most ridiculous thing she could have said at that time. I was also born again. I just did not have what she had, yet; the ability to hear, listen, understand, believe and accept what God said every time.
“I had a dream and when I prayed about it, I concluded that it simply means that God has someone else meant for you.”
As she finished saying this, I walked out of the room.
Two months after that evening, Jake and Gwen announced their engagement.
In my room, far from family, my younger sister reminded me of the Mary in the Bible. She was visited by an angel, in real life, and was told of a baby that she would give birth to. She was engaged to be married, a virgin determined to keep herself chaste and complete for her husband-to-be. Getting pregnant at that time was not going to be a funny issue. But Mary, having the assurance that the message was from God, gave no argument. All she said was “Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it unto me according to thy word.”
Ring. Ring. Ring. Again, I had lapsed into the reflective mode. It was the persistent sound of my phone’s ring tone that brought me back to the present. I walked to the center table and picked up the phone.
“Big brother, I thought you wouldn’t call.”
“I almost didn’t but when I checked my phone, I saw that I had some credit to check on a stubborn sister. How are you?”
“I am fine, I guess. Mum called.”
“I know. She told me you are adamantly refusing to come home for Christmas. Why?”
“I just can’t be excused this time. Everybody needs to be around to attend to all the patients. As far as I know, none of the pediatric doctors is planning to go home either. So, why should I?”
“Well, if that’s the case, I guess there’s no convincing you to change your mind.”
“Thanks for trying anyway, John.”
“I hope Mary will be able to do a better job.”
“We’ll see about that.”
The next day, being a Saturday, I had all morning to myself before resuming for my shift at one in the afternoon. Even though I was not going home, I could still send gifts home.
It is a compulsory ritual to buy gifts for every family member during any festivity. Birthdays, anniversaries, Easter celebrations, marriage (only John has qualified for that) and Christmas, should never go without the exchange of gifts.
Before father died, he would always remind us that giving of gifts, is one way we show our love, think of one another and keep together. He would say, “If you don’t have money, you might not be able to get a decent gift for someone you love. But not having money is no excuse. Some gifts do come free of charge.”
His words remind me that the coming of Jesus Christ, to die and rise up from the dead, for the remission of our sins and to reconcile us back to God, is the freest gift ever given. At the same time, it is the most expensive.
I walked into Shoprite, the only place I could shop leisurely and be able to quickly go back to work from. It was also where one of my friends from the Methodist church I attended, worked. Sharon got married last year and I was her chief bridesmaid. Even though it was a joyous event, it was also a reminder of my many failed relationships and currently single status.
I picked up the gifts intended for everybody. As I turned to the door after paying for them, a man in a sports shirt and dark blue jeans, bumped into me. The contents of my shopping bag poured out and both of us bent down to retrieve them.
“I am so sorry about that.”
“It’s fine. Thank God, none of them is breakable.”
“Are these your Christmas gifts?”
“Yes. They are just for my family.”
“That’s nice. I also came shopping for my family.”
We walked out of Shoprite together. As we said our goodbyes, I heard the Holy Spirit tell me, “That’s him.”
I wasn’t different from my Biblical namesake, Elizabeth, the wife of Zechariah. She had been married for years without a child. I had been dated for years, by many, without getting a marriage ring. Not even an engagement ring and here was God, telling me that Mr. Right is the random, casual I-don’t-know-you-from-Adam guy I met at Shoprite.
“No offence God but, that’s somehow.”
I went to work.
Two hours after settling down to work, a pregnant woman was brought in. Guess who brought her? It was my Shoprite friend. I walked up to them and using my most official tone, I addressed him and the woman beside him.
“Good afternoon, sir and ma. How may I help you?
He raised his head from the book he was reading, recognition showed on his face and he smiled.
“We meet again.”
“I’m Dr. Elizabeth. Your wife isn’t registered in our hospital. You will need to register her before we can do anything.”
“That’s okay. She is Wendy, my sister. She came home for Christmas. Her doctor advised her to check into a hospital two days before her expected delivery date. This is the only hospital I can trust.”
“Okay. So, Wendy and Mr. Uhm…”
“Seth. My name’s Seth.”
“You need to meet with the nurse at that counter. She will register you, Wendy, and also check you into one of our wards. I’ll then be able to give your file to our gynecologist.”
“Thank you, doc.”
When I left them, I told Dr. Kemi, our gynecologist, about them. She said she would go and see them. That was the first major thing that happened. The second was the meeting with my boss.
“Dr. Elizabeth, I am so glad we employed you here.”
“I am grateful, ma. I am also glad I work here.”
My boss, Dr. Christian, is very friendly and motherly. Having worked with her for five years, I wasn’t so comfortable with her being so formal. She usually referred to me as Lizzy.
“I did not know you had fixed your leave for next week.”
“Did I? I don’t remember fixing it for next week. It must be a mistake. It should be for sometimes next year.”
“That’s not what I have here. Also, we have found a replacement for Shirley. Since you’ll be going on leave, I asked her to resume on Monday. Once you are through tomorrow evening, you are free to go.”
“But ma, I don’t want to go on leave now. I don’t want to go home. I want to stay here… I need to stay here.”
“Lizzy, I understand. But, I know you; you also need to go home.”
Now, that was a very bad twist. I wasn’t going home, not after my well presented acts with mother and John. I still had my Sunday evening to midnight shift. I decided that instead of going home, I would stay on after my shift on Monday morning.
Sunday came. I went to church in the morning. I did some house re-arrangement during the afternoon. I also used that time to wrap the gifts I bought for the family. I put them in my travelling bag, to keep them safe from being damaged. When it was evening, I started off for work.
At the hospital, I checked on Joseph. He was due to be discharged on Monday. I talked to him while I read through his file.
“So, you’ll be spending Christmas at home? That’s not going to be for me. I’m staying here, for you, for the other babies, for myself, for Christmas.”
Leaving his room, I passed in front of Wendy’s room and met Seth.
“Hi doc, I thought I wouldn’t see you again.”
“Why did you think so? I’ll be here all through Christmas and the new year.”
“And how would all those gifts get home.”
“I’ll just mail them.”
We started discussing, talking about our siblings, how we celebrated Christmas in our families and other things like that. We were interrupted by the beautiful and solemn voices of children singing ‘Hark! The Herald Angel Sings’.
We kept quiet and listened to them sing.
“Who are those children?”
“They are from the All Saints Anglican Church. They come here every year to sing for the children in the nursery. They come any time between 22nd and 24th of December. I have been fortunate to be around every year to hear them.”
“That is so sweet. It is a very nice gift for the children.”
We exchanged phone numbers and e-mail addresses.
Later on, Dr. Christian told me I could wait behind if I so desired.
“Even if this new girl comes, we will still need and appreciate you being around.”
I was overjoyed.
So, I stayed through my shift and on to Monday. I kept wondering why Mary had still not called. Wasn’t she going to try to persuade me to come home?
12:06am, Tuesday, I was woken up by my phone. After working all through Monday, I had decided to go home and rest a bit before going back.
“Hello, Mary, why are you calling at this time?”
“Sis, there’s a huge fire burning at home. I am the only one at home. Mother, big brother and his wife, went for a vigil. I don’t know what to do.”
“Calm down, okay? Have you called 911?”
“Yes, I have but they haven’t shown up.”
I grabbed some clothes, underwear, toothbrush, shoes and some other minor things I thought I would need and dumped them into my travelling bag. I called my boss and told her I that I have an emergency at home. I booked a seat on the next plane going home.
I flagged down a cab and told the driver to take me to the airport.
“Miss, is this your last minute dash home?”
If that was his way of starting conversations, I wasn’t amused.
I was just in time. The plane was to take off in five minutes. Before entering the plane, I tried calling mother and John. Both of them did not pick up their phones. I had to switch off my phone in the plane. But I could not switch off my eyes to sleep. I was seriously praying for Mary’s safety and I was also praying that the firemen would be quick.
I don’t quite remember the journey from the airport to our home.
As the cab got nearer to our house, I saw some firemen walking around. They did not look like men fighting any fire. In fact, there was no orange light of fire from any house around. Not even a small cloud of smoke could be seen.
Yet, after paying the cab driver, I grabbed my bags and ran into the house, calling for Mary. I could see from the outside that the parlor was brighter than it should normally be.
On entering the house, I saw many, many, many lit candles arranged on the table, shelves and stools in the parlor.
I still wasn’t sure if Mary’s call was a prank or otherwise. I scanned the room. Christmas decorations, greeting cards, Christmas lights and a nicely decorated Christmas tree adorned the room.
“I thought you weren’t coming home for Christmas, sis.” Mary stood at the door of house, smiling and almost laughing.
As I ran towards her, screaming, laughing and shouting, mother, John, his wife, Cassandra and other people who were staying over at our home, came out to welcome me.
“Why are there firemen around then?”
“They were invited for the Christmas fire.”