OPINION: The Last Christmas

It was in the fall of 2013, October maybe, and my wife of forty-six years, Robin, was so very ill. She had been diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer about a year prior and her life, and mine as well, had changed so much. That life we so casually took for granted, that pre-cancer diagnosis life, was then no more than a memory.

Robin and I talked about the cancer and the "chemo" treatments she had been receiving but it seemed there was only so much that could be said. I now realize that when she changed the topic of conversation to the weather, what a friend had said, or news about our son Rob, she was most likely just trying to have a normal conversation and a somewhat normal life.

One subject that we had for years discussed in the fall of the year was our Christmas plans. For years we talked about the gifts that we would buy, and we tried our best to spend a similar amount for those treasures on everyone involved. We wanted to be fair. It seemed as though, no matter how early we started shopping, the purchases always continued until a day or so before the big event itself, Christmas.

I can't seem to recall what the wish list of gifts looked like that year, that fall of 2013, but I do recall that Robin seemed more determined than ever to make sure everyone involved got exactly what they really wanted, myself included. I now regret that, admittedly, my heart just wasn't in the spirit of the holiday, and I didn't oblige her by acknowledging that I wanted a Christmas gift.

"Anything you get me will be fine," I said.

We lived in Noel at that time and any thoughts of visiting our son who lived just outside of St. Louis were quickly discarded. Although Robin said she thought she would be able to withstand the five-hour drive each way, I had little doubt that it would be torturous for her. So, Rob, his wife Chris, and daughter Sarah planned on coming to Noel to celebrate Christmas.

Rob and his family showed up a few days before the big day, and Robin and I met them at their car. There were hellos, hugs and season's greetings exchanged all around. As always, Chris made more food than twice our number could consume and as each Tupperware container was removed from the car, she described the plastic container's contents.

I watched Robin as she and Chris talked about the food. I don't know why I was more interested in that particular conversation than I might have been at any other time. Maybe I wanted to remember the moment or maybe I wanted to see how Robin was holding up.

It was so very obvious that just as her body was dying, so too was that intangible spirit for life fading away. She tried to act as though her Christmas spirit was every bit as strong as it had been for all those Christmases in the past, but I could see it was just a facade. I didn't know if others could detect the charade, but if they could, nobody said anything.

We spent the few days leading up to the night of Christmas Eve talking. Maybe it was just my imagination, but it seemed like there was more reminiscing about special moments. Some of those moments involved recollections of previous Christmases, especially those when Rob and our other deceased son, David, were young. Everyone laughed when Rob talked about him and David gaining sneak peeks at their presents.

We knew Rob, Chris and Sarah had to leave Christmas morning. As always, they spent Christmas Eve with us and spent Christmas Day afternoon at Chris' family's home. I kept thinking that, if there was anything special that needed to be done or said, those days leading up to Christmas would be the appropriate time to get it out. There would never again be a Christmas like that one.

Finally, Christmas Eve came, and the aroma of food cooking in the oven filled our home. Robin and Chris spent the afternoon and early evening making all manner of delights, including the traditional dishes which included Robin's special dip and her mother's creation, pizza rounds.

Some time passed and everyone ate until there was room for nothing more. Everyone, that is, except Robin, who had little appetite. She ate more than she usually did, and I guessed that she didn't want to give Chris the idea that the food was less than appetizing. The truth was the cancer and the ensuing chemo treatments had taken away her appetite.

The time to open the large pile of presents arrived and, as paper began to fly and "thanks" were offered, I continued to watch Robin. I didn't know where her mind was but, outwardly, she was as into the moment as everyone else was.

I'm somewhat embarrassed to say that I don't recall what gift I gave Robin that last Christmas we were together. I believe she gave me some golf balls and a couple of shirts. I still have the never used golf balls and the never worn shirts. Knowing her, she would want me to make use of the items. However, I prefer to keep them in their original and unused condition.

Robin did give me one unexpected gift that Christmas. It was the last present I opened and I recall, as she handed it to me, that it was in a box that a shirt or maybe a sweater might come in but it was neither. Robin watched intently as I tore the wrapping paper, but she didn't say a word.

I opened the box and there, wrapped in white tissue paper, was a framed photograph, a photograph of her. I can honestly state that the gift did surprise me. Robin was by no means a vain person and, without explanation, I knew why I was given that photograph.

After a moment or two of awkward silence, Robin said, "I wouldn't want you to forget what I looked like."

Robin did not see another Christmas and, as for the gift, well the photograph rests on the nightstand next to my bed.

Rob, Chris and Sarah loaded up their car Christmas morning. The boxes of gifts filled their trunk and surrounded Sarah as she sat in the back seat. Once again, there were hugs all around, and the one she gave Rob seemed to last forever. Robin and I waved as the car pulled away and eventually faded from sight.

Without saying the words aloud, we all knew that particular Christmas, Robin's last Christmas, would more than any other be one that would be forever remembered.

My heart is filled with nine years of yuletide dreams and Christmas wishes that never came true.

-- Stan Fine is a retired police officer and Verizon Security Department investigator who, after retiring in 2006, moved from Tampa, Fla., to Noel. Stan's connection to Noel can be traced back to his grandparents, who lived most of their lives there. Stan began writing after the passing of his wife Robin in 2013. The opinions expressed are those of the author.