By Larry Peterson
I believe, without reservation, that the Christmas season is a time for miracles. I have, over the years, experienced more than one. This was my first. You can decide for yourself if it qualifies.
It was August of 1960 and our mom had just celebrated her fortieth birthday. I was the oldest of the five kids and what I remember about her birthday was that she kept saying that her back hurt and that she did not feel good. I honestly do not remember the next few weeks. I had just turned 16 and had other things on my mind, mostly Babs McNulty who lived around the corner and who, for some reason or another, was occupying my thoughts most of the time.
All I remember about Mom from that time was that she began going to the hospital and staying there for four or five days at a time. I guess it was near the end of September, school had recently started and for the first time she was not at home. Dad told us, “She has the ‘grippe’ real bad and they need to keep an eye on her for a few days.” Okay, what did we know. Back then it seemed that everyone got the ‘grippe’ (today we call it the flu). But Mom’s was “real bad” so we accepted that.
We were kids. My brothers were ten, six and “going on two”. I had no idea how they were doing with their mommy being absent but that was because Grandma was in charge and, to me, everything was almost normal. Plus, it seemed like every four or five days mom would be home again.
Personally, I was a bit upset that she never looked quite right. She was thinner, had this pasty complexion and black and blue marks covered her arms from her hands up to her shoulders. My sister, Carolyn, 13, told me it was from her being stuck with needles for IVs in the hospital. She was in eighth grade and, since she wanted to be a nurse, I figured she was speaking with some authority on the subject. The thing of it was you could tell she did not believe her own explanation.
Dad, well, he said nothing that helped. It was always the same thing, Don’t worry, it’s just the ‘grippe’, a real bad grippe”. But he was noticeably more quiet than usual and was always getting home much later because he would go to the hospital every afternoon. When Mom was home she always tried to act like everything was “normal”. Unfortunately, she was a lousy actress and could not hide her strange bruises or the fact that she was sleeping so much. As for Grandma, she was quite happy to accept the “real bad grippe” story. Today I understand that is what is called Denial and Grandma had truly embraced it.
Mom was home for Thanksgiving but most of the work was handled by Grandma. I do not remember much about that Thanksgiving Day or when Mom went back into the hospital but I do know it was a few days or maybe even a week before December 18. That was the day Dad, Grandma, Carolyn and myself, headed downtown to Lenox Hill Hospital in Manhattan for a simple Sunday visit. That visit turned out to be anything but simple.
Dad had left our little brothers with his good friends, John and Adeline Tosarello, who lived downstairs. We arrived at the hospital around 1:30. I remember the time because it seemed to take forever to get there. Anyway, I believe Mom was on the third floor and when we got to the room a swarm of doctors and nurses were inside scurrying about. Mom was on the bed, head to one side and her eyes were closed. She was not moving. Carolyn and I stared at our mother as an ominous fear grabbed hold of us. Grandma placed her hand over her mouth and started to cry. One of the doctors pulled my dad to the side and quietly talked to him. I watched him shake his head ever so slightly and then he turned to me. and said (and this is almost a direct quote from that day), “Please, take your sister and Grandma to the chapel and say a rosary together. She needs all the prayers she can get right now.”
Grandma gasped and I do remember putting my arm around her shoulder and saying, “C’mon Grandma, let’s do like dad asked.” (I was trying to be grown up). I knew that the small, interdenominational chapel was down on the second floor. When the elevator door opened we moved aside as a priest stepped out and headed down the hallway toward mom’s room. Grandma had tears running down her face but was stoic and got onto the elevator without saying a word. Carolyn and I followed and we went down to the chapel.
The chapel was empty and serenely quiet. There were about ten small pews on each side of the center aisle. Flowers had been placed on the plain, flat altar that was up front. A stained glass window of an angel was centered high up on the wall in back of the altar. There were no kneelers so we sat down and began to say the rosary together. Grandma broke down and began to sob. I remember putting my arm around her and crying too. Carolyn leaned her head into my other shoulder and cried along with us.
I have no idea how long we were there but we did pray two rosaries together. At some point in time a nurse came in and asked us to please come back to mom’s room. We were a bit shocked because the nurse was smiling and definitely not somber. Grandma asked the nurse, “How is my Lily? How is my Lily?” Can I see her?”
“Please ma’am, just go back upstairs. You can see her. She is anxious to see you.” Grandma, on her worn out arthritic knees actually tried to run to get back to her daughter. I hurried after her as she had just, for the moment, shredded 30 years of age.
When we walked into the room we were confronted with a sight to behold. Mom was sitting up in the bed, smiling. Dad was next to her leaning against the bed with his arm around her shoulder. He was sporting a grin that went from ear to ear and tears were streaming down his face. Standing on the other side of the bed was the priest we had seen leaving the elevator. He was just standing with his hands clasped together and a look on his face I cannot describe. I did not know it but for me this was to be a moment etched in time and I can still see that ‘moment’ as clear as I did then.
Our mom, who we were sure was dead or almost dead, extended her arms and said, “Well, don’t I get a hug from you two? C’mon, get over here.”
Carolyn ran over and I sheepishly walked. Dad stayed right where he was and then Grandma had her turn. She had mom’s face between her hands and was saying over and over, “Oh mein Gott, Oh mein Gott”, (Oh my God in German).
Inexplicably, Mom was better, ALL better. Her arms were clear, her face had color, and her eyes were bright and cheerful. There were several doctors outside the room in deep conversation with each other. They were baffled and had no explanation for her sudden recovery. We learned that Mom had Leukemia and, in 1960, your chances with that disease were virtually non-existent. Dad had asked us to go to the chapel and pray because the doctors had told him she had only a very short time to live and he wanted to spare us having to watch her die. It did not happen. My father and the priest believed they had witnessed a miracle. Grandma, Carolyn and I had seen the results of that miracle. Mom came home the next afternoon.
Christmas fell on Sunday in 1960 so it was still a week away. All the heretofore stifled Christmas “spirit” suddenly exploded in the Peterson house. By Tuesday a tree had been bought and was up and decorated. Mom was the tinsel expert and she, with Carolyn as her pupil, finished the tree off by meticulously hanging the shiny aluminum strands one at a time. Mom and Grandma baked cookies and cakes and pies and there was singing as they did their work and neighbors stopped by all week long with Christmas cheer and greetings. It turned out that the Christmas of 1960 was probably the best Christmas any of us had ever had. Monsignor Martin even mentioned Mom at midnight Mass and how she and her family were given the great gift of her recovery during Christmas.
Danny’s birthday was January 12 and he was about to turn eleven. Johnny’s birthday was January 17 and he was going to be two. Mom continued to remain healthy and strong and both boys had great birthdays. The discoloration on Mom’s arms began to make its reappearance around a week after Johnny’s birthday. Mom tried to hide it but she could not.
She began to get weaker and weaker and by the beginning of February she was back in the hospital. On February 18, 1961, exactly two months after our family Christmas miracle, Mom passed away. We had all been granted one more Christmas to share with the lady of our house and home. It was the most beautiful Christmas we ever had.
copyright©2014 Larry Peterson