I worried about Christmas. As a high school English teacher in 1981, I should have been looking forward to our two-week holiday vacation. Except that I was scheduled for an operation.


I had found a subcutaneous growth that, at first, seemed like no big deal to an invincible 32-year-old husband, father and small forward in the Tuesday night parish basketball league (good on the boards, terrible shot).

But when my wife, Marianne, proclaimed it suspicious-looking and the doctor prescribed exploratory surgery at my “earliest availability,” I found myself in the surgical wing the week before Christmas.

After counting backward from 10, making it only to 8, and suddenly waking from a two-hour nap that seemed like mere seconds, I blinked to see the surgeon leaning over my gurney: “You’re going to be fine,” he said.

I felt enormous relief, mainly for just waking up. And of course there was also the relief that the growth was benign. I had completely avoided thinking of the alternative.

Although I had to stay overnight, my postsurgical mood was buoyant. I could finally be a good patient, since I was not sick.

I didn’t even mind being wheeled to a ward where five other patients lay. It was not intensive care, but a sort of economy-class accommodation, due to the HMO to which we belonged.

But I could not get to sleep.

The patient in Bed 3, a skeleton of a man with no hair, swollen, vacant eyes and a beastlike moan emanating from somewhere in his slight sternum, kept me and the other four men tense all night.

Orderlies came in two at a time, on the hour, having to clean him up, strip and change his bed. They whispered, first with composure, later with exasperation, as his arms flailed and his moans accelerated to roars.

He wore out two shifts of nurses, though he seemed blind to their human presence, as if he were struggling with diabolical, invisible forces. I asked the patient nearest me if he knew what afflicted the poor man. He thought he had overheard it was a dying liver, but he couldn’t be sure.

Somehow, finally, I managed some shut-eye, before sunlight streaming through the window awakened me. Reflexively, I turned toward Bed 3, where the old man was silent, the electric bed raised upward, his eyes closed.

Having been cleared for discharge, I skipped the tray of breakfast to get myself ready.

When I was halfway dressed, Marianne walked in, dressed pretty, with careful makeup. Mike, my 6-year-old, held her hand.

You initially assume a kid would be frightened by the size, smell and commotion of a hospital, especially the unwell specter of my ward. But as soon as he hugged me, Mike wanted to test the rolling casters on the I.V. stand. Then he spied the remote control for the bed, his eyes peeking above his glasses for permission.

Everything a fascination.

Earlier, we had been informed of the drill: I had to exit in a wheelchair and get picked up at the entrance. So Marianne went for the car, leaving Mike with me as I finished packing.

Lots of questions from Mike. How did the elevator know where to stop? Could he see my “surgery?”

He scrunched his eyes behind his glasses, processing the answers, resembling the curious boy with the high-pitched voice in “Sherman and Mr. Peabody” on “The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show” we often watched on TV together.

And that’s when I detected a different energy emanating from Bed 3.

And then I was sure. The old man’s vacuous eyes now focused. The head tilted attentively. The certain light of an uncertain smile on his yellow skull.

He spoke.

“No school?”

Mike grinned, scratching his head, explaining about Christmas vacation.

He asked Mike his grade. His name.

Gentle, actual syntax in the same voice that had bellowed like an animal through the night made me quiet.

Mike skipped carelessly over to Bed 3, stopping several feet short, looking back, but then expansively resuming his reply about his letter to Santa and his baby sister who “does not even know how to print, Mister!”

The old man bobbed his head in spasmodic rhythm with Mike’s expressiveness.

Soon we had to go. The man shifted painfully in his bed. I nodded goodbye.

I had always intended but never dared to find out what became of him.

But I wouldn’t forget his rallying that morning. How his encounter with the beauty and innocence of a child gave him respite from the hellish night. Brought back remembrance, perhaps, of the goodness in life.

We went and had our festive holiday, better than any other. But it was less because of my clean bill of health than the realization that I may have finally understood the meaning of Christmas.


David McGrath, of Hayward, Wis., is emeritus professor of English at the College of DuPage and author of “The Territory.”