The Christmas I Missed
We were about 50 children living with Mama and Daddy at the Samuel Grimes Center between the ages of six months to seven years. A good number, about 70 percent of the children, were orphans. Some were brought here by their parents because they could not take care of them, while others were brought here by some other family members because their parents abandoned them. Mama and Daddy treated all of us equally. We were all members of the same family. Mama and Daddy gave us plenty of love and affection.
I was brought to Mama and Daddy by my father. My mother left him for reasons that I do not know, and left my infant sister and me with him. He could not take care of us, so he brought us to stay with Mama and Daddy. Our father visited us from time to time since he lived near the center. As for my mother, I never saw her again until later on in life, after I graduated from high school. As I grew up, Mama and Daddy were the only parents I had. Children growing up at the center were all my brothers and sisters. I felt very happy that I had so many brothers and sisters and loving parents. I really could not imagine that I had another mother or another father. Although my father visited me, I did not see the father image in him. Mama told me all about my mother and how she left my sister and me with our father and never looked back. Mama and Daddy were my perfect parents.
The weather was warm and friendly. It usually was at Christmas time. Although the sun got hot from late morning until evening, you could feel the cold wind blowing, which made us appreciate the weather. Starting around six p.m. the dew began to fall and by five a.m., the dew was very heavy. The ground was hard and the grass was struggling to grow, but there were people to water the plants, especially the flowers, to keep them fresh. This was the time of the year that the white birds that we call cow spirits or egrets came in large flocks.
I was about five years old. Mama and Daddy had gone out shopping for Christmas. There was so much excitement in the air. Christmas was five days away. It was so special to us. Lots of activities would take place. The traditional dancers (Gbatoos) from the nearby villages were the most fascinating. They would come with their masks on and do their mystery dances for hours. Although we would be afraid of the dancers, we were anxious to see them and get close to them. Some of my brothers would actually touch them. There was also the choral group to sing Christmas carols and then my age group would do a special Christmas play for Mama and Daddy and our guests from the township. The housemaid prepared us for this day. There would be gifts, lots of gifts. Most of the gifts came from charitable organizations in the United States. Everyone would be eager to open his or her gift on Christmas day.
The nurses taking care of us when Mama and Daddy left to go shopping were busy discussing what they would wear on Christmas day. The local tailor had come and taken our measurements to sew our special gowns that we would wear. I saw John Moore, the oldest boy, who Daddy usually dressed up in a Santa Claus suit, trying on his white beard. I went close by and touched the beard and realized it was cotton.
Then I saw a butterfly sitting on a flower. I ran to catch the butterfly. As I approached the butterfly, it flew in my direction. I started chasing it, not being very careful. I stumbled over a pot of boiling water and fell. It spilled out over my body and seriously burned me.
I stayed in the hospital for about three weeks. My first three to four days were horrific and full of misery. Although I was in so much pain and clearly restless, my mind was fixed on Christmas day. I could not imagine the mag¬nitude of my condition. All I thought about was getting out of the hospital before Christmas day. I did not want to miss the festival. I thought about the fun, the gifts, the Christmas decorations, the mask dancers, my brothers and sisters. It all came to my mind momentarily. I felt like I was in prison, locked up in a special place where women wearing blue and green dresses cared for me. It was a plot designed to deprive me of celebrating Christmas with my family, I thought. I started to cry out loud. The nurse rushed to my bedside, looked at me and then went back. In a few moments, she returned with a needle connected to what looked like a glass tube with clear liquid in it. She pushed the needle into my arm and pumped the fluid. In less than two minutes, I was sound asleep.
What they did not know was that I had blocked the physical pain from my mind. The pains that I felt were purely emotional. That I would be in the hospital on Christmas day, confined to bed, not allowed to sing carols with my brothers and sisters and play my role in the Christmas drama, pained me more than the physical pain from the burn. I was bleeding in my heart. I refused to comprehend the disappointment. The nurses and the housemaid had prepared me for this day. I looked forward to it with much excitement.
My birthday, the 23rd of December, is two days away from Christmas, but it was not a particularly special day for me. As a matter of fact, I did not pay attention to it because the period from the 20th to the 25th was overshadowed by Christmas.
On this day, the nurse came to my bedside to do my dressing. There was an envelope at the head of my bed with my name written on it. I must have been sound asleep when they put it there. The nurse picked up the envelope and showed it to me and asked if she could open it. I said yes. I didn't know what to expect and, quite frankly, I did not think about my birthday. She took her time and opened it, took out the contents and read it to me. "Happy Birthday," my Mama and Papa and sisters and brothers wrote. They put their names on the card. Forty-nine names, and at the bottom they wrote, "We love you and we will miss you this Christmas."
Although the nurse stood next to me, she seemed so far away. I felt myself going into darkness. I was afraid. It was black dark I tried to say something, but the words wouldn't come out.
When I became conscious of my environment, everyone was around me. Mama and Daddy were there, and the nurses were busy moving things here and there. Some of my brothers and sisters (the older ones), had come to see me. They all looked terrified. But Mama and Daddy were smiling and praising God for bringing me through. I was confused and anxious to know what was wrong and what day it was. I wanted to know if they had come to get me out for Christmas and bring me back! Mama looked at me and smiled. I felt assured by her smile and smiled back She said, "Thank God you came back"
After they left, I asked the nurse if she could put me in a wheelchair and wheel me outside to witness the festival. I told her the Gbatoos would be there dancing and I wanted to see them. The nurse looked out the window and then looked at me and said, "Today is the 26th. Christmas was yesterday. Your brothers and sisters came over to sing carols to you. You went into a very deep sleep. I am sorry, Joe. I wish I could explain further." She pulled out my gifts. Then she said, "They brought these for you. They are wonderful gifts. Thank God you came through because everyone was afraid. They thought something else had happened to you." I looked at her, the tears running down my cheeks. I decided not to cry out.
I did not feel the pain from the burn. It really didn't matter. Nothing mattered to me anymore. I felt hopeless and betrayed. I asked the nurse if she could help me sleep. She said no. Then I asked for a glass of water. She said, "Your food will soon be here. After eating your food, you can open your gifts." I really wasn't hungry and I wasn't eager to see the gifts again. I wanted to sleep and forget about everything.
Then my sister walked in, accompanied by Mamie Peper. My sister was almost three years old. She said, "Happy Christmas, Brother." I looked at her. The tears kept rolling down my cheeks.
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