The story “Ghost of Christmas Past” has its origins in the first neurosurgery patient I saw as a medical student over forty years ago. She was a twenty-two-year-old woman with a malignant brain tumor that had left her paralyzed and aphasic. Her prognosis was terrible.
But the more terrible thing was that she had recently married and, after her diagnosis, her husband had left her to die alone.
Nothing in my experience, culture or religion prepared me to understand how he could leave. I imagined his life and wondered how he could ever absolve himself from having left his lover during her last hours.
Reading time: about 9 minutes:
Ghost of Christmas Past
The Sunday after Thanksgiving I find out that Wilson, dressed in a Santa suit, turns out in fact, to be possessed by Maggie, God rest her soul, who died shortly after we married forty years ago.
I am the only one alive today who remembers Maggie. I met her when she was an eighteen-year-old runaway from some small Minnesota town–New Ulm, maybe, while I was a lonely junior at the university living in a room above a restaurant. We drank cheap wine, smoked bad weed, and made love on a mattress lying on the floor, Bob Dylan rasping off vinyl records, candles burning. And incense, always a stick of incense burning in our room, filling not only the air but our clothes and our bodies with its scent.
Free love, though, was not free of guilt. Not to her, a preacher’s kid. We decided to marry. For better or worse, for richer or poorer, in sickness or in health till death do us part, we promised at our courthouse wedding. Her headaches started the next day.
I thought her symptoms meant she still felt guilty about deserting her family and her faith. She made a mistake about me; she wanted to go home. But she had made wedding vows. Not that she said anything. I just assumed; psych majors think that way.
Then she woke up goofy on our one-month anniversary. Mumbling, clutching her head, falling, peeing herself. I took her to the ER. Psych ward is what I expected. Brain surgery is what she got.
Maggie wasn’t dead the last time I saw her. Not exactly. She was in one of those semi-private rooms, the bed next to the window that looked over the chaos in the courtyard that faced the ER. Sirens and curses drifted up all night long, before air conditioning and central heat sealed all the windows. An old woman snored and smelled like feces in the first bed. Maggie’s head, wrapped in a white turban, flopped awkwardly to the side, and drool leaked from the corner of her mouth.
The doctors said they thought she’d get better for a while. Maybe. Then the tumor would come back and she would die.
I stayed all night in her room, crowding into her bed, holding her, believing then that love could conquer all, even brain tumors, praying to a god I barely knew. In the morning she moaned and drooled, and I learned that love might conquer some stuff. But not brain tumors.
I climbed out of her bed and sat next to her, feeling cold and rumpled, my mouth dry and eyes red, thinking about maybe writing a letter to her father, telling him his daughter had a different last name now, the one that would be on her tombstone soon. Then the sadness overwhelmed me, and I knew I could not write the letter, could not see her like this every day, or even five more minutes.
I could only walk away. I went to our apartment, took the checkbook and one suitcase, and one hour later boarded a Greyhound to Florida.
How she got into Wilson sixty years later, God knows.
This year, Monday before Thanksgiving, my boss, Donahue, says to me, “Go ahead, Harry, leave me without my right hand. Desert me now that I’m old.”
“You’re old?” I say. “I’m five years older. Quit with me. You deserve the rest.”
“Rest? Who needs rest? I’ll be dead soon enough.”
“All the more reason. You want to die behind that desk?” This is pure rhetoric on my part. He does want to die behind the desk with his people thinking he’s suffering.
“One thing I ask,” Donahue says, “A favor for all the years we been together.”
“Sure. Whatever,” I say, because thirty years working together makes me feel like I owe him something. Or maybe he owes me. I don’t know anymore.
“Stay through the holidays. Six more weeks. New Year’s Day, you’re a free man with my blessing.” He pulled a big cigar from his humidor. He’s not allowed to smoke them since the last couple of stents. “And a big bonus check.”
“In retail, that six weeks is like working the whole year.”
“I don’t want you to be alone,” he says.
The old curmudgeon is worried about me, my first Christmas without Carol, the only wife he knows about. “I’ll be okay. Maybe I’ll go to New York.” Carol’s son lives in New York with his wife and three-year-old son.
“New York’s no place to be for the holidays.” He fingers the cigar like it’s a flute. “Believe me, I know.”
The concern is touching. I shrug. But the truth is I am looking forward to the solitude. Thirty years I’ve been merry at Christmas, and the only father to Carol’s son. But for the past two years, congestive heart failure confined her to a chair, oxygen from green tanks keeping her alive, the tedium broken only by panicked trips to the hospital until no more tinkering helped, and she died. At the end, she had the strength only for her last gasps, none for her voice. No, this year solitude would be better. Besides, I was weary to the bone.
“I need just one thing to survive another season of competition from Dillard’s and Nordstrom’s.” He scowls and chomps the cold cigar. “And Amazon.” His local department storeisan anachronism in all but Donahue’s mind. He is only trying to keep the store alive as long as he lives.
“I need someone to ride herd on Wilson,” he continues.
“The Santa?” I say. Wilson was already an old man when I started thirty years ago. He looked the part, talked the part, walked the part. Kids loved him. And now the kids, even the grandkids of the kids that loved him, came to see him. He was our holiday season ace-in-the-hole. Nordstrom’s couldn’t buy someone like that. “Ride herd?”
“Yes. He’s been sick. Get him from wherever he lives and take him to and from the store looking like Santa every day from Black Friday to Christmas Eve.”
“All your other work goes to Banks. He’ll be CEO next year. He might as well get started now.”
“You want me to be Wilson’s granny-nanny? That’s all?”
“Should be easy and somebody’s got to do it. Or we have to find a new Santa.” He puts the unlit cigar in his mouth and sucks longingly. “And I don’t want to. He’s worth $200,000 in sales. A new guy…who knows?”
He gave me what I asked for: no stress. Yet I feel devalued. Executive VP to Santa’s transporter in five easy minutes. Give me a red nose and call me Rudolf. Wait till I tell Carol.
Then it hits me like a gut punch. She’s dead, and I forgot. It must show in my face because Donahue pulls the cigar down and looks at me. “You okay?”
Breathe. Easiest thing in the world to do. Just breathe, one breath after another after another after another.
“I’m fine,” I say without thinking anymore. “Sounds great. I love Wilson. Where do I find him?” I do love Wilson. He brings more than a sales bump. Kids and their parents go away like they’ve received a special gift, somehow happier.
Turns out Wilson is living in a nursing home, but they don’t call it that anymore. Sunnyvale Assisted Living they call it, but since nobody leaves except to the funeral home, it seems more like assisted dying to me.
“How ya doin’, Wilson?” I say when I visit the day before Thanksgiving. “It’s me, Harry, from Donahue’s.”
The beard is good length and the color good, but he looks about a month overdue for a shampoo. He’s sitting in one of those chairs upholstered with the plasticized fabric, the coagulated remnants of a breakfast in front of him.
His eyes brighten for a moment. “Harry!” he says, and searches my face. He lapses into disappointment as recognition escapes him.
I begin to think Donahue might have to make a new holiday sales strategy, one not involving an old, demented man whose beard is speckled with bits of toast and egg, but I give it a shot.
“It’s almost Christmas, Wilson. Time to be Santa!” My best effort at cheer.
His eyes brighten again, this time staying lit. He straightens in his chair. “I am Santa,” he says proudly. “The Southern Santa. Ho-ho-ho, y’all.” He looks at his dingy cotton clothes and frowns.
“Of course you are,” I say and pull off the dry-cleaner bag to reveal the suit.
He rubs his beard and smiles. “Merry Christmas! Them little fellas be goin’ to need me.”
I smile and believe this might work. I leave the suit and arrange for the necessary groomers to have him ready for prime time in forty-eight hours.
Black Friday is good. Kids sit on his lap, he listens with rapt attention. Moms hug him and ask if he remembers them. “Of course,” he says. “Santa never forgets.”
Saturday is just as good. I pick him up at nine AM dressed and sparkling (holiday gratuities to the Sunnyvale staff does wonders). I stand guard through the day, watching for him to wander, and sniffing for evidence of unwelcome bodily functions. But no; he is perfectly behaved.
Then, on Sunday morning Wilson gets into the limo and says, “You should have gone to church.” But it’s not like Wilson’s voice. The tone is wrong; the accent is wrong.
“What?” I say.
“Ya, you betchya, you heard me okay.”
“You’re speaking like a Minnesotan,” I say, now eying him carefully. He’s got my full attention and he looks like himself, except his sparkling eyes. I smell incense.
“Sure then, what else would I be speaking?” This is Maggie’ voice. These are Maggie’s eyes.
“But you’re dead.” I say this now not to Wilson, but to Maggie.
“Oofda! Like I didn’t know.”
Wilson smiles. Or perhaps Maggie; I don’t know. Wilson in his Santa suit sits beside me, but Maggie’s eyes hold me.
“I missed you,” I say.
She shakes Wilson’s head. “You left me.”
“Doesn’t mean I didn’t miss you,” I say as the limo arrives at the store.
“Ya, sure then. Me and Wilson’s gotta go now.”
I follow, standing guard again, searching for Maggie in the ho-ho-ho’s, but finding only Santa. I am delusional. Not dealing with the stress. I start to call my doctor. I should take some Prozac or Xanax or something. But I don’t make the call.
I decide, if this is delusion, I still want it. I hadn’t lied. I missed her every day. If this is real, I want my second chance.
Wilson’s shift ends at eight PM, and I have all day to think about her. Not that I haven’t thought about her every day for the past forty years, waking every morning with the knowledge of a personal character failure so great that my first decision each day was limited to earning back my own self-respect or suicide. Going to bed each night remembering her when I still believed there would always be enough time. A whiff of incense could stop me in my tracks.
Now I have a glimmer of hope. Because who could forgive me? God? What’s it to Him? My sin is against Maggie, and she’s gone. Or maybe now she’s back? Or, more likely, I am finally insane in a way I can no longer hide.
I meet Wilson at the store and I escort him to the limo. He grins and waves to the children. Ho, ho, ho, he says, but I wait for her eyes.
“So whatchya got to say for yourself?” she asks, once we are inside the dim and quiet interior of the car. Again I hear Maggie’s voice through Wilson’s body.
“Sorry.” I say what I’ve been waiting all day–all my life, really–to say, tossed out as a breadcrumb-sized word, something easily lost.
“Ya?” she says.
Not forgiveness really, but an opening. I tell her I was already alone before I left. Her mind was gone, her body already wasting. How I saw nothing but grief. How I couldn’t call her family, wouldn’t call mine.
“I heard you leave.”
“I’m sorry,” I say again. Two breadcrumbs.
“You kept me warm until morning.”
“You didn’t say anything.”
“I thought you didn’t know,” I say. An explanation, maybe an excuse.
“It was so cold,” she says, “after you left.”
“I’m sorry,” I say again. The third crumb.
She says nothing more for the rest of the ride. When we reach Sunnyvale, he is Wilson again, arriving at the door, waving, and shouting, Ho, ho, ho, ya’all to the staff and residents when I escort him into the lobby.
Hansel dropped breadcrumbs so that he and Gretel could find their way home. But it didn’t work; birds ate them, and they remained lost. I spend the night as I have spent many nights, dreaming about Maggie and wishing for forgiveness. Only this night she seems so close, and forgiveness still so far away.
Morning comes with my familiar self-loathing, and again I fight despair. But today, I tell myself, I can seek forgiveness.
Wilson is Wilson when I meet him at the Sunnyvale lobby, and I am disappointed. But Maggie re-animates him as we enter the limo.
“So, how’d ya get to Florida?” she says.
I tell her about the one suitcase and the long bus trip, about finding a job, summers so hot you could burn the skin off your feet walking barefoot at the beach during the middle of the day. About a thousand meals eaten alone, and waking each morning to fight guilt and sorrow. Then, before I am finished, we are at Donahue’s, Wilson gets out, and I am alone for the day. I pray that if I am delusional, I will have the same delusion at the end of the day.
Delusion or not, when Wilson enters the limo, Maggie re-appears. We talk, or mostly I talk. We talk about me mostly, because it’s hard for her to explain about being dead. Sometimes she asks a question, but mostly I ramble on about meeting Carol, a divorced woman with a four-year-old son, and how we rescued each other. And how that rescue, if not love exactly, was enough glue to keep us together and enough comfort to keep us alive.
The ride seems short, and this Maggie-possessed Wilson leaves me wanting more. I look forward to the next morning. Maybe she will be there again.
And she is. Every morning, every evening. This is nice, having her to talk to, she who was my first love, when all dreams were possible, before the sadness, before the constraints of a mortgage and a three-piece suit. Before Carol died. Before I was demoted to the role of a reindeer.
On December 23rd, Maggie/Wilson gets out at Sunnyvale. I want to follow, but Maggie stops me. “Wilson’s tired,” she says.
I’m listening to the voice of a young woman and not seeing the body of the old man anymore. She’s right, now that I look. He’s ashen, breathing heavily with little beads of sweat on his forehead in spite of the chill.
“I’ll call somebody,” I say.
Wilson shakes his head, and she says, “No. We’ll see you in the morning.”
In the morning, Christmas Eve, Wilson is better. He walks from the front door of Sunnyvale to the limo swinging his gold-tipped cane and whistling Jingle Bells. He looks ready for another day of kids climbing into his lap, but I worry that time is running out.
“So, are you sucking the life out of Wilson?” I say to Maggie when I see her eyes. “Because he’s not looking so good since you showed up.”
I say this because I am afraid. I know this is the last day of the limousine rides, but I hope that Maggie will not disappear. If Wilson dies, I fear she will be dead again, too. I am in love with a delusion, and although the delusion may not be real, the fear is.
But the question makes her mad. “You know nothing,” she says.
“Why now? Why Wilson?” I ask her.
“It is hard to explain,” she says, “Wilson is standing on the threshold of a door, and I am his guide.”
“You came for Wilson?” I say, disappointed.
“Yes. When good men stand at a threshold, loving beings stand by them. Sometimes they need an angel,” she says. “But you, too, want something.”
I, too, am standing at a door, one closing quickly. “Forgiveness,” I say.
But she doesn’t answer. Not right away. Wilson whistles Good King Wenceslas. Then, just as we pull up to the curb at Donahue’s, she turns to me and says, “You stayed with Carol.”
This is true. Even at the end, when Carol knew she wouldn’t make it and she asked me to leave, I couldn’t. I want to ask Maggie if this is an accusation or a recognition of atonement, but the limo stops and the door pops open. They get out and go into the store, leaving me fraught with questions. All day I practice explanations; there is only one limo ride left.
When Wilson comes out of Donahue’s that evening, he leans heavily on the cane that he had swung so freely in the morning. His eyes are down, and he shuffles. His ho-ho-ho’s were limited a single needed response to an excited child. As soon as I see him I call Sunnyvale to request a wheelchair meet us at the curb. But once he settles into the limo, he straightens and brightens. Maggie returns.
She doesn’t wait for my question. “Sure,” she says, “you’re forgiven.”
I want to cry with relief, but I have another urgent question. “When Wilson dies, will you be gone?”
“Can you take me with you?”
She thinks about this for awhile, like maybe she is trying to figure out how to tell a child something that only an adult can understand. Finally she says, “It’s not your time.”
I shake my head. Tears are close to falling.
“Wilson gives gifts to children and hope to grown men. He has been needed here. You are still needed.”
The limo pulls up to the curb at Sunnyvale, and a nurse greets us with a wheelchair. Wilson needs help just to get out of the limo. He flops into the wheelchair and I push him to his room. The nurse walks beside us. He wheezes as we go down the hall. Maggie is gone, but I don’t want to say good-bye.
“He can rest now,” I tell the nurse. “We won’t need him again until next year.”
The nurse gets Wilson out of his Santa suit and into red flannel pajamas. “We all think it’s really nice what you’ve done for Mr. Wilson,” she says. She tucks him into bed. “But I don’t think next year…”
I follow her out of the room. “He’s just tired, right?”
“You don’t know?”
“Mr. Wilson has lung cancer. He’s dying. We didn’t expect him to last much past Thanksgiving. But when you came along with the Santa Claus gig, he got a new life somehow.” She shakes her head. “But he won’t last long now.”
I look back into the room. Wilson’s mouth is open and his eyes are closed. His cheeks have given in to gravity. “Maggie,” I say.
“My name is Cathy,” the nurse says.
“Of course,” I say. Maggie’s gone, and Wilson doesn’t need me anymore. I should go find my own Christmas somewhere. But I feel so weary.
“I think I’ll stay for a while,” I tell Cathy.
I sit by the bed and take Wilson’s hand. It feels like ice. His fingers close weakly around mine. “You can’t die twice,” I say.
“What do you know?” he says, but it’s Maggie.
“Nothing,” I say. “But what do I do now?”
“You will give gifts to small children and hope to grown men,” she says, “and women.”
Later, maybe around midnight, church bells sound in the distance, followed by the faint strains of Silent Night. He breathes in irregular gasps. I roll him onto his side, hoping to ease his suffering.
I slip off my shoes and remove my coat, then climb into the bed and lay against his back, sharing his pillow, spooning my body around his, encasing his chest in my arms. His heart beats weakly under my hand, and he is cold, cold like Maggie in that hospital room long ago. I pull my coat over both of us. I worry that Nurse Cathy will come back, and I will have no explanation. Perhaps she will call the police.
Wilson’s heart stops.
Maggie says, “We are going now.”
“I miss you.”
“Take the Santa suit as a remembrance,” she says.
I get up then, put on my shoes and coat. I close Wilson’s eyes and cover him with the sheet. Then I take the Santa suit, and hold it to my face. It smells like incense.
I decide that it is not too late to go to New York. My grandson needs a gift. Or I need to give him one; I don’t know anymore. And my stepson has lost his mother; he needs someone to tell him about forgiveness and hope.