“Mommy, how do you spell ‘harmonica’?”
The house was warm and abuzz with activity. The boys were helping Hubby decorate the Christmas tree. Like bulls in a china shop, they grabbed delicate baubles off the kitchen table and ran into the family room to place the ornaments on the tree.
All the boys but one.
“I want to ask Santa for this harmonica, so I need to know how to spell it.” Joey, one of our five-year-old twins, was sitting at the kitchen counter with catalogs spread in front of him, scissors in hand. He held a picture of a harmonica and was reaching for glue to paste it to his elaborate pictorial.
I looked over his shoulder at his list which was color-coded. I stroked his patchy blond hair. “It’s h-a-r-m-o-n-i-c-a,” I spelled, and he wrote every letter carefully in his large kindergarten handwriting.
I had to turn away, tears forming in my eyes.
“That’s a great list, Buddy,” Hubby said, his voice breaking. “Santa will know exactly what you want when you show him that.”
The other boys ran into the kitchen, eager to make their lists. They tore through catalogs, chopped out pictures, and hastily stuck them to loose leaf paper.
They quickly finished and headed outside to play in the snow.
Joey still sat at the counter, carefully cutting away, his tongue sticking out the side of his mouth in concentration. “When will we get to see Santa?”
“Probably at the family party,” I replied as I cleaned up scraps of paper.
“Where can I keep my list so I won’t forget it?”
“I will hold on to it for you, and we’ll bring it to the party.” I smiled as he hopped clumsily off the stool on which he had been sitting.
Instead of going outside with his brothers, he made himself comfortable in a chair in the family room.
I put his picture list in a special spot on my desk; right in front of the “Do Not Resuscitate” order Joey’s doctor encouraged us to sign over the summer. At just five years old, our precious oldest son was diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor. This Christmas would likely be our last with him. We were desperately soaking in every tradition, trying to make each one special in an attempt to delay the inevitable.
Later that night at the Christmas party, the grandchildren each took a turn on Santa’s lap, revealing one or two desperately wished for items. When it was Joey’s turn, we helped him onto Santa’s lap. He carefully turned his list over from front to back, making sure he told Santa about every item.
I watched sadly as he named off toys in which I knew he had no interest. The once busy and curious little boy was rapidly becoming forgetful and apathetic. I knew he would never play with half the toys Santa would bring him.
Christmas day arrived; and one after another, Joey opened his gifts. He dutifully held each one up and posed for cherished pictures. When he opened the harmonica, he just stared at it with a blank look.
“Isn’t that what you asked for?” I prompted him.
“It is . . .” His voice trailed off as he began to dig through the discarded piles of wrapping paper and gifts. “Here it is!” He proudly held up a little set of sleigh bells that his one-year-old brother had received.
Confused, I asked, “What are you going to do with those?”
“You’ll see, Mom,” Joey replied with a hint of the mischievous smile I had come to adore in his short five years.
Since I was pretty sure he would forget what he wanted the bells for, I didn’t ask any further questions. Later that day, we made the rounds to the relatives’ houses. At my husband’s sister’s house, everyone had just finished opening gifts when Joey announced he wanted to sing a song.
Everyone eagerly gathered around as Joey, ever the attention hound, made himself comfortable near the fireplace and pulled out his harmonica, the sleigh bells, and an electronic toy microphone.
He blew one note on the harmonica and set it down. Then, he began to shake the sleigh bells and sing “Jingle Bells.” We all snapped pictures and took video of a moment we knew would be one of his last. By the time he was finished – to rousing applause – there was not a dry eye in the room. We were treated to a repeat performance later at my parents’ house.
That night, as I was lying in Joey’s bed with him, he said to me, “Mommy, I needed the sleigh bells because I knew I couldn’t sing and play the harmonica at the same time.”
“That was pretty smart, Buddy,” I whispered in the dark.
“Did you like my song?”
“I loved it,” I replied as I choked back tears. “Everyone loved it. We will remember it for a long time.”
He fell asleep with a rare smile on his face.
The next day, just as I suspected, Joey moved all of his Christmas gifts – including the harmonica and his brother’s sleigh bells – into his closet. They remained there until he died the following June.
One day later in the year as I was changing bed sheets, I heard harmonica music coming from one of the boys’ bedrooms. I sat down on the bed, tears welling in my eyes, remembering my sweet boy and his Christmas song.
“Look, Mom!” My four-year-old son came in the room carrying the harmonica. “I found this cool harmonica!”
“That was Joey’s,” I said as I stroked his hair, which was the exact same color yellow as Joey’s.
“I don’t remember it.”
“Joey only played one note on it. It was at the beginning of ‘Jingle Bells’ last Christmas.”
“Oh.” He fell silent, and then, “Can I have it?”
“Of course,” I answered with a smile.
Now when the sweet sounds of the harmonica fill our house, I can’t help smiling thinking about Joey’s Christmas song. Even though we have video and pictures, all I have to do is close my eyes and I instantly hear Joey singing and giving us one last precious Christmas gift.