HoHo Shorts Countdown: "Christmas Journal" by Ray Funderburk

Dec 13, 2013

We received so many wonderful submissions to our 2013 Homemade Holiday Shorts Story Contest that we wanted to share six more of our favorites with you! Every day this week we'll post a different author's story.  Homemade Holiday Shorts will air live on December 15th at 6pm on WHQR 91.3 fm. Tune in (or purchase tickets to the live performance) to hear Rachel Lewis Hilburn read the winning story, Mebane Boyd's "Kurisumasu."


                                      Christmas Journal

I teach High School English. In my AP class, students keep a journal: some days they can write what they wish; most days they must respond to a prompt.  I write with them sometimes.  In 2009 I asked them to write about their most memorable Christmas.  I wrote with them.  This is my journal—edited only a little.

I am 57 and I could write about a bunch of Christmases. I have stories from when I was a kid, stories from when my Marine Father was away, stories from when I was away from home at Christmas, and I have stories from Christmases when my children were young and I had to stay up too late, drinking too much, working with bad tools, putting together bikes or the Barbie Dream house that my daughter had to have, but never played with after Christmas morning.

Knowing it was Thanksgiving she had tried to bake a cake. She used a plastic pan that my son found melting, in flames in the oven.

This story is more recent.

The Christmas I remember was 2007; my mother was dying of cancer.  I was her primary caretaker, and she had been weakened horribly by the dual poisons of chemo and radiation and she weighed about 80 pounds, and the cancer had spread to her brain so sometimes she didn’t remember or know where she was, and she didn’t eat much because chemo makes everything taste bad.

I went over to her house every morning before work and every day after I got off.  She had rallied for Thanksgiving when my brother and his family came up from Florida.  She had worn her wig and sat at the table and made conversation. But that rally came under a dark cloud. Knowing it was Thanksgiving she had tried to bake a cake.  She used a plastic pan that my son found melting, in flames in the oven.  She had cried wondering why she had done something so foolish.

And then it was December. 

On her birthday, December 8th, Judith and I bought takeout fried and boiled shrimp, broiled scallops and flounder, hushpuppies, and coleslaw from Something Fishy in an attempt to get her to eat something, anything.  Her appetite had gone away with chemo and radiation and I had offered all sorts of foods to entice her to eat; I had tried milk shakes and bagels and hamburgers and pie and then, on her birthday, seafood.  Unsteady on her feet, I helped her to the dining room table, opened the Styrofoam boxes and served the food.  Surprisingly, she ate—not as much as I would have liked, but more than she had in a while. As she ate, I sat and talked to her about Dad and Jeff and Lee Ann and growing up in the Marine Corps and she laughed and sipped a glass of wine. She went downhill fast after her birthday.

I realized that the house was not decorated for Christmas, and I don’t know if I wanted to do the work. I’d like to think I did, but I think it was at first, just one more thing for me to do in a never ending to-do list. I decided to put up the tree and put the electric candles in the windows.  That would be enough.

I got the artificial tree box out of the garage. When we were kids, we had always had real trees, fragrant green firs, but Dad had bought an artificial one when all the kids were gone and there I was sitting on the living room floor, mom sitting in a blanket on the couch, watching me take branches out of the box and assemble the parts of the tree.  I had made her a cup of tea: she was always cold, and she sat sipping tea bundled in a blanket, an elf with peach fuzz hair – her thick curly gray hair had come out in clumps after radiation therapy.  I set the box of ornaments next to her and I put the lights on the tree while she picked out ornaments.  She handed them to me one at a time, directing  the decoration of the tree.

We didn’t put many on, so the tree looked a little bare. But after I got it decorated, I turned down the room lights, plugged in the tree lights, and sat next to mom on the couch holding her hand, not saying anything as she sat quietly, looking at the tree… the last Christmas tree of her life—a sad, artificial, poorly decorated tree that pleased her. Somewhere in her brain, ravaged by cancer and radiation, a connection was made, and she remembered something good and she leaned into my shoulder and smiled.  After that, she got worse, confined to bed, and in early January she died.  I didn’t really have Christmas that year, but I had seen the magic Christmas can work.  I had seen the frail smile when I turned on the tree lights.  I will remember that smile.

Ray Funderburk teaches English at a local high school. He has been Tournament Director for the Cape Fear Rugby Sevens tournament and he believes the Christmas season should be restricted by law to the month of December.