My senior year of college was one of high stress – besides the obvious of taking upper level classes to finish my degree in biology, my father was bravely battling cancer, my vet school applications were due, and my life was one meeting or exam after another – so Christmas Break was like a bright light at the end of a tunnel. My father was on the up-and-up and was told he could spend the holidays at home, and us kids were all venturing back to snowy New York to get as much good family time, great food, and Christmas Cheer in that we possibly could. As part of this, we maintained a tradition that we hold dear to our hearts – we attended the Christmas Eve game at Ralph Wilson stadium and (chilled to the bone) we cheered on our Buffalo Bills! This year it would just be my sister, my brother, and myself, as it seemed a bit risky for my father to sit through the three hour game while immune suppressed, but the game plan was to go cheer the Bills on to a win (ha), and then meet my mother and father at our home in Chautauqua for Christmas Eve mass (hopefully somewhat sober).
It was the best of plans, one full of so much potential happiness and love – and we drove to the stadium bouncing out of our seats and, most importantly HAPPY. The Bills had a good chance of winning, our dad was feeling good and his chemo was done, and we were together – the tight knit family everyone knew us to be. Decked head to toe in our red, white, and blue, we headed to the stadium screaming cheers and smiling ear to ear.
But it wasn’t to be. During the game we received a panicked phone call from our mother saying that our dad had spiked an extremely high temperature and they were racing to Pittsburgh to see his oncologist. She begged us to stay at the game until it was finished, and then go to the lakehouse and pick up our presents – we were doing Christmas in the hospital. Our mood now polarized to the extreme opposite, we sat and watched as the Bills lost to the Giants, loaded our tailgating equipment into my fathers SUV, and began the long trip to Pittsburgh, only stopping at the lakehouse to do the scavenger hunt that was finding our presents and stocking stuffers that our parents had hidden meticulously. Continuing on, I will never forget the drained and defeated looks on our three faces – grief, sadness, and quite a bit of selfish anger as we thought of the Christmas that laid ahead. Instead of our annual picture on the stairs on Christmas morning, we would have the sterile lounge. Instead of a Christmas tree, we would have an IV unit dripping fluids into our fathers arm, and instead of cheer, we would have sadness. Our father was our Santa. He was the jolly one who brought us all together – who bestowed us our extravagant gifts, who made us giggle throughout the morning opening presents – without this light drawing us all in, there was no way that Christmas would be a true Christmas.
We arrived already defeated, all of the Christmas Cheer sucked out of our hearts and souls, only to be met by my mother – with a look of absolute determination on her face. She was adamant – Christmas would still be Christmas. Jobs were assigned – our cliche Christmas breakfast of Monkey Bread was made, stockings were stuffed, a Christmas playlist made on an ipod, presents were loaded to the brim of our SUV, and we were off to West Penn Hospital. We began opening presents, attempting to plaster smiles on our face, hugging our father in thanks while trying not to bump his central line – exchanging glances over his hospital bed, acknowledging that it just wasn’t the same. We were down to the last few presents when my mom asked my 17 year old brother to walk to the lounge and see if there were any more – and he came back in with a GINORMOUS box. Tearing into the wrapping paper, he pulled out a full set of the game “Rock Band” and we quickly began to attempt to assemble it to my fathers hospital issues television.
It was quickly activated and nurses began to gather as we began strumming and drumming along to The Who, David Bowie, and The Foo Fighters. We rotated the instruments, singing loudly and blasting music into the halls, constantly asked by the staff to quiet it down – but we couldn’t be quieted, we were the Fedorka’s. We were loud, we were happy, we were obnoxious, and we didn’t care. We laughed as my father attempted pathetically to drum, giggled as my voice cracked on a high note, and mocked my brother as he pretended he was actually skilled at the guitar. With each note that was faked, our spirits were raised, and we chuckled into the day until it was obvious that our dad was exhausted.
We left the hospital that day to go to our rental home and prepare a Christmas dinner to bring back and eat while watching a Christmas movie with our father, as he was not allowed to be released even for a meal. But as we left, there was a pep in our step, and smiles were on our faces. It didn’t take extravagant gifts, an ornate tree, or even our warm home decorated to the hilt to find Christmas Cheer. All it took was love – and family. Our WHOLE family.
That was the year that I finally learned what Christmas was all about. It was also our last Christmas together. But we still have video’s of our fathers failed attempts at drumming to Suffragette City, and pictures that we can reflect on and smile. So this Christmas Eve, please find that place in your hearts. Not one full of consumer driven angst and worry about money, or traveling, or time spent in anger over old issues and battles within your loved ones. Hug your loved ones, call those who are far away, and please, please, please, for me and my family, have yourself a Merry Little Christmas.