I was looking forward to the annual church Christmas party in the fellowship hall. The candy, cookies, and carols. The beautiful tree with lights, tinsel, garland, and gifts.
“Are we going to see the real Santa there this time?” I asked Dad, who was the pastor.
“Of course! There’s only one Santa.”
Each year I prayed to meet the one true Santa. The portly one with the shimmering hair, cherry red nose, hearty laugh, and welcoming arms. I dreamed to see him pull gifts from his bottomless bag. All my heart’s desires.
Alas, I was greeted by the same old tall and trim Santa with the brown leather shoes with fake black strips of cloth down the fronts to give the illusion he was wearing boots. Lanky Mr. Salt again in his phony boots! And the oversized wig and beard that kept slipping off!
I shrank from accepting his invitation. “Ho! Ho! Ho! Come here and tell me what you want for Christmas!”
“Santa isn’t real.” My big brother said. “Just give it up.”
I was beginning to believe him. People masquerading as Santas were liars. Nothing ever came of my wish lists. Even though I always found an impressive pile of toys and clothes under our tree each Christmas morning, my loot never quite lived up to my expectations. Why was I asked to make a list of whatever I wanted and mail it to Santa, and yet not get the latest Mattel doll I asked for? Had I been a bad girl? Clearly, I deserved to receive coal from then on for my continuing lack of gratitude.
When I look back now, I wonder if my emotional state was an effect of my illness with Measles Encephalitis, which I suffered from two years earlier in 1958, when I was six going on seven.
One day that summer, suddenly my legs gave out when I was fetching something for Mom upstairs. To return to Mom, I had to pull my way to the stairs with my arms and somehow position myself to scoot or slide down each step on my back and bottom.
“What do you mean you can’t walk?” Mom kept ordering me to my feet. No matter how hard I tried, I was unable to stand.
It wasn’t long before I lost the ability to move my arms very far out from my body, to speak, and to eat solids. The couch became my bed. Although I was cared for, my family otherwise moved around me like I was a ghost.
It was a lonely time for me. My parents were overwhelmed. Mom had a newborn and two other elementary-aged children besides me. Dad’s father was dying, so he was torn between caring for me and Grandpa. My siblings tried to engage me, but I was a mute stone.
I honestly don’t know how long I was confined to the couch, but one evening, my parents came rushing into the house and swept me up. I recall the scared faces of my siblings and Mrs. Buck, our babysitter. I realize now that I was most likely going in and out of a coma.
I was rushed to the same hospital Grandpa was in, so I thought I was being taken there to see him. I was very excited and felt special as my siblings were not along for the trip. I had my parents and Grandpa all to myself.
My next memory is standing beside Grandpa’s hospital bed and talking with him. We were so happy to see each other. But our joyful greeting turned sour when I realized that he was leaving on a trip with the other people there, the three to five tall visitors standing around the opposite side of the bed. They were dressed in white, making me believe they were doctors. The room felt crowded as Mom and Dad had to be somewhere behind me.
“I want to go with Grandpa,” I told the strangers.
“No, you need to stay.”
“I want to go with him! Please!”
We argued back and forth. Their presence and bossiness annoyed me.
“Maybe you need to go back to your room, honey,” Grandpa said.
The next thing I recall was waking up to a cold, brightly lit room. I felt what could have been hundreds of needles in my legs, which stung as much as my tender eyes did under the blazing lights. I had no idea at that time that I had been in a coma for a month.
A man was standing over me.
“The bear went over the mountain. Can you say that?”
“The bear went over the mountain.”
“She’ll be fine,” he said.
Although I was able to speak, I was unable to walk.
“You won’t walk again,” the doctor told me with stony finality.
Indeed, I returned home in a wheelchair. I felt like a ghost once again, observing life happening around me. From my seat in the wheelchair next to the living room picture window, I watched my siblings and friends playing. How I longed to skip and run again. To dance and sing to tunes on my record player.
My parents had to be gone for a period of time because Grandpa died and they had to drive from Montana to Michigan to close up Dad’s boyhood home. While they were gone, I battled my paralysis fiercely to teach myself how to walk again. I pulled myself off the wheelchair and grabbed ahold of furniture. Then I dragged my little body from chair to couch to chair repeatedly until I was able to walk. When my parents arrived home, I ran up to greet them.
Despite my victory, I remember crying a great deal daily. Mom said I was more emotional because the encephalitis affected my nerves. I felt overly sensitive about everything, even to the point of anger and depression, which were also effects of the brain injury from encephalitis.
I was not the same person after the illness for another reason
The visit with my grandfather in the hospital was mystifying. It was a solid, vivid memory which I relived for years, yet there was something compelling about it that I couldn’t put my finger on. Then it finally hit me. The impossibility of it. And thus, the miracle of it.
If I had gone into a coma, my parents would have taken me straight to the ER, not to Grandpa’s room. Also, if I was unable to stand and speak, how could I have stood by his bed and conversed?
Other questions rose. Who were those people in the room? Where was Grandpa going? Why were they refusing to take me on the trip?
I believe that both Grandpa and I were in a coma and meeting in a spiritual dimension. This was a near death experience, during which I was refused entry to Heaven with Grandpa. I now believe that my recovery from encephalitis was a gift to compensate for his death as Dad had lost his mother the year before. During my visit with Grandpa, a deal was made with Grandpa’s spiritual counsel, who were in his room and awaiting his departure. I would be spared. And healed.
As a result of that near death experience, I had one foot in the spiritual plane and one foot in our physical plane. Being between two worlds, I would often reveal otherworldly insights to my perplexed family.
One day, mother found me grieving into tears.
“What’s wrong, honey?”
“Why can’t I read minds anymore?”
My family responded to my peculiar announcements by mocking me because of their worry and fear.
“Stop this nonsense. Where do you get these silly ideas?”
Such reactions left me with a deepening feeling of abandonment, and the lack of acceptance and empathy left me feeling like an oddity.
It was difficult to suppress by new abilities so as to appear “normal” as I had another unsettling experience that alarmed my family.
One summer day in 1961, when I was walking past my parents’ bedroom after lunch, I saw a man reclining on the side of my parent’s bed. I was shocked and upset, wondering how he had broken in.
“What’s going on? You’d better leave!”
But he just smiled at me and remained in repose. His body was as straight as a board and looked unnaturally placed against the side of the bed. His long, skinny body dressed up in a brown suit. Socks, no shoes. Strange. His arms were folded on his chest. His square face. High cheek bones. Reddish hair. He looked familiar.
He didn’t reply. Just continued to smile like he always did in church.
“What are you doing here? Are you OK?”
I remained in his presence, making eye contact for what seemed like hours, but our contact most likely lasted just a minute or two.
Soon I started to see the bed through his body! He was slowly disappearing like a morning fog clearing. I felt compelled to look away. When I looked back, he was gone.
When I ran to tell my parents about the ghost, I found them in the kitchen. Dad had just gotten word that one of his parishioners had died.
“Mr. Salt, right!?” I exclaimed.
“How did you know that it was Mr. Salt?” Dad asked.
I realized the import of my vision. “I just saw him in your bedroom, and he wants you to know he’s OK.”
Well, that did not go over. More fear-based mocking and shaming. More tears. Another wedge in the heart.
Later that same year as Christmas approached, Mom said she was taking us downtown. I figured to see yet another fake Santa in a baggy suit and a floppy mustache and beard lying aslant on his face. More empty promises. False hopes.
The church Christmas party was coming up again. Mr. Salt was gone, and I no longer held up hope to be greeted by the one true Santa in his place. I felt myself surrendering to the rituals of Christmas mythos at least for the sake of my younger siblings. I begrudgingly grabbed my coat and prepared myself for folly at Sears.
Although it was a sunny December afternoon when we left home, the day seemed shorter than usual. It was suddenly – and bizarrely – nighttime. We found ourselves in a snowy alley where street lights were sparse. Through the darkness, we saw a brightly lit shop, which reminded me of a cozy Old World European cottage with a gable roof. The way the light spilled out into the alley was stunning and drew us in.
The warmth inside was comforting. I saw endless shelves of dolls, trucks, games, and other fun toys. From somewhere, the scent of cinnamon, vanilla, and nutmeg. A portly man in a red suit with white fur cuffs and a red hat with white fur trim was sitting at a workbench. I couldn’t help but notice his shimmering silver hair, mustache, and beard. His cheeks and lips were rosy. His bright mystical blue eyes sparkled behind his spectacles. He wore authentic leather boots!
“Santa Claus?” I asked.
“Santa Claus, Saint Nicholas, Father Christmas. I go by many names.”
All I wanted to do was to hug him because I felt such unconditional love coming from him. He held me and we talked a long time, but I don’t recall the words. It seemed like we were speaking through our hearts. I felt like he saw into my soul and reassured me that I was deeply loved. A beautiful light that must keep shining and to light the way for others who also felt lost and lonely.
At one point, he let me pull his beard to see if it was real. We laughed deeply and joyously about my bold request to test his authenticity. I really didn’t want to let my siblings take a turn sitting on his lap.
Reluctantly we had to leave, but I recall neither the trip downtown nor the trip home. In fact, I recall nothing of that excursion except for meeting the one true Santa downtown in the alley in the brightly lit shop filled with toys. I ran up to Dad and went on and on about my visit with the magical Santa, our wholehearted laughter. Our long heart-centered communication. The powerful love he exuded in his light.
Mom looked at me and said with finality, “We did no such thing. All we did was go shopping.”
“What?! You took – led – us there!”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
I was mystified. The glistening snow, icy alley, and luminous light, not just from the shop but from Santa. The shelves of shiny cars. The rows and rows of dolls. The smell of spicy cookies. His welcoming arms. Joyous nature. His soft beard. This experience was concrete and palpable for me. I remember it as vividly as the day I lived it.
I had finally met the one and only real true Santa, the one whose light was so bright that I could finally embrace my inner truth. The one whose love was so authentic that I felt renewed and blessed.
Although I recall no spoken words in my communication with Santa, I left knowing that the gifts we receive are not always the ones we list in our letters to Santa. They are from an open, loving heart that says, “I am with you always.”
OCTOBER 2021 AUTHOR OF THE MONTH at Spillwords.com
Barbara Harris Leonhard is a retired ESL Instructor who has regained her poetic voice. Her work appears in Free Verse Revolution, Spillwords, October Hill Magazine, Dark Poet’s Club, Vita Brevis, Well Versed 2020, Silver Birch Press, Amethyst Review, among others. Barbara earned both third place and honorary mention for two poems in Well Versed 2021. Barbara is currently marketing her first poetry collection, Three-Penny Memories. From that memoir collection, her poem “Cooking a Life with a Wire Spine”, was nominated for Publication of the Month at Spillwords Press in August 2021. Barbara’s blog - Extraordinary Sunshine Weaver. Her poetry podcast - Poetry: The Memoir of the Soul.