During the afternoons, when the sun warmed the meadows and beaches, Sarah could believe that this was the best winter of her life. When she raced with Senator Jones, she forgot that her mother wasn’t there, that her Gran was very ill, and that she’d been stuck out here with a great uncle she hardly knew.
When it was just her, the big dog, and an island to explore, she felt all the happiness a young girl could feel.
And if looking out across the sea to the far horizon brought less happy thoughts, Senator Jones stood ready to lead her back to the joy of the chase.
Coming home after one long afternoon of exploration, she found Jacob on the phone in the conservatory.
“It’s the body’s way of shutting down,” he was saying. “It won’t be long now.”
His grave tone stopped her.
“I will tell her that,” he said. “Sasha, you take care of you, too. Can’t be easy.”
Sarah’s throat grew tight.
At supper, she didn’t talk. Jacob didn’t seem to mind. Or maybe he didn’t notice. He enjoyed quiet.
She went straight to bed as soon as the dishes were washed.
“Is all right with the world, Captain?” Jacob asked when he came in to turn off the light.
“What were you saying to my mom on the phone?” she asked.
“Your mom asked me to tell you Merry Christmas,” Jacob said. “And to say that she loves you.”
“When will she come?” Sarah asked. “Will Gran come, too?”
“She won’t be too long now,” Jacob said. “But it will be after Christmas. Gran won’t be coming.”
“What does it mean when the body shuts down?” Sarah asked.
“It means the person is passing,” said Jacob. “Won’t be long. A day or two.”
“But in two days is Christmas! And nobody can die on Christmas! It’s not what Christmas means!”
“What does Christmas mean, then?” Jacob asked.
“It means family, Santa, candies, presents. All good things. Nothing bad happens on Christmas!”
“I think we should do some reading,” Jacob said. “Have you read many Christmas stories?”
“‘Night Before Christmas,’ ‘Grinch,’ ‘Rudolph,’ ‘Frosty.’ Lots and lots.”
“Not what I was thinking,” Jacob said.
“Christmas means a lot of things, and it means nothing. In nature, it’s just a day–another day after the solstice as the days slowly grow longer. It’s people who have pinned all these meanings onto it. What interests me is not so much what it means to all the various people, but the fact that people feel they need something so much that they have created this day to contain it. What do you suppose it is that they feel they need so much in their lives that they needed to create this holiday for it?”
Sarah didn’t have to think long. “Magic,” she said.
Jacob laughed. “Suppose you’re right.”
They started with Dickens.
“Everybody knows of Old Scrooge,” said Jacob. “But do you know ‘The Haunted Man’?”
“Everybody said he looked like a haunted man. The extent of my present claim for everybody is, that they were so far right. He did.
“Who could have seen his hollow cheek; his sunken brilliant eye; his black-attired figure, indefinably grim, although well-knit and well-proportioned; his grizzled hair hanging, like tangled sea-weed, about his face,—as if he had been, through his whole life, a lonely mark for the chafing and beating of the great deep of humanity,—but might have said he looked like a haunted man?”
The story was spooky and cheerful and harsh and tender, all at once, and people died, or nearly did, and they forgot, and then they remembered, and so much happened and it was all right at the end, and before she went to sleep, Sarah thought back on the final words:
“Lord keep my Memory green.” That must have something to do with Christmas.
The next morning, a cold wind blew in rain. There would be no exploring the island that day!
Jacob said,”I have the book for you! This one, you read yourself.”
It was a very thick book, and she wasn’t sure if it was something she would–or even could–read.
“What’s it called?”
“Little Women,” said Jacob.
“Women are boring,” said Sarah, “especially when they’re little.”
“Ah, but not these girls!” said Jacob. “I think you will especially like Jo March.”
She would try a book with a girl named Jo.
She started reading after breakfast. It was, in part, a Christmas story, but it was also so much more.
There were plays and adventures, and hardship and loss. A war was going on, and some people had very little. But the girls, even though they had so little, shared whatever they had, and then they found that they had more.
And someone died in the story, too, a girl named Beth.
One Christmas, she got well, and that was the miracle. But then, one spring, she died. And what happened to the miracle then?
“Everybody dies,” said Jacob, when she asked him. “I suppose a fine early spring day can be a good day for that, when one’s time comes.”
“But what if somebody’s time comes at Christmas? The miracle will keep them alive, right?”
“If Christmas is the time when it is their time to leave, then there can be no better time,” said Jacob. “It is, of all the times of the year, full of love and good feelings. To leave then could be a kind of blessing.”
Sarah’s eyes felt heavy from a day of reading.
She curled up on the couch and sunk into a quiet sleep.
She didn’t feel alone there on the island anymore. She felt very much at home, and very loved. She didn’t think her mom would make it home for Christmas. That was OK. There were all sorts of ways to have Christmas, as the March sisters and Dickens had shown her.
On Christmas Eve, Jacob said that he would read her the greatest Christmas story of all.
“And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night.
“And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid.
“And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.
“For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord.
“And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.
“And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying,
“‘Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.'”
“That is Christmas,” said Jacob. “Though it likely didn’t happen in winter. Still, that is what it is about: a birth, good tidings, peace, and good will.”
“Magic,” said Sarah.
“Magic,” said Jacob, “and our great need for it.”