Gran’s laughter echoed across the straight, calling to Sarah. She flew over the dark water, looking for her.
“I’m here, Sarah Two-Pockets! I always will be!”
They flew up to the sky, twirling, laughing, until Gran said, “It’s time for you to go now. I will always be…”
Sarah opened her eyes. She felt warm and happy. What was it that Gran would always be?
Never mind, Sarah thought. The dream must be a good sign.
In the kitchen, she discovered that it really was Christmas–Jacob had hung wreaths and lights, and a stack of brightly wrapped presents waited beside the breakfast table.
She felt too jolly to notice Jacob’s somber mood as he gazed into his tea.
He dished up special Christmas breakfast French toast. It smelled sweet like vanilla and nutmeg.
“Can I have extra butter?” she asked.
He added an extra pat.
“Your mom is coming in a week,” he said, when they sat at the table. “She’ll be here for New Year’s.”
“Is Gran well, then?” Sarah asked.
“No,” he said. “She passed on early this morning.”
“But she was in my dream,” Sarah said.
Jacob listened as she told about the laughter, the soaring over the water, the feeling that Gran was there, with her, though she couldn’t see her.
“She said she would always be,” said Sarah, “but I don’t know what. Why would I dream of her, Great Uncle Jacob? And what will she always be?”
He sat quietly for a good few moments.
“It happens, sometimes,” he said at last, “that when someone passes, their spirit pays a visit to all those they love the best. Your grandmother loved you dearly, Sarah, and I have a feeling that what she will always be will be beside you, with you. She will always be.”
Sarah wondered if that meant that she was not really gone. If she closed her eyes, she could feel her grandmother’s hand in hers. When she opened her eyes, she heard Gran’s voice.
“Gran loves Christmas,” Sarah said.
She wasn’t sure how to feel. Mostly, she felt that this was a different day, a special day, somehow. It had a texture to it, like someone held a blanket over the sun, and all the busy noise of life quieted down somehow.
After she washed the dishes, she heard tiny mewing. Two kittens crawled out from behind the pile of pillows on the floor.
“Look, Jacob!” she said. “It’s kittens! Where’d they come from?”
“Those are Pippa’s kittens,” Jacob said. “Walley’s the father.”
“Were they just born?”
“No,” he said. “They were born before you came.”
“Why didn’t you tell me?” She thought it would have been more fun to play with kittens all those days leading up to Christmas.
“Twasn’t my secret to tell!” he replied. “It’s up to the mama cat to decide when she will share her babies with us.”
“Maybe that’s why Pippa was so grumpy with me!” Sarah said.
“Could be,” said Jacob. “A mama will do anything to protect her young.”
“But they’re old enough now, aren’t they, Pippa?” Sarah pet the panther on the head, and she didn’t even growl. She purred, and her ears stayed up, and her tail hardly twitched.
“They haven’t names yet,” said Jacob. “What would you like to call them?”
“Sweetie and Cubby,” said Sarah, “because they are sweet panther cubs!”
She followed Cubby into the parlor.
“Do you think I could have one, Uncle Jacob?” she asked. It was Christmas, after all, and she had just lost her Gran.
“The kittens belong here,” he said, “where they have a big conservatory to roam and lots of skylights to let in the sunshine.”
She grew very quiet.
“But I’ll tell you what,” he continued, “you choose one to belong to, and then every time you come to visit, we will all know that you are that cat’s girl.”
She chose Cubby. Cubby seemed to trust her already.
“I do have good news for you, though,” said Jacob. “Your mom says you can take Senator Jones with you.”
The senator howled when he heard his name.
“Hear that, Big Dog?” Sarah asked. “We belong to each other now!”
“Presents now, or presents later?” Jacob asked.
Later. The morning still had that hushed feeling to it, and Sarah didn’t think she would find excitement in unwrapping the shiny red paper. Maybe when night pressed against the windows, and the lights and candles shone, she would feel the joy Christmas usually brings.
“Let me give you this one, now,” said Jacob, handing her an unwrapped volume of Little Men.
While she read, he played carols, sometimes singing along in his gruff baritone.
It was a different kind of Christmas, without Mom and Gran, with so many cats and kittens and Senator Jones, with Great Uncle Jacob who talked to her as if she were capable of understanding everything and as if she didn’t have a timid heart that might break at the slightest sorrow.
She supposed that captains had to be strong, for out on the straight, sometimes the wind kicked up, and the frightened hearts jumped under deck. But captains steered onward, even when they were the only ones left, and the waves crashed over the bow.
Jacob made grilled cheese sandwiches for lunch, and he played more of that concert-style music while she ate.
“What’s that music called?” she shouted in to the parlor.
“Beethoven!” he shouted back.
It sounded like captain’s music, brave and bold and sometimes saucy and sometimes sorrowful and often stormy and then calm. It sounded like she felt in her heart right then, over-packed with everything: happiness, sleepiness, gratitude, even a creeping touch of excitement, sadness, homesickness, loneliness, and even joy.
How could so many feelings fit inside her heart?
She didn’t know–but the music knew, and it said to her that everything was all right, for this was life.
In the slanting rays of the late afternoon sun, Senator Jones raced the captain through the meadows behind the conservatory.
She ran after him, hearing again her grandmother’s laughter.
“I’m coming, Big Dog!” she shouted. “I’ll be with you always! I’ll always be!”
We all have one Christmas we always remember. For Sarah, this was it. Throughout her life, whether she sat near the tree, surrounded by her children, or her children’s children, or whether she sat alone with a cup of tea, she remembered this morning, her grandmother’s laughter, her great uncle’s piano, and the boundless friendship of a good dog. With this magic, even a little girl could be brave, and bravery like this can last us through life.