usually made myself crazy with the holidays and had vowed to simplify that year. I had done my best to stick to my promise, and by the Saturday two weeks before Christmas, I felt that I really had a handle on my holiday preparations. Gifts had been bought and wrapped, menus had been planned, and the tree was up and decorated. Packages for faraway friends and relations were ready for Monday’s mail, and the presents that would travel north with me to my hometown later that week had been wrapped, tagged, and stacked on the kitchen counter. I planned to drive "home" to Bangor, Maine, later that week for my traditional just-before-Christmas visit.
The highlight of that day trip would be having a good long tête-à-tête with my grandmother, whom I adored. We’d munch Christmas cookies and sip tea as we caught up and reminisced and laughed. There would be much laughter. Later that afternoon, I would make my rounds to other relatives, delivering gifts and glad tidings of the season. With the numerous visits and six-hour round trip, it would be an exhausting day, but one I made willingly. The chance to spend the day with my grandmother, my truest friend, was reason enough. Though we talked on the phone at least once a week, I treasured every moment of her company.
With my Christmas tasks well in hand, I decided to tackle the three-foot-high pile of ironing that sat before me. Christmas carols blaring from the stereo and the aroma of hand-dipped chocolates drying on the counter made for a merry atmosphere, despite the mundane task at hand.
"I need to go to Bangor," I suddenly said, iron midair, to my husband.
"Uh-huh … on Thursday, right?"
"No, today. I think I should go today," I found myself answering.
"Today?" he asked, putting down the newspaper and looking at me over the rims of his glasses.
"Yes, as soon as I finish the ironing and a few other little chores."
"But the day is already half over. When were you planning to leave?"
"Actually, I hadn’t planned it, but I should be able to leave by eight o’clock."
"Tonight?" he asked again. Not one to question my judgment, he paused to consider what was clearly an unusually impulsive decision on my part. "I’d really rather you not drive all that way alone at night."
"I suppose you’re right."
I continued to make my way through the ironing, stopping only to answer the phone and to brew a fresh pot of coffee. As I ironed, I made a mental list of the few remaining things to do before Christmas, but the urge to drop everything and go to Bangor nagged at the back of my mind.
When I finally reached the bottom of the pile, my friend Colleen joined me for coffee. Colleen has lived with us for years. As she didn’t have much family of her own, we had adopted her into ours. My kids call her Auntie. I told her about wanting to drive to Bangor that night and my husband’s concern.
"I could go with you," she volunteered.
My husband, overhearing our conversation, piped in, "If Auntie goes with you, go for it. My only concern was you driving alone at night."
We decided to drive straight through and get a hotel room in Bangor. I hated imposing on relatives that late, and I loved hotels. It would make our ladies’ night out a little more fun. By 7:30, we were loading overnight bags, gifts, and homemade goodies into the back of my station wagon. Armed with the cell phone, a thermos of coffee, Christmas CDs, snacks for the drive, and kisses and hugs from my husband and children, we left on our three-hour journey.
Going with Faith, Trust, and Guidance
A few minutes later, the first snow flurry of the season began, covering the pavement with a pretty white dusting and adding to the feeling of festivity. But with each mile, the snow fell harder. Within minutes, several inches of icy snow had accumulated on the highway. My rear-wheel-drive car didn’t do well in slippery conditions, so I slowed to 45 miles per hour. The wind began to kick up and the snow started falling in sheets, reducing my visibility to the short range directly ahead of my headlight beams. I slowed to 25 miles per hour and followed the white reflective markers along the right side of the highway, struggling to keep the car on the road but remaining strangely calm. Something inside told me we’d be okay.
Without warning, the white markers and then the pavement suddenly disappeared. As we plowed into a thick layer of untouched snow, the car’s rear wheels lost traction and we started to fishtail. Somehow I was able to regain control before we hit the snowdrift alongside the road.
"You’re off the highway!" Colleen cried out.
Though rattled, I quickly collected myself. I realized I’d followed the highway markers off of an exit ramp. We were in the middle of nowhere in the pitch dark, and the snow was deep. I turned the car around, praying we wouldn’t get stuck, and we found our way back to the highway.
For another 100 miles, we crept through the blizzard. The snowstorm finally let up about 30 minutes south of Bangor. By then, we were laughing about our ordeal and preparing to enjoy our evening. We reached our exit safely and looked for a motel. A country inn near the exit had always intrigued me, but I’d never stayed there. Most overnights in Bangor included my children and required larger accommodations. We decided to give it a try.
Arriving at the Inn for Christmas
To our delight, the inn was beautifully adorned for Christmas. Our room was decorated in a country motif, and a large Christmas wreath hung outside the window. With the gently falling snow as a backdrop, it looked like a scene from an old-fashioned Christmas card, which is what I told my husband when I phoned him to announce our safe, if somewhat delayed, arrival. Colleen and I spent the night talking, giggling, and watching television. It was one o’clock before we fell asleep.
In the morning I called my aunt to ask what time would be convenient to visit Gram.
"She was having trouble breathing this morning, so they took her to the hospital," my aunt said.
Though concerned, I was not unduly alarmed. My grandmother had a history of breathing difficulties, and the staff at the assisted-living facility where she now lived often took her to the hospital for nebulizer treatments to ease her congestion.
"I’ll call you later to find out when to come up," I told my aunt.
Colleen and I spent the rest of the morning browsing through bookstores and sipping hot cider. After lunch, I called my aunt back.
"The doctor decided to admit her," she said. "By the time you get there, she’ll be settled into her room."
Minutes later we arrived at the hospital and took the elevator to the geriatric ward. Gram was sitting in a wheelchair while a nurse got her ready for bed. Her breathing was labored, and it was difficult for her to speak, so I translated. I understood what she was trying to say. She pointed to her cheek, signaling Colleen to plant a kiss there. She gestured that her feet were cold, and the nurse brought her socks. When she ran her fingers over my shiny, polished nails, she was telling me she needed a manicure.
"We’ll get Karen over here tomorrow to do your nails," I told her. My sister often did Gram’s nails when she visited.
The afternoon passed quickly and pleasantly. Gram dozed from time to time, but for most of the visit, she was alert and animated. She smiled often as we chatted, and she held my hand tightly.
The Best Christmas Present
At the end of our visit, I wished her a Merry Christmas. I whispered that her Christmas presents were at my aunt’s house and that she’d better behave and not open them until Christmas.
"You’re the best Christmas present," she told me. She said it every year.
She reached for me, and when I leaned down, she hugged me fiercely and kissed my cheek. I kissed her forehead and told her I loved her. She smiled and nodded, unable to gather enough breath to speak.
From the doorway I heard her strained, "I love you."
I turned back and smiled, our eyes meeting.
The trip home was uneventful. We arrived mid-evening to warm greetings from the family. After conveying my concerns about Gram to my husband, I called my aunt to say we’d arrived home safely. She’d just returned from the hospital after having tucked Gram in for the night.
"I told her I’d see her in the morning," she said. "And she blew me a kiss."
Gram died an hour later.
When the call came, I felt overwhelming grief — but also gratitude for the privilege of being able to spend one last peaceful, enjoyable afternoon with her.
Heeding the Voices of Angels
During the two weeks before her death, Gram had seen almost everyone in the family who lived within a reasonable driving distance. Although we often spoke on the phone, I hadn’t seen her in two months, and I knew how much she cherished our time together. I also know now that the strength with which she held my hand was her sign to me that she was strong in spirit and that she was saying good-bye.
In the eulogy I delivered at Gram’s funeral, I talked about her love and devotion to her family. I spoke of her strength and courage, which had enabled her to raise six children alone after having been widowed in her forties. I said that, rather than mourning our loss, we should celebrate with gratitude the many years she had graced our lives. And I talked about angels.
How else could I explain my compulsion to drive three hours at night to see her, days before my planned trip? Or being guided through a blinding snowstorm? Or the miraculous gift of those last precious hours with her?
I had been blessed with the love and friendship of an angel here on earth — my grandmother. Angels had brought me to Gram for a final Christmas visit. Now she dwells with them, in comfort and joy.
Reprinted with permission of the publisher, Adams Media Corporation. Visit their website at www.adamsonline.com
Click here for more info and/or to order this book.
About The Author
Kimberly Ripley is the author of Breathe Deeply, This Too Shall Pass, a collection of tales on the trials and triumphs of parenting teenagers. She lives with her husband and their five children in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. She is also the author of ''Freelancing Later in Life'' which was a featured workshop in book stores across the country in 2002. For more info about Kim, visit www.kimberlyripley.writergazette.com/