By Bruce A. Smith
This story is my account of becoming aware of loving someone – in this case my sister – for the first time in my life.
In the fall of 1958, when she was five and I was nine, she had open heart surgery for a congenital birth defect. We called it, “the hole in her heart.”
At the time open-heart surgery was dicey, and my sister, whom we called Barbsie – short for Barbara – was one of the first kids to have the procedure. In fact, only a handful of hospitals performed it. As I recall the operation was an all-day affair, and it took place in the cardiac unit of St. Francis Hospital in Port Washington, New York. Ironically, our father was destined to die of a heart attack in the same place forty-nine years later.
The repair was successful but very stressful, and my sister got some nasty infections and had to be hospitalized far past the normal recovery time of two weeks. Eventually, Barbsie would not be well enough to come home for good until the summer of 1960, so come Christmas 1958 she was absolutely confined to her hospital bed.
“We’re asking Dr. Mannix if Barbsie can come home for Christmas,” my mother informed me one night while I slurped a vanilla ice cream soda in the hospital sandwich shop. Being a kid, I was deemed a health risk to my sister and I hadn’t seen Barbsie in over two months. However, the news did not trump my interest in getting every last drop of vanilla juice out of the tall glass container.
Big news, little news, it all seemed the same to me in those days. I kept purring along in my life, not much affected by what was going on outside of me.
But, something very special happened shortly afterwards. Normally, I accompanied my parents on their daily visit to Barbsie only on an every-other-trip basis, so the next time I went to the hospital was two days later. I was sitting in the back seat of our family Ford Fairlane on the drive home when my mother addressed me.
“Bruce, I have some very good news.”
It seemed especially important because my mom turned in her seat to speak to me more directly. I leaned close. I put my crossed arms on the tops of the front seats to support myself since my butt was hardly touching the back.
“Dr. Mannix told us Barbsie can come home on Christmas Eve, but she can only stay for three days. She’ll have to go back the day after Christmas.”
“Wow, Barbsie’s gonna be home for Christmas,” I said. “That’s the greatest Christmas present I could ever get.”
My words had just tumbled out. I hadn’t rehearsed them or even knew that I felt that way. I didn’t feel embarrassed either, but rather I felt a nice tingly feeling inside. I had never felt like that before, and I was excited. I wasn’t sure why, but I let it flow and savored it just like a vanilla ice cream soda, but more, because even at nine-years old I knew it was deeper and sweeter.
“Barbsie’s has to be very quiet because she’s still very weak,” my mom continued, “so no rough-house stuff, understand? I mean it.”
“Uh-hunh,” I grunted in affirmation. I was still bathing in the glow, and I knew that speaking would diminish it. Driving up the steep hill of Port Washington Boulevard past the Miracle Mile I saw snow flakes falling. One piece of magic replaced the other and I spoke.
“Maybe we’ll have a White Christmas, too. Wouldn’t that be great?”
My mom smiled and nodded.
“Barbsie’s coming home would be your greatest Christmas present?” she asked. “She’s really special to you, isn’t she?”
“Yup.” I was still leaning into the front seat and she could see the big smile on my face.
“I don’t think I’ve ever heard you talk like this before, Bruce.”
Now it was my mom’s turn to smile with a deep joy. She, too, had just received a family gift, one of knowing her son could care, love, and miss his little sister.
We drove home in a quiet bliss. Even when the snow turned to rain no one lost a drop of that special glow. Of Christmas’ past I remember my Lionel trains, a big red Schwinn bike, and my Tonka Toy Trucks. But most of all I remember a dark, chilly night driving up a steep hill on the Northshore of Long Island and hearing that Barbsie was coming home for Christmas.
Editor’s Note: The “Moth Stories” series is a growing phenomena around the country where storytellers tell their personal stories that not only have “meat on the bone” in terms of entertainment, but also strive to show how we have grown as a person. To me, Moth Stories are the tales of modern-day shamans, and I am eager to be in their company. – BAS.
Mom, Sis, and me, 2010.