THE CHRISTMAS CLOUD
It was early Saturday morning, just two days before Christmas when May Harrington first noticed it. Glancing out the kitchen window as she filled the coffee pot her eyes were drawn to the perfectly formed, billowing white cloud. She was charmed as the sun’s rays slowly turned the frothy whiteness into brilliant shades of rosy pinks and muted purples. She found herself gazing rapturously at it as the colors glowed magically and the rising sun’s golden rays pulsated around its edges.
The water pouring over the brim of the coffee carafe brought her attention back to task. Pouring out the excess water, she shook her head ruefully. Deciding she must be more asleep than awake, she added an extra measure of coffee to the basket. With everything she had to do she was going to need all the energy she could get. This was definitely not a day to be gazing at clouds, she reminded herself, no matter how beautiful they were.
As soon as the coffee stopped dripping she filled her mug and another one for her husband then headed upstairs to the shower. Her mind buzzed with the myriad of chores she had scheduled for that day and the next. Since the family had moved so far out into the country, May sometimes found it difficult to find the time to juggle all the duties required of a working mother and wife. Usually, with many lists and much discipline, she just barely managed. But now, with Christmas only two days away she felt time was her enemy.
This was not a day for daydreaming she reminded herself as she towel dried her hair. Grabbing a quick sip of the cooling coffee with one hand, she reached for the blow drier with the other. As soon as she was dressed she nudged Rick out of bed then went to wake the kids. They would all need to pitch in early both today and tomorrow if they were to have the perfect Christmas she envisioned.
As far as May was concerned there was only one way to celebrate Christmas, and that was by observing every single tradition handed down by both Rick’s and her family. Cookies had to be baked and decorated, fudge and divinity cooked. There were last minute gifts to buy and wrap, and there were still a few decorations to be added here and there.
And everything had to be done no later than six o’clock on Christmas Eve. It was a long standing tradition that, barring the absolute worse weather, the whole family would bundle up and drive to all the nearby farmhouses to spread Christmas cheer with their carols. No matter how cold it might be, and no matter who complained about having to be so “dorky”, they were going to go. And they were going to enjoy it, whether they wanted to or not!
Back in the kitchen she glanced out the window again while she stirred the pancake batter. Surprisingly the pretty little cloud was still there. Its size and shape seemed not to have changed a bit since she had first noticed it. Impossible, her sensible mind told her. But still and all, it did look the same.
The sound of her seven year old son Peter’s feet pounding on the stairs drew her attention away from the window.
“Is it still there?” he asked as he came running into the kitchen.
“Is what still there?” she replied.
“The cloud! You know, the one that was there last night. I noticed it when I was out playing before dinner last night. Before I went to bed I looked out the window to see what it had turned into. And guess what? It was still there and it hadn’t changed a bit! It looked exactly like it had when I first saw it.
“Here, let me see if it’s still there, and if it is, if it’s changed,” he said as he not too gently pushed his mother aside. “Yep, it’s up there, all right! And it still hasn’t changed!”
“Sweetheart, that can’t be the same cloud. Clouds are made of vapor. They can’t possibly stay the same all night long. Clouds change constantly until they disappear altogether.”
“Well, that one hasn’t,” he stated obstinately.
“Mom, if Peter says it’s the same cloud, you can bet on it,” his big sister, Sarah, said through a yawn. Her comment came not from sibling adoration but from many years of experience. Although she was a whole year older than her brother, Sarah was perfectly confident in his superior abilities. Some things were not to be questioned. And Peter’s uncanny sense of observation was one of them.
As soon as breakfast was over May laid out the day’s work schedule to her husband and children. To her amazement not one of them complained about the chores. Instead of complaining like they normally would have they all set to work without so much as a grumble. It seemed as if they were all filled with a special holiday glow.
Well, there must be something to this “Joy to the World” stuff after all, she thought as she watched her son and daughter working together in harmony. It was a sight she rarely saw. In fact, she could not remember the last time they had worked so pleasantly together.
Throughout the day one or the other of the family would look out the window to check on “their” cloud. “It’s still there!” they would call out, and then return to whatever job they had been working on.
On Sunday morning, Christmas Eve, May was astounded to see that the cloud was still floating lightly up in the sky, almost directly over their home. If possible, its colors seemed more vibrant than ever as the sun bathed it in the new day’s light. In fact, it seemed to grow more glorious with each passing moment. It was so beautiful, yet so strange. It wasn’t natural!
“You’re worried about that cloud, aren’t you, Mom” her son asked her later in the day when he caught her standing in the back yard, her head craned back as she gazed into the sky.
“No, of course not! I’m not worried…not really, anyway. It’s just, well, it’s just not natural, that’s all. There has to be a sensible explanation for it. But for the life of me I can’t figure out what it could be.”
“Peter says it’s a good cloud, Mom. He says it’s here to do something wonderful.” Sarah said as she joined her mother and brother.
“It is! I’m sure of it. Why do you think it came here right at Christmas? It came to make people nicer to each other. Didn’t you notice when we were at the mall yesterday how friendly everyone was?”
“I was impressed with how pleasant everyone in town seemed,” May recalled. “I’d expected our last minute shopped to be a nightmare, but it was actually fun! Maybe you’re right. Maybe it is a special Christmas present. Not just for us but for everyone.”
Thoughts of the cloud were pushed into the back of May’s mind as last minute cooking and gift wrapping continued in the Harrington household. They all worked as a team, laughing and singing carols as they tackled their chores.
Can we ask Maryann to go caroling with us tonight?” Sarah asked her mother as they finished putting away the dinner dishes. “I bet she’s lonely with Bill away in the Navy.”
“You can ask her, honey. But I doubt if she’ll want to go out. She hasn’t been feeling too well lately and it’s only six weeks until her baby’s due.”
The screen door banged shut as the little girl ran next door to extend the invitation to Maryann Williams, their nearest neighbor. May had been keeping an eye on the younger woman for the last few weeks. The two houses were miles out of town and the young military wife had been having a rather troubled pregnancy.
In just a few minutes May heard the back door slam shut as her daughter returned.
“She can’t go. She said she’s been real tired all day and just wants to get to bed. Darn, I sure wish she could come.”
It was a perfect night for caroling. Other than the now familiar cloud, the star studded sky was brilliantly clear. The sound of the carols seemed to float through the cold night air. What more perfect way to spend Christmas Eve, May thought as they drove down the quiet country lane, back to their pine scented home.
Ah, Christmas Eve, the one night in the year when the children went to bed without a struggle. If only it were that easy the other 364 nights of the year!
It was after midnight when May and Rick finally crawled into bed. “No one loves Christmas more than I”, she sighed as she pulled the bedcovers up to her chin, “but it’s so exhausting!”
It seemed she had just fallen asleep when they were awakened by the shrill ringing of the telephone. Rick answered it on the second ring then handed the receiver to his wife, saying “It’s Maryann—sounds serious.”
May had to strain to hear her neighbor’s voice say, “I need you, May. I need you real bad. Can you come over?”
“I’m on my way, honey. Just hold on.”
She threw on her robe and then her overcoat and warm boots. Maryann’s house was only a quarter mile down the road, but May knew the air outdoors would be frigid. She glanced at the glowing numbers on the alarm clock—six o’clock. The kids would be up in no time, anxious to open Santa’s surprises. But she wasn’t going to worry about that. She’d be back in plenty of time, she told herself as she tied the laces on her winter boots.
“I’m really worried about Maryann, Rick. The baby isn’t due for weeks. It’s way too early for a safe delivery. And you know how much trouble she’s had carrying it.”
“You go on over there. I’ll take care of the kids. Take as much time as you need. They may not like it, but they can wait to open their gifts until you get back. Do you think we should call the paramedics or the hospital?”
“I don’t know. If she’s in that much trouble I’ll call the paramedics when I get there.”
She gave her husband a quick kiss then bolted out of the house. Running the short distance to her friend’s, house she prayed for all she was worth with every step that Maryann and her baby would to be alright.
Her hands shook as she tried to slip the emergency key Maryann had given her just days before into the lock. It seemed to take forever before the key turned and she was finally through the door and stepping into the darkened living room. Glancing down the long hallway, she could see light peaking from under the closed bedroom door. She ran down the hall, then threw the door open.
One look at Maryann’s frightened, drawn face told May that the young woman was in real trouble. Before either of the women could say a word a spasm of pain gripped Maryann. Fear blazed from the young mother’s eyes as she bit her lip in an almost superhuman effort to hold back a scream.
“It’s the baby. Oh, May, it’s too soon! But the baby’s coming, I know it is.”
“Have you called your doctor or the paramedics?”
“No, there isn’t enough time. Oh, dear God, it’s too late!”
May made a quick call to the emergency operator, knowing it would take at least half an hour for any help to arrive.
She glanced at her watch—6:15 a.m. “They should be here in no time, sweety. You’ll see, everything’s going to be just fine.”
Oh, God, please don’t make a liar out of me! Please, oh, please let everything be okay! She prayed silently as she knelt beside Maryann’s bed. May had barely finished her prayer when another pain gripped her friend.
At precisely 6:45 a.m. on Christmas morning Maryann’s baby girl was born, fifteen minutes before the arrival of the paramedics.
May had cut the umbilical cord then wrapped the child in a brand new receiving blanket. Not knowing what else to do, she simply stood there holding the tiny infant. The child lay still in her arms. It did not whimper, nor did it move. Instead of being pink, it’s skin was a definite shade of blue.
Oh, why, May anguished as she gazed at the perfectly formed tiny human being. This can’t have happened! Not today! This just can’t be! It’s just not right.
Maryann lay exhausted in the bed, tears steaming silently down her cheeks. She knew without asking. It had been too early. It had happened too fast.
Carrying the still child, May walked to the sliding glass door. She opened it and stepped out into the early morning, not feeling the knife sharp chill in the air. She looked up into the sky at the now familiar cloud. It was still there, glowing with the new sun’s rays. Not thinking of what she was doing or why, she held the baby in her two hands, raising it up to the cloud.
“This was your son’s birthday! How could you have let this beautiful baby be born today if she was not to live to know the glory of Christmas? This baby would have been loved so much! Her parents would have cherished her. We would have all cherished her.”
As she lowered her arms and gathered the tiny body to her breast she noticed that the cloud seemed to be moving toward her. She stood transfixed as the cloud came closer, then closer still. Still standing in the same spot, she turned to look through the open door to her friend. Maryann had pulled herself up a bit in the bed and was gazing with wonder through the door, a look of amazement on her face.
May couldn’t have moved from that spot if her life had depended on it. She stood there as the cloud came nearer, then nearer still, until it completely enveloped her and the newborn child. It drifted through the open door and filled the room with a cool, yet vibrant atmosphere. She felt suspended from the rest of the world. Did anyone but Maryann, the baby and herself really exist at that moment?
Suddenly the baby cried.
May looked down at the now pink, wriggling infant, and then at the baby’s mother. The tears that streamed down Maryann’s cheeks were tears of joy as she reached out her arms for her baby.
The mist had nearly disappeared when May leaned over the mother and child to softly say, “Merry Christmas.”