Treasured Friends

by Cathy Trotta

 

“It’s the most wonderful time of the year.”  Those words kept running through her head.  Maybe that sentiment was true for most people, but not for Catherine Chandler.

It was Christmas Eve, and Catherine still had not put up her Christmas tree.  Never, in all her adult life, had she waited so long to put up her tree.  Every time she tried to open the boxes filled with all the decorations, she couldn’t get her hands to cooperate.  These were the last of the boxes from her father’s house.  They had been in Catherine’s apartment since Thanksgiving.  She had tried moving them to different areas of her apartment, hoping that the moment would come when she wouldn’t be able to withstand the excitement anymore, and race to unpack them, just as she did when she was a child.  That time had never come.  They sat there, almost mocking her.  Catherine was a realist; in her head, she knew they were innocuous, just plain ordinary boxes.  Her heart knew differently.  She knew the moment that the first flap was unfolded, the memories would come flooding back, and she didn’t know if she would be able to handle the emotions that went along with those memories.  Thankfully, Christmas Day was on a Monday, so no matter what the outcome, she would at least have tomorrow to recover, before heading back to work on Tuesday.

Catherine Chandler had traveled the world.  She had collected ornaments from everywhere she visited.  Some were specific to the area, others were just tchotchkes, things that had caught her eye, or made her smile when she was far from home.  She even had one from that fateful journey to Disneyland, a Sleeping Beauty Castle.  Since she had been part of the Tunnel community, her tree contained not just her items, but all the ornaments made for her by the Tunnel children.  From the youngest, to the oldest, she knew that each had been made from the heart.  That thought made her smile; now why couldn’t the boxes from her childhood have the same effect.

The sun had set, and the shadows of a winter’s evening now filled the apartment.  Catherine had been staring at the boxes for so long; she didn’t notice the time, or the darkness.  She crossed over to the tables and turned on the lamps.  Perhaps, some brightness would chase back the fears.  She plugged in the Christmas lights that adorned her windows and doors, hoping that would help, but it didn’t.

In the Tunnels under New York City, Vincent could feel an indescribable sadness in Catherine.  The children’s choir had performed Friday night, and Catherine had been there, as she was for every event that involved the children.  She had a smile on her face, and made time for each and every child, but she didn’t seem quite herself.  The smiles and the laughter didn’t seem as natural as they normally did.  Unable to concentrate on his book, Vincent decided to pay Catherine a visit.  It was earlier than they had planned, but the sadness she felt, was too intense for him to wait any longer.

Catherine had just opened the first box when Vincent arrived.  He stood silently on the balcony, watching her through the glass doors.  She was holding something in her hand, tears streaming down her cheeks, and sobs racking her body.  Vincent was more worried about Catherine’s mental state than about entering her apartment, so he slid back the door slowly, as his eyes adjusted to the light, careful not to startle Catherine.

Catherine had been clutching the Santa to her chest for so long; that she didn’t see Vincent’s shadow or hear him enter the apartment.  Vincent said her name so softly it was inaudible, and when he crossed the room and touched her gently on the arm, Catherine fell back, startled.

One look at Catherine’s face, confirmed what Vincent had been feeling through the bond.  Wiping the tears from her eyes, and trying to regain her composure, Catherine cleared her throat and asked Vincent, “How long have you been standing there?”

Vincent didn’t want to cause Catherine any more anguish and answered softly, “I just arrived.  I know we were going to meet later this evening; but I felt your sadness, and wanted to see if I could do anything to help.”

Catherine now had mixed emotions.  She was grateful to Vincent for coming to check on her, but going through these boxes was something she had planned on doing by herself.  Hurting Vincent was the last thing she wanted to do, but for once, she had to put her emotional well being first.  Vincent watched as all this played out, not just in Catherine’s expressions, but in her body language as well.  He felt slightly hurt; and feeling like an intruder, Vincent stood to leave.  In a split second, Catherine changed her mind about being alone.  These ornaments were part of her story, and more than anyone in the world, she wanted to share that story with Vincent.  Vincent was still facing her, and before he could turn to leave, Catherine grabbed the bottom of his cloak.  “Vincent, please don’t go.  The contents of these boxes are the memories of my childhood.  It may sound like I’m rambling; but if you’re willing to listen, I would love to share their history with you.”

In one swift movement, Vincent had removed his cloak, placed it on one of the dinky couches, and joined Catherine on the floor.  Neither one of them said a word, then Vincent reached out to take Catherine’s small hands in his.  Catherine looked into those beautiful blue eyes, the eyes that spoke the words that Vincent couldn’t.  In that soft, soothing voice of his, came the words that always made her feel better, “Tell me, Catherine.”

Catherine slowly let go of the Santa she had been clutching when Vincent arrived, and began to tell him about its significance.

“This is my pajama Santa.  When I was a little girl, I would put my special Christmas pajamas in here, and place it in the middle of my pillows, waiting for Christmas Eve, when I could finally wear them.”  A smile formed on Vincent’s lips, and a slight chuckle escaped, as he imagined Catherine as that anxious little girl, waiting for Santa.

Since this was the first time Vincent had come into her apartment for an actual visit, Catherine made them hot chocolate and lit a fire in the fireplace.

As she lifted the items from their long held storage, she told Vincent a story about each one of them.  There was the china angel that had been hers when she was a very little girl.  There was the faded, worn gift card that had once been on a gift from her parent’s friends.  There was the icicle snowman, complete with top hat, and the Santa slipper that had belonged to her best friend Nan when she was young.  Nan had died of bone cancer, which was the first death Catherine had witnessed.  Vincent felt a stabbing pain in his heart, not just for Nan, but also for the sadness that a young Catherine had endured.  “When I was little, all these things were on our tree.  The first Christmas after my mom died, dad and I decorated the tree with these ornaments.  I was too young to fully understand how sad and lonely both my dad and I were.  The next Christmas and the rest of the Christmases until his death, my dad hired a decorator to do our tree.  It changed from year to year.  He never said it out loud; but I realize now that out of sight, out of mind, was my father’s way of dealing with his grief.”

There was the walnut skier she had made for her parents, along with the Styrofoam plate with a Christmas card in the middle, and stitched in yarn on the outside.  With each ornament, each memory, Catherine felt even more sadness.  Vincent was perplexed.  Catherine said sharing these memories would help, but instead it was having the opposite effect.  Catherine looked as if she were somewhere far away from where they sat.  Vincent hated to intrude on Catherine’s thoughts, but the time was ticking away.  In a few hours, he would have to leave, and he didn’t want to leave Catherine in this state of mind.

Catherine finally came back to the present and saw the bewildered look on Vincent’s face.  How could she possibly make him understand what she was going through?  There was only one way to find out.  For the first time, Catherine was going to say the words she had been dreading to say out loud.  This was the main reason these boxes, those ornaments, had been causing her so much heartache.

“Vincent, I know that I have been all over the map with my emotions, and for that I am sorry.  It was hard enough when I lost my mother at such a young age; but now, this is the first Christmas without my father, with no parents. When these boxes arrived, I realized that now . . . I am an orphan.  I am the only child of two only children.  I have no cousins, no uncles, no one that knows my life from the time I was born, until now.  There are Jenny and Nancy who I’ve known since college, there are people I run into occasionally that I went to school with, or ones that were in the same social setting.  Peter was my doctor and a friend of the family, but he didn’t even know that I was a Helper.  I know this sounds very selfish of me. I have much to be grateful for; but this has left emptiness in me, and I don’t know if it will ever be filled.  I don’t feel like I belong Above anymore, and we both know that I’m not ready to live Below full time right now.”

Vincent sat very still thinking about everything Catherine had said. He wanted to choose his words carefully; he didn’t want to upset her any more than she already was.  “Catherine, you were fortunate to grow up with a biological parent.  A lot of the children in the Tunnels, myself included, never had that opportunity.”

“Vincent, the rational side of me knows what you’re saying is true, but my heart doesn’t.  Even though you didn’t know your biological parents, you’ve had Father since you were an infant.  Pascal, Devin, Olivia, you all grew up together in the Tunnels, had the same experiences, just like the current Tunnel children will.  Don’t you see Vincent, I had no one to share my hopes and dreams, my adventures, and now that my father is gone, so are all my chances.”

Catherine had been staring at Vincent when she made that last remark, and had to look away for a moment.  She knew she had hurt him, and needed to apologize before he decided to leave.  Catherine turned her head to apologize, but before she could say a word, Vincent grabbed her, stood up, and drew her head to his chest.

The sound of Vincent’s heartbeat always had a calming effect on Catherine; the only sound in the room was their combined breathing.  She stayed there for a few moments and then tried to lift her head to ask Vincent for forgiveness.  Vincent held her head in place with his hand, never had he done something like this before. 

While Catherine was trying to figure out what was going on, she felt his hot breath on her ear.  He spoke the words she never thought she would hear from him.  “Catherine, you are not alone, we are a part of each other.  I will be with you until I take my last breath, and I will continue to be a part of you once I’m gone.”

Vincent released Catherine’s head, and when she looked at him, tears were streaming down both their cheeks.  She leaned up to kiss him on the side of the mouth just as she had done after her father died.  Vincent turned his head, so that finally, he would feel her lips on his mouth.  The kiss lasted only a few seconds, but at that moment, they both knew that it was a turning point in their relationship.

Catherine felt lighter; the burden she had been carrying was gone.  The atmosphere in the room changed, it now felt filled with magic and love, instead of despair and hopelessness.

Vincent felt the change take place in Catherine’s demeanor.  She looked at him and said, “Thank you, Vincent, for making me remember that I am not alone, that you and I are a part of each other, and for the kiss.”  She didn’t want to say anything else to embarrass him, although she could see that his cheeks were flush with color.

Her mood lifted, Catherine got the tree from her bedroom closet, and wrapped the skirt around the bottom.  Catherine handed some ornaments to Vincent.  “You hold them, and I’ll do the hanging.  I want the tree to look like it did when I was a child.  The tree was always the most important thing to me.  Even though some of the times were painful, unwrapping the ornaments, always made me smile.”

Catherine had turned on the radio, and Christmas music played softly in the background as the bare tree came to life.  With each ornament, Catherine had a story to tell.  There were the beaded ones that she and her mom made in an arts and craft class, not long before her mother died.  There were the beaded ones that Catherine made when she was a little older, as a tribute to her mom.  Catherine had never shown them to her father, she didn’t want to cause him any additional pain, now they held a place of honor on her tree.

Vincent laughed at the Santa with the fur belt that kept falling over.  Catherine’s face lit up while she placed the bells on the bottom of the tree.  She explained that when she was a little girl, she used to lie on the floor and look under the tree, and would always ring the bells.  There was the sleigh with Santa and the reindeer and a reindeer with fur just like the Santa that went under the tree.  A cardinal in a nest, because the cardinal was her mother’s favorite bird, and her mother believed a bird on the tree was good luck.

To blend the old and the new, Catherine added some of the decorations from her travels and from the Tunnel children. Vincent felt the love radiating from Catherine as the last ornament was hung.

Arms wrapped around each other, they stood back to admire their handiwork.  Neither Catherine nor Vincent spoke for a few moments.  Catherine was the first to break the silence.  “Well Vincent, what do you think of my tree of memories?”

Vincent had listened to all the stories, good and bad, about the items that adorned not just the branches of the tree, but the underneath as well.  “Catherine, I know that all of these things both old and new hold very special memories for you.  They have been with you through good times and bad.  I think they are more than just ornaments or keepsakes, I think they are treasured friends.”

 

The End

 

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