The Tree Top Angel
by Phyllis Bohonis
IIt’s Christmas once again. The season for remembering my old friend, Cheryl. She didn’t make it to that last Christmas a number of years ago … just as she had wished.
Cheryl told me once she had two wishes in her life, but she really had three. One was to ride on a Harley-Davidson motorcycle — preferably with Hell’s Angels. Hell’s Angels? For a middle-aged, grey-haired librarian to dream about jumping on the back of a motorcycle with a gang of notorious bikers was, well … shocking.
During the spring of her fiftieth year, Cheryl was diagnosed with cancer. She’d complained of a sore throat for a number of months and when it didn’t go away after repeated doses of antibiotics, she finally learned that cancer in her stomach was the cause. A series of chemo-therapy sessions followed during which this tall, vibrant woman lost all of her hair and much of her weight.
I met her for lunch on a warm June day. She was bright-eyed and smiling as always, wearing a large-brimmed straw hat and a colourful sundress. She spoke about her cancer openly, knowing even then that she wasn’t going to beat it. Her only regret was that she probably would not ride with Hell’s Angels nor in a hot air balloon — her second fantasy. Time was running out and her constant nausea was preventing her from doing many things.
The summer progressed and we visited one way or another several times. She was on constant medication to control her vomiting so was not able to stray far from her little bungalow where she lived alone. She called me one day, her voice resonating with excitement. “Phyllis, guess what I just did.” I took three guesses. All incorrect of course. She went on to tell me. “I was sitting in my living room, waiting for some co-workers to stop by with my fiftieth birthday cake, when I heard a noise out in the street. When I opened my front door, there were about twenty Hell’s Angels outside, revving their Harley-Davidsons. When they saw me they shouted, ‘Happy birthday, Cheryl. Ready to go for a ride?’”
She was only able to go a few blocks but it was enough. She told me she climbed on the back of one of their bikes and in her words “took off in a cloud of dust”. Some of her friends and co-workers from the library had arranged that little surprise for her.
As August progressed, Cheryl became weaker. By September, she was pretty well house-bound. She did manage to attend a dinner meeting of Soroptimist International, a women’s service organization to which we both belonged. We were asked to share any experiences we had enjoyed over the summer. With a smug smile Cheryl stood up and told of her wild ride on a Harley with the pack of bikers. After the hoots and cheers died down, several comments were heard about it being a myth librarians were quiet, sedate women.
One day in October, I received a phone call from an excited Cheryl. Her same friends had commissioned a hot air balloon to be delivered from southern Ontario to Thunder Bay. Cheryl was going to receive her second wish after all. It had been cleared with Cheryl’s doctor who was going to accompany her. When the big day arrived, the weather was perfect and Cheryl got her balloon ride. It was shorter than most, but still left her smiling.
Cheryl continued to go downhill. Time was long on her hands and she was finding it difficult getting through her days. During one of my visits to her home, I asked if she was well enough to make one of her tree top angels for our fall bazaar. They were always a hit as she made beautiful angels with long white-lace robes and golden halos. Her eyes sparkled at the idea and she gave me a list of supplies she would need. A couple weeks later, her mother told me how it had brightened Cheryl’s days to have something constructive to do even though she was not strong enough to sit up for long. When our bazaar day rolled around and word was out that one of Cheryl’s angels would grace our craft table, the bargaining began. As each member vied for the purchase of that last angel, the price sky-rocketed. The final bid took us well over the top of our projected goal.
A month later, the hospital became her new home where visiting her was always a pleasure. We would laugh and joke just as we always had. She again thanked me for giving her the opportunity to create one last angel for the club from whom she felt she had received so much over the years. I told her my only regret was that I had missed out on being the one to purchase it. We laughed when I told her once again about the bidding war the sale of her angel caused at our bazaar.
If it’s possible to envy a person dying from cancer, that’s how I felt about Cheryl. I admired her strength, her dignity and the serenity with which she accepted her fate. During a visit in December we were discussing this and I mentioned how well she was handling her pain. I was surprised when she told me she suffered no pain. “I’m such a wimp, Phyllis. I’ve never been good at dealing with pain. That’s my one prayer, that God will take me before I suffer too much. Please, when you pray for me, ask Him to spare me that. While you’re at it, ask Him to spare my family a Christmas of watching me die. I want to go soon so they can stay at home and enjoy their turkey dinner without worrying about me.”
I was flabbergasted, but she was adamant. My prayer for her must be for no pain and no Christmas. She was gone within a week. No pain and no Christmas. She had received her third wish.
I attended her funeral a few days later. The church was full as befitted a woman who was so well-loved. Upon leaving the church, her mother handed me a brown paper bag. “Cheryl wanted me to give this to you after she was gone.” Inside the bag was an angel with beautiful, white-lace robes and a golden halo. I couldn’t hold back my tears as she said, “Cheryl made this from the left over fabric from the other one. She wanted you to have the last one.”
Every year as I place that angel atop my Christmas tree, I run my fingers over the white lace and straighten the halo and remember my old friend, Cheryl. I visualize her wearing a colourful sundress, holding on to her wide-brimmed straw hat and grinning at me while riding off in a cloud of dust on the back of a big ole Harley.
I’ve had this angel for over twenty years. It still brings me much joy when I place it atop our Christmas tree. It’s a gift that has kept on giving. I’ve told this story many times over the years. It’s not a sad story. Cheryl was a vibrant happy woman who brings a smile to my face every year just thinking about her. It’s my very own Christmas Classic.
Do you have a tree ornament or Christmas decoration that brings you fond memories each year? Do your family a great favour and write those memories down. Keep them stored with the ornament or ornaments if you have more than one that is treasured. Someday it may well be your grandchild’s or nephew’s or niece’s own Christmas Classic.
Merry Christmas to all.