As a young girl is dying, her brother works to get her the one thing she wants the most for Christmas.
I very well remember that year, so long ago. I was ten years old, and the man of the house. My sister Kate was half my age. Mama, Kate, and I lived in a small house on the edge of town. Mama worked at a small shop in town, mending clothes. It had been this way since my dad died.
It was the end of the year, and Christmas was slowly approaching. As one day dragged on to the next, I found myself thinking of Christmas more and more. This year would be different, though. Kate was sick, and she had been for the last couple months.
Sitting on the back porch, I eagerly waited for the doctor to come. After what seemed like eternity, I saw the long black car of the doctor’s come into sight.
“Mama, Mama!” I yelled as I ran through the house towards the front door. “The doctor is almost here!”
“Well when he gets here bring him into Kate’s room!”
I skidded to a halt in front of the the door as the doctor came up the steps and knocked. Without hesitating a single moment, I opened the door and let him in the house. I looked at him, a grim smile creeping over my face. “This way, doctor,” I said, walking down the hall towards Kate’s room. Mama was sitting on a chair by Kate’s bed when I came in. As the doctor came in, mama stood up and shook his hand. Putting her hand on my shoulder, Mama led me out of the room and into the small sitting room. Anxiously we sat, waiting for the doctor to come out. At last the doctor came down the hall and looked at us, a grave look on his face.
“Is she gonna be alright?” Mama asked the doctor, with fear clouding her voice.
“Well, it appears that her simple cold has turned into pneumonia,” he said.
At first Mama said nothing. But at last she said, “What can we do?”
“Nothing much. Keep her in her room and give her things that won't upset her stomach. Try to keep visiting to a minimal, so as to keep it from spreading. Don't let the boy here around her, if at all possible. I'm gonna send someone out with some medicine that might help. Other than that, there's nothing much else I can do. You might want to have funeral arrangements made. I'm sorry.”
My stomach was churning. I felt like it was my fault. If I had gotten Kate out of the water faster and gotten her home sooner after she fell in the pond, maybe she wouldn't have gotten so sick. There was nothing I could do now, though. Kate was going to die. Just like daddy, and there was nothing me and Mama could do except sit and wait.
Mama thanked the doctor and told him that she would pay him when she got her next check. After that, the doctor left and Mama sat in her chair. She didn't say anything to me, so I went outside. I stayed out there until it got dark. When I went in, Mama was making Kate some soup.
“When I finish this, I'll make us supper. You stay away from Kate, you hear me?”
“Go wash. Your hands are filthy. Clean your face, too.”
“Yes, Mama.” I ran outside and washed my face and hands like Mama said. I went back in when I was finished and sat with my jacks on the floor. Soon, supper was finished. Mama and I sat at the table and ate in silence. Mama didn't cook much; she knew neither of us would eat much tonight. The news of Kate's illness weighed heavily upon us and we did not want to do much of anything. That night, after Mama went to bed, I slipped into Kate's room. I sat by her bed and talked to her for a while, which made her happy. After she fell asleep, I slipped back into my room and did the same. Things wouldn't be the same without Kate.
The next day the doctor's assistant came by and gave us the medicine for Kate. Mama began giving it to her right away. Kate didn't like the taste of it, but she took it anyway. I spent my day working outside, making a new table to go in Mama's room. It was small, but the carvings on the legs took time, and I was thankful for any task that took my mind off of Kate. At night I slipped into Kate's room and talked her until she fell asleep.
This became my routine over the next week. Work outside and stay away from Kate by day, and talk and laugh quietly with her every night. Mama never knew. Finally, it was a little over a week before Christmas.
“Aren't you excited?” Kate asked me one night.
“Of course I am, Kate,” I said.
“Have you told Mama what you want?” she asked.
“I ain't told her yet, and I'm not going too, either.”
“Cause I don't want Mama to feel guilty about not being able to get what I want.”
We were silent for a few moments, neither of us knowing what to say.
Finally, Kate broke the silence. “You know what I want for Christmas, Jake?”
“No,” I said.
“Well, Jake, I want a rose.”
“A rose? What do you want a rose for?” I asked, “I mean, they're pretty an' all, but they don't live long, Kate. They die too soon.”
“Roses are like me, aren't they, Jake?” she asked me.
I didn't expect her to say anything like that, nor did I have any idea how to answer her. I didn't say anything for a while.
Then Kate asked another question that hit me in my heart. “I'm going to die, aren't I, Jake?”
We both knew that she was, but I couldn't bring myself to say it, not to her.
“You want a rose for Christmas?”
“I want a rose more than anything in this world, Jake. 'Cause when I die, you and Mama can't go with me. If I get a rose for Christmas, I can take it with me. And maybe, when I get to heaven and I meet Jesus, he'll tell me I can keep it with me. And when I find Daddy, I can show it to him. And he'll say it's pretty, just like me.”
“What color do you want, Kate?”
“A white one, Jake. A pretty white one.” she mumbled as she started to fall asleep.
“Yeah, a white one. It'll be pretty, too, Kate, but no rose in the world could be prettier than you,” I said, fighting back tears.
After she was asleep, I went back to my room. That night, I cried for the first time since Daddy died. I made a promise to myself that I would get Kate a white rose for Christmas. The next morning I told Mama that I was going in town.
“What for, Jake?” she asked.
“To find a Christmas gift for Kate,” I said.
“You know good and well, Jake, that I ain't got no money to pay for a gift.”
“I'll find a job, cutting wood or something,” I said.
“All right, but you be back before dark, you hear me?”
“Yes, Ma'am.” I ran out the door and headed towards town. When I got in town, I started to ask all the shop owners if they needed an assistant. I told them I wouldn't ask much for pay, but all of them said they already had an assistant and they couldn't afford to hire another one. Well, I started to head home, when I heard someone calling.
I turned around, not sure if the man was talking to me or not.
“Yeah, you. Come here, boy.”
Slowly I walked over to the man to see what he wanted.
“Heard you say you was lookin' for a job,” the man said.
“Well, I've got one, if you want it.”
“I do!” I said.
“Then meet me at my place tomorrow morning. It's on the right side of the road coming in to town from your place. Don't be late, yeh hear me, boy?”
“Yes, sir,” I said.
I quickly ran home and went inside to tell Mama that I had found a job.
“Doing what?” Mama asked.
“He didn't tell me, but I know where to go,” I said.
“You'll need breakfast to go, then. I'll have it ready for you.”
“Okay, Mama.” I went back outside and started working on the table again. I continued to work until it got dark, then I went in to eat supper.
That night, I almost didn't go to see Kate. But I swallowed my fears of a difficult conversation and slipped out of my room and down the hall to Kate's room.
“Hey, Kate,” I whispered as I got near her bed.
When I heard her voice, I was surprised that it was not feeble like it normally was. We talked for about an hour, and when Kate was asleep, I slipped back into my room.
The next day, before I went to work, Kate gave Mama and I the surprise of our lives. Kate came out of her room and sat in the sitting room. For months she had been too weak to stand. Now she was walking.
“Kate!” Mama exclaimed when she saw her.
I couldn't stay to chat with Kate because I had to go to work. I put my breakfast pack on my back, said goodbye to Mama and Kate, and started walking. When I reached the man's house, I saw no one around. I opened the gate and went into the backyard.
“I see you made it,” a voice called. It was the man who offered me the job. “Well, get over here, boy.”
I walked to where I heard the voice. The man was standing by a bunch of uncut pieces of wood. An ax was leaned against his leg, and he was lighting a cigarette. He looked up at me and released a puff of smoke.
“Well, What ya waitin' for? Chop this wood and stack it over along the wall.”
I took the ax and started chopping at the wood as I was told. The man went in- side and I didn't see anymore of him until later in the day. I made a rhythm of swinging the ax and splitting the wood, and then setting the ax down long enough to put the split wood against the wall as I was instructed. It was well into the afternoon when the man came back out with a sandwich and a glass of water. Graciously, I accepted the food and drink that I was offered and sat down on a log that I hadn't chopped yet. I ate my food in silence, and when I finished, I went back to work just as silent. When I finished cutting the wood and it was all neatly stacked against the wall, the man came out. He walked over and placed some coins in my hand. After he walked away, I counted my pay. It amounted to twelve cents. I put the money in my pocket and went home, leaving the ax leaned up against the trunk that the wood was split on.
For the next two days that I went back, I was chopping wood. On the fourth day of work I was told to sand and paint a small chest. By lunch I was finished. Then the man told me to shovel snow away from his door. I did as I was told, even though I was deadly cold. My thin jacket did very little to keep out the chill of the heavy snow around me. The pay was the same as the first three days. Twelve cents. I went home shortly before dusk, glad to be in front of the fire in our hearth, despite however meager it was. The next few days went the same. Work all day to get my twelve cents pay, and go home to be greeted by Mama and Kate. It wasn't easy, because I still had to chop wood when I go home, even though I'd worked all day. The night before Christmas, things took a turn for the worst for Kate. She couldn't get out of bed and her breathing came in short, ragged gasps. Mama and I knew that she would be with Daddy soon. Finally it was Christmas day. After I collected my pay, which was twelve cents despite the fact that I had only worked a few hours instead of a full day, I continued along the snow covered road to town. I went into the flower store, just before it closed for the day.
“How much for one white rose, Sir?” I asked the man at the counter.
“One dollar and ten cents, son,” He said, looking down at me from the counter.
I reached into my pocket and put my change on the counter for the man to count. I stood there waiting as patiently as I could while he counted it. Finally, he looked down at me with a frown on his aged face.
“You only have a dollar and eight cents. You're short two cents. I'm sorry.” He handed me my money and went to arranging things behind the counter.
“But, but... can't you give me a rose and let me owe you the two cents?” I stammered.
“Sorry, son. There's no IOU's accepted at this store.”
“Please, Sir. It's for my sister, Kate!” I was desperate to get a rose for Kate.
When the man said nothing, I put my change in my pocket and started for home. I was in tears by the time I reached home. I went in and found Mama in Kate's room. The expression on her face was somber, and her eyes were clouded with tears. I knew then that Kate would never see the sunrise that tomorrow would present. I went back in and sat in front of the fire to warm up, but nothing could warm the coldness that I felt in my heart. I was thinking about Daddy and Kate, happy memories of when she was younger and when Daddy was still alive. A knock on the door startled me back to the present. I got up and went to open the door. I was surprised to see the man from the flower shop standing there. In his hands he had a beautiful white rose.
“I decided that you needed this rose more than I needed the two cents. Or the rest of the cost, for that matter. Here, it's yours.” He handed the rose to me.
“Thank you, Sir.”
“Think nothing of it, son.” He turned and began walking towards his car that was parked in our driveway. I shut the door, careful not to drop the rose that I was now cradling so carefully in my hand. I went to Kate's room, and Mama left the room when I opened the door and came in. I went over to Kate's bed and knelt down beside it. Kate opened her eyes and looked up at me. Her eyes looked strange, all clouded like they were.
“Hey, Jake.” Her voice was weak, barely more than a whisper.
“Hey, Kate,” I said, “I have something for you.” She tried to sit up, but she only made it a little way. I lifted the rose to where she could see it. She gasped when she saw it.
“You got me a rose! Oh, Jake, it's so pretty!” For a single moment her eyes were the glistening stars that they had been since she was real young. She took the rose from my hands, careful not to prick her finger on one of the thorns. She lifted it up to her nose and smelled it.
“It smells so sweet.”
Kate laid back down, clutching the rose in her hand. She closed her eyes and took a deep breath. She was like that for a few moments. Neither of us said anything.
Finally, I broke the silence. “Kate,” I said. She didn't say anything, nor did she turn to face me. I already knew deep down that she couldn't hear me anymore, but I refused to believe it. “Kate!” a whispered frantically. I shook her gently, but she didn't move. She was gone.
I got up and walked out into the hall. Mama turned to face me, and I know it was the look in my eyes that told her that it was only the two of us. She raced past me into Kate's room. I went outside to have time to think and to escape the sound of Mama's sobs.
Kate was buried two days after Christmas. A few of the townspeople came by our house to convey their sympathies. It was a somber day. Mama fought hard to hold back the tears that waited just behind her eyes. I stayed outside, despite the snow that reached my knees.
Every year after that, I made sure that I had a white rose to set in a vase on our counter. It reminded us of Kate, but for me it served to summon a more sentimental and private memory. It reminded me of the secret conversation that I had had with Kate, the night she told me that she wanted a rose. It reminded me not to give up on people, that they do have goodness in them. I realized that when the man from the flower shop brought me the rose, and told me it was of no cost. Soon after I turned sixteen, Mama died and I was forced to make a living on my own. When I married, I moved away from my hometown. Every year, though, my family and I make a trip back there. Every year I always leave a white rose on Kate's grave, hoping that she will look down at it and smile. I may have forgotten many things since I was ten, but I will always remember that winter, and I will always remember Kate's Christmas rose.