Auna's Christmas Gift

Chris Hanson thought about leaving town for Christmas. His parents lived in Florida and it would be easy to hop a plane to Orlando for the holiday but he normally visited them in the spring when the tourist crowds weren't as intrusive. The idea of a Florida Christmas for the New England native was too foreign for him to grasp so he opted to stay home although he had no interest in celebrating the holiday. The Christmas cards sat in a forgotten pile on a table in the corner of the living room and the decorations remained in boxes in the cellar. It was the first year without Cheryl and he just couldn't bring himself to fake the joy of the season.

Chris was seated on the stairs leading to the second floor listening to Sinatra on the CD Player waiting for the next few days to be over. It was Christmas Eve and he had taken a personal day from work just to avoid the office celebration and merriment. He didn't want to ruin other people's cheerful moods with his ongoing grief and despondent outlook.

Then the doorbell rang which was ironic because the number of visitors had drastically dropped in the past several months. It was a revolving door during Cheryl's illness and in the weeks following her passing (two days after Christmas last year) but life returns to normal for most people after a death, leaving widowers alone to try to pick up the pieces of a broken life and move on ever so slowly. Chris dropped out of his normal social circles and his friends had moved on with their lives, tired of waiting for Chris to rebound from his prolonged sadness.

Chris figured his mother sent a last minute present which was being delivered by the UPS Guy so he was caught off guard when he opened the door to see Auna Haskell standing on the stoop. They had grown up together, she was good friends with Cheryl, and she was Cheryl's Hospice nurse in the final weeks of Cheryl's life.

"Hi, Chris," Auna said cheerfully, laughing when she saw the look of surprise on his face. "Merry Christmas."

"Jesus," Chris remarked with wide eyes. "I haven't seen you sinceā€¦the funeral."

"I know," Auna said with regret, pushing past him and entering the house. She was carrying a couple of large bags and she was dressed in a long brown coat with a white wool cap on her head.

She placed the bags on the living room floor and proceeded to take off her coat, revealing designer jeans and a cheerful green Holiday sweater underneath with tall black leather boots.

"What are you doing here?" Chris asked with confusion.

"I had a feeling I might find you like this," Auna replied, taking the white cap off her head and shaking out her shoulder length auburn hair.

"Yeah," Chris sighed. "It's kind of weird."

She glanced around the room. "Bah, Humbug, huh?"

He shrugged. "Just couldn't get in the spirit."

"I know," Auna nodded with understanding. "That's why I'm here." She smiled knowingly

"Why aren't you at work?"

"I quit."

"What? Why?" Chris was shocked. "You're a terrific Hospice nurse."

"I burnt out," she revealed, collapsing onto the couch and patting the cushion next to her for him to join her.

Chris crossed the room and took a seat by her side.

"How are things with Morris?" He asked.

"We broke up," Auna announced without much emotion in her voice.

"Jesus," Chris said with even more surprise.

"Yep," she said plainly. "Kicked him out months ago. Sold the house too."

"What in the hell is going on, Auna?" Chris wanted to know.

"Time to change my life," She let him know. "I'm moving to Arizona the day after tomorrow. My sister lives there now. I got a job teaching nursing at the community college there."

"Holy shit."

"Want to come with me?" Auna smirked.

"Arizona?" He frowned. "I don't think so."

"Think about it," she smiled. "Maybe it's time for you to make a new start too."

"I couldn't leave," Chris reasoned. "This house. This town. Too many memories."

"You sure?" Auna tested.

"The company was very good to me when Cheryl was sick," Chris replied. "I couldn't bail on them now."

"You were always too nice for your own good," Auna noted.

Chris was peering at her as if he had just figured it out. "So, this is goodbye."

"I guess," she shrugged. "Maybe I'll come back for our twenty-fifth reunion in a few years. Haven't missed one yet."

"Cheryl was at the last one," Chris sighed.

"I know," Auna smiled sadly. "I miss her too."

"You can't leave," Chris protested. "You're my last link."

"To her?" Auna squinted. "Don't be ridiculous."

Chris sucked in his breath. "I'll never be able to thank you enough for all you did," he said.

"We've been friends for a long time, Chris," she reminded him.

"Seventh grade," he confirmed.

"That was even before we met Cheryl," she said.

"It was," he acknowledged.

They exchanged long looks and then Auna finally rose from the couch. "So," she said. "I brought some decorations to cheer this place up knowing you would be doing your Scrooge impersonation." She glanced at him. "Is that okay?"

"Sure," he said with resignation. "You're leaving. How can I be a jerk to you now?"

"You were never a jerk to me," Auna said.

She pulled an electric ceramic green Christmas tree with tiny light bulbs on it and placed it on the table, plugging it in to the wall socket so it lit up. She also pulled out a couple of stuffed Santas, a statue of Mother Mary holding Baby Jesus, a plastic Linus standing in a manger (when you push the button he recited his meaning of Christmas speech from Charlie Browns' Christmas special), a box of chocolates, and a bottle of champagne. She took a Christmas CD from the bag and she replaced Sinatra with it in the player.

"There," she said, smiling at him from where she stood by the bookcase. "Now it's beginning to look and sound a little more like Christmas around here."

"I didn't do Christmas last year," Chris reminded her.

"That's no reason why you can't do it this year."

"It's just not the same."

"I get that," Auna assured him. "Listen, I was supposed to leave yesterday," she revealed.

"Why didn't you?"

"Because I couldn't stop thinking of you sitting alone in this house grieving over last Christmas and remembering all the Christmases before that so I changed my flight," she explained. "Really pissed my sister Patty off, I must say."

"You didn't have to do that," Chris told her guiltily.

"I know," she said. "I wanted to."

"For me?" Chris asked with uncertainty.

"It's been a year, Chris," she sighed, returning to the couch and taking a seat next to him.

"My parents wanted me to go to Florida," he sighed.

"Why didn't you?"

"I just couldn't," he reasoned.

"It's okay," she whispered, resting her head against his shoulder.

They had first done this when they were thirteen, young innocents with their entire lives ahead of them. They were friends and maybe even first loves but then others came along to steal their hearts but they remained friends and then they both became friends with Cheryl a few years later and by high school senior year Chris was dating Cheryl and that was okay with Auna because she was dating Brusso by then.

College followed, Chris and Cheryl marrying, returning to Hillsboro and enjoying a happy marriage, Chris working his way up the corporate ladder at the plastics factory while Cheryl found her calling as an elementary school teacher. Auna married a guy from college but that only lasted a few years. She eventually made her way back to Hillsboro and worked as a nurse at Blue County Medical Center, the Greenville Nursing Home, and a private on call agency before becoming a Hospice nurse with the Blue County Agency on Aging. She went through a series of relationships but never remarried. Chris thought perhaps Morris was the one, but apparently not.

Cheryl became fatigued about three years ago. Several tests were run and it was discovered she had non-Hodgkin's lymphoma which went into remission for a year or so but then she was diagnosed with cancer which she battled gallantly until it was determined that she was terminal and she decided to die at home, Auna by her side as one of Cheryl's Hospice nurses.

"It's been a year and I still can't believe she's gone," Chris said as they sat listening to the Christmas CD softly playing in the background.

"I know," Auna told him.