ONCE UPON A CHRISTMAS

She had no way of knowing – the dear girl – what those two apparently unrelated questions would do to me: How they would wrench the rocket of our lives out of one trajectory and thrust it willy-nilly into another, destination unknown.

But life is like that, epiphanies are like that: only in retrospect are we able to track down cause from the effect.

*******

It was a snowy December morning like so many others, before or since, when that first question happened. After one of my English classes, Naomi Snowdy (one of our English majors), skipped preliminaries and small talk, saying, “Dr. Wheeler, I’m so sick of dorm regulations and cafeteria food that if I have to endure another weekend of it I think I’ll go stark raving mad! Can I come home with you this weekend?”

I called my wife and quoted Naomi to her. She laughed and said, “Sure, I can remember feeling that way, too, during college. Tell her she’s welcome.”

So the stage was set. I can see it now as though it were yesterday rather than 21 long years ago. We’d reached our Annapolis home, on the shores of Maryland’s shimmering Severn River. Naomi had unpacked, we’d eaten a delicious supper, the wind was howling outside, and the snow was slashing at our windows.

After dinner, exhausted from the long week, I leaned back into my big brown easy chair, across from a cracking fire and Naomi. She had a contemplative look in her eyes that I mistook for a look of blissful gratitude that she had a break with little to do, for that was what I was thinking.

Oh, it all started so innocently! She leaned toward me, and said softly, conversationally, “Dr. Wheeler, have you ever thought of writing a Christmas story?”

Unaware of my doom, and just as relaxed as she, I lazily answered, “Yes, I’ve thought of it.”

“Well, why haven’t you?” “Oh, I will – someday.”

I had not a clue about what was behind that ostensibly dreamy look in Naomi’s eyes. But now, after all these years, I’ve finally pieced it together.

Naomi was in my creative writing class, the victim of many of my deadlines during the semester. I was completely blindsided by her reversal of roles as she sat up straight, lost the dreamy look, and barked out a question that was really a command: “Why don’t you write it tonight?”

Tonight? I looked at her unbelievingly. Surely she was just kidding.

Inexorably she responded with, “Yes, tonight. It’s going to snow all weekend anyway, so what else are we going to do? Besides” – and she gave me a malicious smirk – “I want to proof your story.”

I couldn’t believe it: sweet, soft-spoken Naomi turning out to be a tyrant in disguise! But try as I did to beg off, to get out of it, Naomi was as intransigent as Gibraltar . . . and my wife, Connie, was no help either. She just laughed and sided with Naomi, so it was two against one – no, make that three against one. My last hope was that the good Lord, in His great mercy, would grant me a severe case of writer’s block – that way I wouldn’t have to write the miserable thing. But God ganged up on me, too. Virtually instantaneously, He gave me a full-blown plot. All I had to do was flesh it out and write it.

So, I dutifully wrote all evening, all day Saturday, and part of Sunday. As fast as I completed a page, Naomi would snatch it out of my hands, read it, scribble viciously on it, and hand it back, saying, “Fix it!” . . . So that was my “relaxing” weekend. Eventually we finished. The story even had a name: appropriately, we titled it “The Snow of Christmas.” The topic was a young husband who deserted his lovely wife and young daughter one Christmas.

In creative writing class that next Monday morning, Naomi took fiendish delight in regaling her classmates with the story of the weekend and she handed out copies of my story to everyone. That started a chain of dominoes that are toppling still. I gave out copies to colleagues, friends, and family –

Big mistake! For next Christmas season, people said, “Well, you wrote a Christmas story last year – so what’s keeping you from writing one this year?”

So I wrote “The Bells of Christmas Eve,” ostensibly for my American literature class. Since my students were reading Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, I wrote this Christmas romance, set in Switzerland (about a little-known interlude in Alcott’s life), as a gift to them.

No big deal! Or so it seemed.

HOW TO FALL DOWN STAIRS

Yes, there is an art to it, and—inadvertently, it must be admitted—I have perfected that art.  Following are the ideal conditions for pulling it off:

  • Be sure you are sleeping in an unfamiliar bed in a relatively unfamiliar house.
  • Set an alarm clock; but be sure it is some distance away so that, when it rings, you will have to get out of bed and grope for it.
  • By all means set it for an early hour, so that it will be pitch-dark when it rings.
  • Be sure and place a suitcase—for strategic purposes—directly in line of the steps you’ll have to take before you reach the alarm clock.
  • Make certain you are sleeping in an upper-story of a house.
  • Make doubly certain there is a long flight of stairs in close proximity to the alarm clock (descending stairs, of course); and none of those namby-pamby carpeted stairs, but real he-man wooden ones.
  • At the bottom of the stairs you should make sure you have a tile landing on which to conclude your fall, and a solid wooden door to ram your head into.
  • The choice of the right alarm clock is a must: none of those soft, languorous lullabies, but a no-nonsense demanding “Beep! Beep! Beep! Beep!” followed by an almost immediate strident double-time beep (guaranteed to disorient and confuse you as you stumble around).
  • With this preamble, you’re almost preordained to blindly launch into space off the top stair.  In the pitch-dark it will seem surreal as you fall into the void.  Then you will hit, hit, hit, and hit, as you roll down the stairs.  Because you are so disoriented and nine-tenths asleep, you will roll down like a rag doll or someone who is blissfully dead-drunk.
  • By the time you reach the bottom, you are guaranteed an audience because of your thunderous fall and unconscious but heartfelt moans.  You’ll immediately rouse the entire household.
  • By all the laws of probability, you should have (at the very least), a broken neck, broken back, or broken hip–with an excellent chance of being paralyzed for life.  But if you follow my fool-proof directions, you’ll merely end up a mass of black, blue, purple, and green bruises (spectacularly beautiful to those with a perverted sense of humor), and rather than be in a body cast, you’ll revel in around-the-clock ice-pack treatments, heat-treatments, and a steady stream of extra-strength pain pills.
  • Did I mention sympathy?  Oh yes, plenty of that.
  • And outright disbelief from the entire medical profession who will consider you a postcard example of the miraculous.
  • One more thing: That God must have an awfully good reason for a deus-ex-machina rescue of His stupid child.

* * * * *

My solo-flight took place at 5:30 A.M., Wednesday, November 10, in Annapolis, Maryland.  I have no current plans to re-enact it.  Once you achieve perfection in something, it makes no sense to do it again!