Christmas Eve, 2002
It’s my first Christmas as a mom, and I as sit rocking infant Ben to sleep in the darkened room, I realize that the ubiquitous Christmas telecast of It’s A Wonderful Life (Frank Capra, 1946) is flickering on the ancient television. The sound is muted, but I remember the dialogue. George Bailey (Jimmy Stewart) has just learned that Uncle Billy misplaced the day’s deposit, and despite sacrificing his whole life for the Building & Loan, George is ruined. He can’t listen to his wife Mary cheerfully prattle on about their daughter Zuzu’s cold. He rages about the money spent on the doctor, their money-pit of a drafty house: “I don’t know why we don’t all have pneumonia!”
Ben stirs in his sleep and cries out. I hold my breath as I adjust his IV, which has tangled around my arm and pulled taut. I touch my lips to his sweaty head and he relaxes back into sleep. I exhale, relieved to have avoided another cycle of the anguished cries that raise his fever and bring the nurses running with another round of invasions.
We have pneumonia.
Ben is the only one sick, but as long as he is in the hospital, Tony and I might as well have pneumonia, too. We haven’t slept or showered in days, and we’re subsisting on the cold microwave burritos and donuts that Tony bought on his fevered run to the market when we realized we’d be here awhile. My sister delivered food at some point, but that’s long gone. I’m aching to nurse Ben, who doesn’t have the strength to suck more than a moment or two, so every few hours I submit to the pain and indignity of an industrial-sized pump wheeled over from the maternity ward.
Now snow is falling heavily, and we’ll have no more visitors until the town plows get to work. Even if Ben were well enough to leave, we’d not be able to manage the twisting dirt road back to my parents’ house.
Tony and I have come, with my siblings, their spouses and kids, to my parents’ home in New England. I’d imagined Ben tearing wrapping paper and chewing on ribbon; I was ready to keep him from tugging on the dangling bell ornaments and toppling the tree my Dad cut from his own small lot; I was looking forward to offering him a fingertip dipped in eggnog, his first gingerbread man, a wedge of Yorkshire pudding.
Instead, we are in a small country hospital with our very sick boy, and I’m jealous of the bankrupt, fictional George Bailey because Zuzu only has a cold.
It’s a Wonderful Life is known as a simple and sentimental movie, but there’s nothing like watching it in a hospital to see the film’s darkness, and it’s the frank engagement with life’s real worries, from disease to poverty to war, that I admire. The film opens with shots of snowy, bucolic Bedford Falls, but a voiceover reveals people anxiously praying for their friend, husband, and father George Bailey. We flash back to his childhood, where moments of happiness turn quickly: sledding with friends, George saves his brother from drowning, and is permanently injured as a result; flirting with a girl at the local soda fountain, he learns that the owner’s son has just died in the flu epidemic. When George notices that the grief-stricken pharmacist has filled a prescription incorrectly, we witness his second, but by no means last, act of protective parenting.
He’s a parent long before he has children, always putting the needs of others before his own. He wants to travel the world, build important buildings, make an impact; instead, he never leaves his hometown, takes over his father’s business, and marries that girl from the soda fountain. His own children (four in all) arrive in voiceover and don’t figure in the story until their ruined father rages about their existence to his puzzled wife: “You call this a happy family? Why do we have to have all these kids?!” It’s a shocking, ugly scene; Mary watches him quietly, suggests he leave, then asks their stunned children to pray for him.
It’s the most mothering we’ve seen from Mary (Donna Reed, in the role that cemented her reputation as the perfect movie mom). Until now, she’s been quietly busy, fixing up the house and volunteering in the war effort, the kids playing quietly by her side. She’s calm, competent and efficient (who wouldn’t be with such unreal children?!) But all the while, she makes things happen when George despairs; she’s the one to buy the couple a house, and at the film’s end she takes up a collection to forestall George’s bankruptcy.
Meanwhile, George, weary of parenting his entire community, is given a tour of the village without him in it to appreciate his impact and importance, to renew his commitment to the town and his family. It’s an opportunity parents never get, and we could all use the perspective.
Sitting in that hospital room rocking Ben, my thoughts skate treacherously in the other direction. I start to imagine my world, only recently transformed by my child, without his demanding, amazing presence. Where would I be without him? Surely not in this hospital room, and that thought suddenly makes the antiseptic space seem sweet.
All I can do is hold him, and so that’s all I do, hour after hour, until at last, late on Christmas night (or is it early the next morning?), Ben wakes without tears for the first time in days. To my great relief he nurses well and then, miracle of miracles, he smiles at me.