This year I want to make a Christmas crib. I haven’t made one since I was a child. I remember the joy of Christmas preparations, my mother opening the chest, pulling out a cardboard box where the shepherds were kept, the stable was wrapped in a big sheet of tissue paper now all crumpled. We used my dad’s desk, he had promised not to work, at least for those few days, and devote himself to us. We pushed the desk towards the wall, in the corner, so we had two walls on which to glue the paper sky, where we had drawn stars and the great comet that had to be placed just above the stable. My mother told me the story of Mary and Joseph, who had been forced to flee because Herod wanted to kill all the children to eliminate the Messiah. Then Mary felt bad, because of fear and fatigue after that journey on the back of the donkey, she was tired, without energy and it was cold that night, so they stopped at a stable where there was an ox. Joseph made her lie down on the straw next to the ox so that its breath and body would warm her, and even the donkey lay down beside her.
When we had fixed the stable and its inhabitants, we dedicated ourselves to arranging the Magi and then the shepherds. We repeated this ritual every year, spending an entire afternoon making the Christmas crib, my mother explained everything to me every year as if for the first time and, as when she was telling me the fairy tales, if she forgot some details, I reminded her. We didn’t put the baby Jesus in the manger because the miracle would happen that night. On Christmas morning, before I ran to look for the presents, I went to check if the baby had been born. And every time I was excited seeing that little body almost naked, I felt sorry for him so I covered him with straw and I breathed close to him to keep him warm because, in my opinion, the ox and the donkey were not sufficient. Then the presents got the upper hand and I didn’t think any more about the Christmas crib until the next year.
This year I’m making a Christmas crib for my granddaughter, now she is able to understand me and I can tell her the story of Mary and Joseph, the donkey, the ox and everything. Maybe I will tell her that they had undertaken the trip because there was a census… But no, better leave the story as my mother told it, it’s easier for a child to understand, what Micol knows about the census, but instead a cruel king who kills the children is closer to the tales which she is accustomed to hearing. My family left this house when I was seven, I returned to live here after a long time. The chest had always remained in the attic but today I asked the boy who helps me with cleaning and his brother to come to my house and they took the chest down from the attic. Dusted and polished, it seems that time has not passed. I open it excitedly, feel the smell of my childhood, everything is as mom fixed it many years ago. I pull out the cardboard box. Above it is written “Christmas Crib”. I recognize my mom’s writing, elegant, a bit tilted to the right.
“Come on, Grandma, open it, I want to see what’s inside.”
I return to the present and I gently take off the lid. The shepherds are wrapped in newspaper, I unroll it slowly, not to damage the paper, I read the date, January 7 1967. A subtle melancholy emerges but I suppress it immediately, it makes no sense to regret such a distant past, life has moved on and brought me many things, experiences, joys, sorrows…
I feel a strong pain in the chest. As if a fist of steel is clutching my heart. And back to the usual anxiety, which had not appeared for a long time. But why just today when I’m so relaxed and happy?
I’m thinking about that other Christmas. Pain, fear, sickness. Fear of the future, fear of the physical pain, fear of making decisions. Will I go to Milan to be operated on once again? But what about my little girl, who can I leave her with for so long? Will there be someone to help me after surgery that, I already know, will be more terrible than the first one? Perhaps it is better that I will have the operation here, so at least I’ll be close to the people who can help me in some way. And who will do the operation here? The doctor who inflicted these tremendous troubles on me with his incompetence and his superficiality? What a terrible Christmas is waiting for me.
And that was a bad Christmas, though less horrible than I feared because the disturbances caused by chemotherapy miraculously lasted for a little less time than I expected, allowing me to feel relatively good on the night of the 24th.
It’s been thirty years since the fateful day of judgment. Because a cancer diagnosis is a judgment. This Christmas is nothing special. There will be a dinner at the home of relatives as usual with noise, children’s screams, stupid gifts that will enrich the jackpot in the lottery of the horrors that I organize every year for the Epiphany in order to dispose of all the monstrosities that have been given to me. We will eat too much bad food, so we will gain the usual four kilograms, which we will then have to lose by making huge sacrifices. Nothing interesting happens in my life. But it’s life! A life, which on that Christmas I thought I couldn’t have. I remember that my friends, during the dinner party, were planning their winter holidays in February. They animatedly discussed the dates, the location, whether there would be more or less snow and the renewal of worn-out ski equipment… I felt even more desperate when I heard this conversation. I couldn’t make any plans, the only thing I knew for sure were the dates of my chemotherapy cycle, provided that the values of the analyses had remained within the norm, because otherwise the treatment had to be postponed, and if it had to be postponed, the delay in therapy could adversely affect the healing process. The result was uncertain, however, because they didn’t give me high hopes. One doctor said in order to encourage me: “Don’t give up, madam, all in all you have a thirty percent chance of healing, even forty, courage!” There was no reason to make any plans for the future. While my friends were arguing where to choose to go for the winter vacation in Canazei or in Cortina I didn’t even know if I would be alive in February.
Yet I did it. This is why I am here to tell you about it, because I want to send a message of trust to those who are still fighting. It will be hard, I do not hide it, sometimes very hard. But it’s not a lost fight at the start, even if they told you otherwise. The desire to live plays a very important role. And I had a great desire to live. You have to create goals worth fighting for. I had a little girl of just over a year and another of nine. If these are not goals! And I fought tooth and nails, and now I have this little granddaughter who renews my life. I’m smiling while I’m telling her the story of baby Jesus and it occurs to me that these thirty years of life, these thirty days of Christmas that I spent with my daughters, which I got from destiny, has been the best Christmas gift I’ve ever received.
This short story was published in the anthology Greetings to Dickens published by Scalino in 2012