Sunday,December 7th at 11:30 a.m.
“Aggie, NO!” commanded Jenn, words which stopped their golden retriever from stretching her paws onto the countertop to investigate the contents of the grocery bags. Scratching behind the dog’s ear as a reward for obeying, Jenn observed, “It’s really too bad she has the prettiest color hair in this household.”
As Aggie panted and wagged her tail, Rachel unloaded the perishables, put them in the refrigerator, and smirked. “It’s even more unfortunate that she has the longest tongue in this household.”
“And it’s equally unfortunate that she’s by far the best trained in this household,” Jenn retorted.
“Nah, the tongue is more unfortunate,” grinned Rachel.
Reaching for the box of coffee filters, Jenn turned and said: “Rach—I forgot to tell you. We’ll be eight. The two of us, my parents, Maggie and Seth, and Kelly WILL be able to come with Ellen. On Wednesday, somebody volunteered to work her Christmas Day shift.”
“Kelly can come?”Lost in thought, Rachel finally responded, “Okay, I’ll be sure to get out the extra leaf for the table.”
Friday, December 19th, 6:45, p.m.
Exiting the elevator, Rachel smelled the holly wreath before she saw it. Her throat and buttocks tightened simultaneously because she knew she couldn’t avoid the conversation any longer.
As she pushed open their front door, Rachel saw Jenn’s long, muscular legs crossed and draped over one arm of their Stickley rocker. Sensing her partner coming through the entryway, Jenn waived and signaled that she was just about to get off the phone.
“That was my mother. My parents will be making a late flight on the 23rd, so they’ll stay at the Marriot out by the airport. My sister and Seth will drive down early on the 24th, and if you don’t mind, they’ll use the guest bedroom.” Rachel smiled wryly and asked: “Is that your subtle way of telling me that I have less than four days to clean up ‘the room formerly known as my study,’ and it better be spotless?”
Jenn strolled over, put her arms around her partner’s waist, looked into her face adoringly, and said “Sweetie, I just can’t wait to spend our first Christmas together. It’s a time to share with those you love most—and you, my dear, are at the very top of my short list. Besides, it’s time you finally met my parents. And I promise, my father will be on his best behavior.”
Clearing her throat, Rachel disentangled herself from her lover’s embrace, backed up a step, and finally summoned up the courage to say, “Hon, I hope you won’t be too disappointed, but I won’t be here. I have to work Christmas.”
“Is that some sort of joke? How could you be working? You’re a med school professor. All of your students will be out on vacation.”
“I have to work.” Rachel repeated. “I won’t be here.”
“What are you saying? My parents are flying in from Chicago. Maggie and Seth are driving down from Vermont.” Jenn’s tone went from puzzled companion to authoritative Top in record time. “You don’t have a choice. You HAVE to be here. And you WILL be here.”
“No. I won’t.”
As the seconds ticked by, and Rachel still hadn’t yielded, Jenn quietly but ominously stated, “Let me put it this way. If you don’t attend, I promise you the single most unpleasant evening since Cro-Magnon Woman invented the wooden spoon. Am I making myself clear?”
Rachel paused momentarily, and replied, “I don’t believe that Cro-Magnon Woman invented the wooden spoon.”
Surprised that Rachel hadn’t been cowed by her tone, Jenn gritted her teeth and tried a different tack. “When you lived with Sarah, you attended parties. She loved them. We met at that Halloween party she threw before her last round of chemo.”
“It wasn’t a Halloween party,” Rachel replied. It was a Hanukkah party, and guests had the choice of bringing a home-made dish, or coming dressed as Haman or Queen Esther. Sarah didn’t ‘do’ Christmas, either.”
“Sarah didn’t ‘DO’ Christmas? She never MET a holiday she didn’t like.”
“Sarah and I came from similar backgrounds. Both of us grew up with the tradition of spending Christmas Day going out for a dim sum brunch with our families, and then seeing the first showing of a new blockbuster movie.”
Jenn reflected for a moment, and then focused on the realization that the girlfriend she always thought of as an agnostic, was, in fact, Jewish, and proud of her cultural identity, even though no longer observant. After considering this information, Jenn leaned back against the bookcase, and calmly stated, “Rach, I’m not asking you to attend Midnight Mass. I’m not even asking you to help me decorate the tree, or hang stockings, or bake Christmas cookies. I just want you to be here to share Christmas dinner with me and my family. With YOUR family. That’s not too much to ask. Don’t you understand about Christmas traditions?”
Rachel looked up at the woman who provided her with stability and structure – the one who had rescued her from despair and dysfunction when Sarah had died – and said, “I don’t have a problem participating in any of those traditions, and if you want, this afternoon I’ll help you hang lights over the fireplace, but as I’ve said, I’m not coming.”
Thursday, December 25th at 11:50p.m.
As she reached for her key to their apartment, Rachel dreaded opening the door. She hated fighting with Jenn, and the tension this past week had been almost unbearable. Walking through the entranceway, she was surprised to see her lover sitting in the darkness in her favorite chair, gently rocking back and forth.
“Jenn, I’m sorry. I just couldn’t…”
“Rachel, stop. I know where you were. Jim Parker called all the partners of doctors who worked in the ER today. He thanked me for being so understanding…. He also told me you’ve been covering Christmas shifts for colleagues for over twenty years, ever since you were a first-year resident. Why didn’t you tell me?”
“I did tell you. I said I was working, and I was.”
“Why didn’t you explain the reason to me?”
“You wouldn’t understand.”
“Jenn, I did it to honor one of the only two Jewish traditions I still observe. In Judaism, Pikuach Nefesh (פיקוח נפש) is the principle that the preservation of human life overrides any other rule or consideration. By working an ER shift on Christmas, I get to provide colleagues with the opportunity to spend time with their families on a day of special significance to them, while I get the opportunity to help save a life, and honor my own beliefs.”
“It’s a lovely tradition. Really. It is. But I still don’t understand why you couldn’t just tell me.”
“It was because Kelly was coming, and you’d have had to explain to her why I wasn’t here.”
“What? What are you talking about?”
“The other religious teaching I still believe in? It’s called Tzedakah (צדקה). That’s the Hebrew word for charity. I learned as a child that we all have an obligation to engage in charitable acts, and the Talmud teaches that there are different levels of charity. Maimonides organized them into a list of eight ranked from lowest to highest. Giving begrudgingly is the lowest form, and under the circumstances, the highest form I could attain was working Christmas Day for another doctor, but not letting that doctor know my identity.”
“There are eight levels?” asked the former philosophy major. “What are they?”
Giving less that you should, but giving it cheerfully;
Giving after being asked;
Giving before being asked;
Giving when you don’t know the recipient’s identity, but the recipient knows your identity;
Giving when you know the recipient’s identity, but the recipient doesn’t know your identity;
Giving when neither party knows the other’s identity; and finally,
Enabling the recipient to become self-reliant.
“I can’t teach someone to become self-reliant, but I always try to give to an anonymous recipient who doesn’t know I’m the donor. I was sorry when I realized who I would be filling in for, but I just couldn’t let Kelly know that I was the one who would be working her ER shift.”
“I still don’t understand why you didn’t just tell me,” Jenn stated.
“I just explained it to you.”
“Rachel, had you told me the full story, I almost certainly could have shifted Christmas dinner from Christmas Day to Christmas Eve.”
“You can do that? You can just change the day you celebrate a holiday?” As Rachel stood dumbfounded, Jenn got out of her chair, walked over to the kitchen, picked something up off of the counter, and started to walk towards their bedroom.
“What are you doing?”
“I want to enjoy my favorite Christmas present from you.”
“The cherry wood salad bowl set Janet made?”
“Yes. In particular, I want to enjoy the salad servers. By the way, I still think it was Cro-Magnon Woman who invented the wooden spoon.”
“Oh no,” sighed Rachel. Knowing where this was headed, she reluctantly walked into their bedroom, being sure to shut the door to keep Aggie out. “I’m just going to grab a quick shower, but in the interim, forget Cro-Magnon Woman, and please don’t turn into Neanderthal Man—I’m pretty sure that’s who carved the first wooden eating utensil.”
Friday, December 26, 2014 at 12:35 a.m.
As the med school professor was toweling off, she looked though the bathroom door and spied her lover sitting in the middle of their bed, leaning against their headboard, reviewing the course outline for the seminar she taught on Medical Ethics.
“Interesting,” Jenn observed. “You spend a full week on ‘The Ethics of Communicating with Patients,’ yet you yourself are in serious need of a remedial class on ‘The Ethics of Communicating with Life Partners.’ Come over here,” she said, patting her thigh. “It’s time for your tutorial.”
“Jenn, I’m exhausted.”
“Well then, let me help you sleep better.”
Gently pulling Rachel over her lap, Jenn began to massage her bottom and thighs. “Hmm,” purred Rachel. As she was almost ready to drift off to sleep, she felt a firm slap on her right cheek, and then another on her left. Jenn alternated her targets as the force of her strokes increased, and what began as a pleasant sting shifted into a deepening burn. Smiling as she watched the pale globes in front of her turn from pink to salmon to rose, Jenn finally picked up the salad server and began to apply a half dozen sharp strokes of the wooden utensil, first to one cheek, and then the other, and then repeated the pattern several more times. Rachel’s jerking movements and leg kicking were accompanied by increasingly loud yelps, and Jenn could only grin as the silent, uncommunicative one was transformed into a woman freely expressing her true “feelings.” Just as Rachel was beginning to wonder whether what had started out as a “good girl” spanking might morph into a punishment session, Jenn put down the salad server and resumed gently kneading and massaging her lover’s bottom.
“You know what?” Jenn asked, lightly stroking Rachel’s hair as her favorite doctor lay against her, now nestled in the crook of her arm. “Kelly wasn’t even here for dinner.”
“What??” asked Rachel hoarsely, trying to push herself up to look at Jenn’s face.
“Yeah. Apparently, Kelly accepted our invitation without telling Ellen that someone else was going to work her shift. Since Kelly’s always had to work in the ER on Christmas, Ellen has established a tradition of her own. Each year, she volunteers to serve Christmas dinner at the shelter on Fourth Street. Ellen didn’t want to give up her own holiday tradition, so Kelly decided to join her there, instead of coming here.”
“You’re kidding, right?”
“No. I’m serious.”
“How long had you known Kelly wasn’t coming?”
“About a week.”
“And you didn’t tell me?”
“Excuse me??? Now who’s kidding? I knew you wouldn’t be here, so what would it have mattered to you? And hon?” asked Jenn, grinning and reaching again for the cherry wood salad utensil. “You DO realize, don’t you, that we’ve started our own holiday tradition – just yours and mine…?”