This Christmas Eve was a happy time. Papa insisted that I make cucidati (festive Italian fig cookies) and “S” cookies (‘s’-shaped anise cookies), so I spent most of my time in the kitchen slapping greedy hands out of the way while I carried out the request. We went to church for the Christmas Eve service and sang Silent Night by candlelight, a tradition I’ve always loved. As we drove home, Papa asked if the music in church had seemed too loud and we all told him we thought it was fine. We went home, and as is our family tradition, we opened all of our gifts while old Christmas carols played. We finished the night with a Doris Day musical, the cookies I’d made, and mugs of hot tea. I went to sleep happy and content, my fingers smelling of vanilla and anise.

Christmas Day commenced with a rare homemade breakfast. Papa complained of an oncoming eye infection and used some eye drops. My sister, unable to kick a cold, conceded to try my mother’s odd recipe of grape juice and honey and we all laughed as she tried to swallow it down. I curled into bed (an air mattress loaded with blankets) to finish my umpteenth reading of Jane Eyre until Papa knocked on my door and asked me to take a walk with him. I groaned, all cozy and warm under the covers, and considered declining, but the entire family was soon up and ready to walk.

Although Birmingham and Atlanta enjoyed a white Christmas, Bluffton had weather in the high 50’s. The sun was warm, and as we passed the dog park I suggested we let the dogs run around a bit. When it was time go, we all hollered and beckoned and chased after our dogs as they darted and dodged us. Papa laughed, told us we were doing it all wrong, and whistled for them. Instead of a clear, sharp whistle, there was no noise; my father patted his cheek and said his face felt like he’d been shot with novocaine. I turned to him and as I walked forward I immediately saw something was wrong. The left side of his face was slack, his left eye wide and unblinking.

At first he protested our insistence that we go to the hospital. He grumbled and groaned, and as he was perfectly lucid and able to speak clearly, we almost agreed to let it wait until Monday. “This isn’t how I want to spend Christmas,” he grouched. “I want to watch A Christmas Story.” We bustled him into the car, and soon he’d changed his tune. “Why are we going to that hospital when it’s 20 minutes away? The other one is closer. Might as well just dump me on the side of the road while you’re at it.”

Several hours and just as many tests later, it was good to hear that my father was going to be fine. The weakness in the left side of his face has been diagnosed as Bells Palsy– simply a weakness or paralysis in a facial nerve –and it should resolve itself in several weeks. The sensitivity to sound and the watering eye were both symptoms, but the doctor never gave us any concrete reason of what brought it on. Papa is now wearing a black patch that makes him look like a pirate (unless he puts it on top of his head to watch television– then he looks like he’s wearing a yamaka). He enjoys trying to whistle and then points to his drooping lip and says, “I’ve got a whistling sickness.”

As I finished baking one last batch of cookies tonight, Papa came over to give me a wide grin and show me (as if I hadn’t already been aware) how he cannot make the left side of his face move. “I’ll have to spend a few weeks like this, but it could have been a lot worse,” he reasoned.

“It could have been worse.” It seems all day we’ve been saying that to each other. Every now and then, we’ve also looked at one another and shouted an overly exuberant, “Meeeerrrry Christmas!” to laugh at how very unexpected of a turn the day ended up taking. But it could have been a lot worse and I am so grateful it wasn’t. And I am so relieved that I happened to be in town to be with my family today. I received a lot of generous, wonderful gifts this Christmas, but today reminded me that having a happy and healthy family is one of the greatest gifts of all.

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