/ Nonfiction /
Once I read a book. It was Christmas Eve and Billie could not sleep. I found him sobbing in the hallway outside the room where I slept when a guest at my son’s house. Billie’s long curly brown hair, which he did not allow anyone to trim, stood tousled on his head, a sign of multiple turns on his hot pillow. He wore the red and green, dinosaur-patterned jammies I gave him which proved to be a size too big—the arms dripped down over his hands. He looked up at me with his big brown, long-lashed, baby-sad eyes. For a moment it was the face of his father, and I was transported in time to forty years past. But like a flash that boy was gone, and there was Billie, who at six was absolutely his own man.
“What if I can’t sleep all night, Gran?” he said. He’d been told Santa would not come until everyone went to sleep.
Before Billie went to bed, my son’s house was so full of anticipation it seemed to lean off the Marin hillside toward the moon, over which, later that night, Santa would fly, guiding his sleigh toward a soft landing on the roof. The air smelled of sticky buns rising in the oven and peppermint candy canes hanging from the fireplace mantlepiece, warmed by the gas fire. Billie’s black and white cat, Checkers, chased a ball ornament he had pawed off the lower branches of the decorated tree and frantic parents, doing last-minute package wrapping, ran out of scotch tape and had to borrow from the neighbors—none of this was a calming preparation for sleep.
A widow for five years, insomnia regularly interrupted my nights so I was sympathetic. But I retired from nursing long ago, lived alone since my Robert died and no one depended on me. What if Santa couldn’t come until I slept? The pressure to sleep would be enormous—exactly when sleep was impossible. Poor Billie.
I could see the words “I want my Mam…” begin to form on his pursed lips as Billie’s chest heaved with a spasm. He turned toward his parents’ bedroom. His Mama and Papa were busy behind their closed door, stuffing candy in stockings, assembling a scooter, adding batteries to a remote-control car.
If he opened his parents’ door, at risk was the magic of believing, something he would question soon enough. I put my arms around his tiny frame, pulled him gently into my bedroom, and closed the door. “Let’s read a book together,” I said.
I pulled back the covers and Billie slid into my bed. He snuggled down into the quilt, his red nose visible, his eyes still wide with tears. I slipped in next to him, marveling how his small body was as cozy as a blanket straight from the warming cabinet.
I picked up a large picture book left on the table next to my bed, a Robert Frost poem, Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening, illustrated by Susan Jeffers. I had read Frost’s famous poem often during my seventy-odd years, but this was the first time in a book illustrated for children. As I opened the book, I paused a moment to appreciate the feel of the slippery pages on my fingers and the vague scent of vanilla and almond lingering on the night air, grateful to the ghost of the coniferous tree who gave its life to the pulp-making.
Checkers jumped up on the bed. The cat had managed to slip in before we closed the door; he knew he was not allowed in this room as he liked to eat the prohibited fern on the nightstand.
“Let him stay, Gran,” said Billie.
Checkers turned around three times, then curled up on top of my feet. He put his head on his paws. The music of his purring filled my ears, rumbling like a drum buzz roll.
Whose woods these are I think I know. His house is in the village though.
The words of Frost’s timeless poem dripped off my lips like warm chocolate. Billie’s crying stopped. In the soft light of the bedside lamp, the drying tears made shiny trails down his cheeks. I squeezed his small hand under the covers.
He will not see me stopping here. To watch his woods fill up with snow.
I whispered these words into the eyes of a huge snowy owl who stared back at me from a tree limb. With these sounds and the illustrations before us, a snowy winter forest populated our imaginations with the owl, rabbits, several deer, a fox, and an old man. The man Susan Jeffers put in her illustrations had a white beard and a colorful cap and scarf and Billie asked, “Is that Santa?”
I said, “What do you think?”
Billie wasn’t sure. His forehead crinkled as he pondered this question. A horse pulled this man’s sleigh instead of reindeer.
“Look at the snow,” he said, appearing worried. “It’s snowing all over the page. Won’t the owl freeze?”
“Snowy owls have feathers everywhere to keep them warm,” I explain. “Even their feet are covered with feathers; their feet look like your fluffy slippers.”
On the next page the rotund old man who might be Santa was lying down, sweeping his arms in semi-circles, making a pattern in the snow. His moving about surprised the owl who flew across the page. Below the owl two rabbits, a squirrel, and two chipmunks looked cold and hungry.
“But what will the animals eat?” Billie sat up, anxious.
“He’s making a snow angel,” I said to distract Billie. “Look.” I pointed to the shape of the wings.
“But Gram, how will they survive?” Billie tugged at my sleeve. I kept reading.
My little horse must think it queer. To stop without a farmhouse near.
Between the woods and frozen lake. The darkest evening of the year.
He gives his harness bells a shake. To ask if there is some mistake.
“Why do you think he stopped?” Billie tugged at my sleeve again. “Even his horse wonders what he is doing.”
The next page had a drawing of the old man; his head had disappeared under the blanket that covered the back of the sleigh. He searched for something he put there.
“What is he doing?” said Billie. “What does he have in the sleigh?”
His desire to know was urgent.
Billie and I leaned forward to look closely at the picture, to see what the old man who might be Santa was doing. He reached inside the cover on his sleigh and took out a bag of seeds, grass, and branches. He walked over to the tree where the owl had perched and spread them on the ground. He fed the animals and, in that cold, snowy winter forest, they would not go hungry.
Billie’s hand felt limp and relaxed and his body lightened. I understood that in his mind everything clicked into place. Checker’s purring blended with his Gran’s soft voice like a lullaby. Everything that mattered was there in his house and he was safe. As he closed his eyes, I read: The only other sound’s the sweep of easy wind and… On his cheeks, my finger traced the kiss of downy flake.
As Billie slipped, slowly, softly, gently into dreams, Frost’s last words echoed in the room like an evening prayer.
The woods are lovely, dark and deep
But I have promises to keep
And miles to go before I—
I didn’t often think of my age, and rarely felt old, but at my next birthday I would be seventy-seven. As I pulled the covers up over Billie’s shoulders, I whispered: But I have promises to keep, and miles to go before I sleep.
Yes. Please. Miles to go.
Author's dedication: This story is dedicated to Westley, with gratitude for his first line and for his cat, Walker.