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Arne Vainio: Christmas comes once again for a crabby old man

Filed Under: Opinion
More on: arne vainio

Photo by HarrFager

Christmas is coming
By Arne Vainio, M.D.

“I always miss her, but Christmas is the worst.”

“She was working in a café when I first saw her. She had dark hair and she was quick to laugh and I just stopped in for the special. They had something different every day and the hamburger steak they had was so tough I could hardly cut it. They could have served me cardboard and I would have been fine as long as she brought it to me.”

He stopped in often that summer and he was too shy to ask her to go out with him until he found out her family was leaving to go back to Nebraska at the end of the summer. Her mother was nice enough to him, but her dad didn’t like him because he was a lumberjack. “But so was everyone else around here.”

She left at the end of the summer and they wrote letters back and forth and “I lasted about a month and I drove my old 1964 Pontiac out there and we ran off and got married.”

No one thought it would last, but they were married for 38 years before she was diagnosed with breast cancer and she died within a year of her diagnosis. “We wanted to have kids, but she never got pregnant. Back then there wasn’t much of anything anybody did about it and we just lived our lives.”

They traveled in an old motorhome and one summer they went to Alaska and another time to the Grand Canyon. They finally built a cabin overlooking a small lake. “We celebrated every season from the ice going out to the leaves turning and the lake freezing over. She loved the first snow and she loved putting up the Christmas tree and every year she left it up until sometime in February.”

She always wanted to be at the lake after her cancer treatments and there came a day she didn’t make it home from the hospital.

“My world ended that day. That was fifteen years ago and all that’s left of her are my memories and some old pictures. It was always just the two of us and I never realized I didn’t have any friends until after she was gone. All the kids in the neighborhood only know me as the crabby old man who doesn’t want them in my yard. How and when did that happen?”

That was at a conference I was speaking at almost a decade ago. To be honest, time went on and I forgot about him.

Last winter I was back in that area and I stopped in at a small restaurant on my way home. I was sitting in a corner booth so I could watch the sunset over the lake. I watched an old man and a ten-year old boy sitting together and they were laughing and had their heads together and were clearly sharing a secret.

The boy had Down syndrome and he was constantly laughing and smiling. I mostly noticed him and didn’t pay as much attention to the man with him. They got up and paid at the counter and instead of going out the door, they came over to my table and the old man said, “Dr. Vainio, do you remember me? I’d like you to meet Nathan. I met him and his grandmother at the library a couple of years ago. I was reading the newspaper and I hadn’t shaved in a couple of weeks because I just didn’t care to. I had a big white beard and my gold framed glasses and he came and sat next to me and didn’t say anything for the longest time, he just kept looking at me with his eyes wide open. I finally asked him, “What do you want?”

“Do you know what he said?”

“No. What did he say?”

He said. “I’m glad you asked, Santa. I’d like to have a family again.”

“I didn’t know what to say to him and that’s when his grandmother showed up.” She said, “He never talks to people he doesn’t know and I’m sorry if he bothered you. I was checking out our books and he just wandered off.”

“Dr. Vainio, this boy melted my heart. I never thought of anyone but Grace and I didn’t think I’d ever find anyone again and I wasn’t looking. I started coming to the library the way I used to go to the café when I was eighteen years old and I just wanted to talk to them a little bit and I wanted to see him smile. It wasn’t long before they invited me over and his grandmother and I got married last summer. Nathan stood with us at the altar and we’ve been a family ever since. I really was the crabby old man in the neighborhood and I didn’t want those kids in my yard. I used to sit and stew about things and curse the day Grace died and I never wanted to see another Christmas tree as long as I lived. I didn’t want to see kids playing in my yard because I didn’t want to see anyone happy. Nathan is a blessing I never saw coming and it isn’t possible to have a bad day when he’s in my life. He just won’t allow it. Do you believe in second chances, Dr. Vainio?”

“I do.” I whispered.

Nathan looked at him and pulled on his sleeve. “Papa, can we go to the library on the way home?” “I guess we can, son. I guess we can.”

He looked at me and he put his gold rimmed glasses on and he stroked his white whiskers that were just starting. He smiled and winked at me and said:

“I quit shaving a couple of days ago, Dr. Vainio.

Christmas is coming.”

Arne Vainio, M.D. is an enrolled member of the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe and is a family practice physician on the Fond du Lac reservation in Cloquet, Minnesota. He can be contacted at

More from Arne Vainio:
Arne Vainio: Water is Life -- A sacred journey to Standing Rock (11/23)
Arne Vainio: Honoring unsung heroes in our throwaway society (10/18)
Arne Vainio: A father wishes for 'more time' after burying his son (09/19)
Arne Vainio: The late Jim Northrup shared his calling with the world (08/18)
Arne Vainio: A powerful homecoming for family in our troubled times (07/18)
Arne Vainio: Congratulating our graduates on a major milestone (06/16)
Arne Vainio: A mother's gift carried me through many life journeys (05/26)
Arne Vainio: Saying Giigawaabamin (goodbye) to uncle and elder George Earth (04/19)
Arne Vainio: Let's start to banish the shame associated with suicide (03/03)
Arne Vainio: Watch Native Report for first Health Matters segment (02/16)
Arne Vainio: Starting a new medical segment for Native Report (12/15)
Arne Vainio: A mother opens up after the death of her child (11/16)
Arne Vainio: Happiness comes from my life of medical service (10/16)
Arne Vainio: Learning to dance to bring healing for our people (09/24)
Arne Vainio: Doing more to support our Native youth in medicine (08/21)

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