It was on a Christmas Eve, and Luke Biset was just eleven when he decided exactly what it was he wanted to be when he grew up. His parents had long ago moved from France---bringing Luke with them, giving birth to his brother, Nicholaus, later---and they lived together in a suburb of Phoenix, Arizona. It was the land of high desert, deep swimming pools---theirs having the unusual feature of a black bottom---and, even in late December, absolutely no snow.
Great PhysicianM. Stanley Bubien
So different from their original home in northern France, but it was the snow that Luke's parents missed most. For this reason, every Christmas Eve, they hosted a party with the theme of "Frost." Friends and family alike were invited to celebrate the coming Noel by making their attendance wearing something white.
"Papa!" Luke cried out after hearing the doorbell, "someone else is here."
"Yes, yes son," Papa replied in French, "Open the door."
Upon turning the knob, Luke was greeted by a wholly white figure---from slacks and shirt to grey hair---save for the dark trench coat which draped to his feet.
"Merry Christmas, young man," Father Harry greeted.
Luke stood speechless. He often had trouble finding words in front of this priest from Saint Johns, the Catholic church they attended, for this man insisted on being called by his first name, something unheard of in the more traditional churches of France. Yet the impression was even greater tonight, as Father Harry had actually shed his priestly garb and collar, donning, for the evening, completely normal clothes.
"Whoa," Luke mouthed.
"Good evening, good evening," a voice intoned behind him in near-perfect English.
Luke stepped aside to allow Papa to wave a glass of egg nog at the priest as an invitation to enter.
"What a wondrous idea for a party." the priest exclaimed as he traded his coat for the egg nog.
"Ah, Father Harry, glad to have you."
"I wouldn't miss it for the world! Reminds me of my days in medical school," Father Harry stated, waving an arm to indicate his bleached clothing.
"Wait, wait," Papa replied, shaking the coat at him. "I would swear the physician scrubs are green."
"I always tell the kids 'you shouldn't swear'!"
Papa gave the priest a look that Luke had received so frequently in the past: a wrinkled scowl with one eye squinted.
Father Harry laughed and slapped him on the shoulder, "Of course they're green! That's a Christmas color too!"
"Ah Harry," Papa replied. "Entered the priesthood to become the comedian. But I do believe you should have remained a doctor." He put an arm on the father's back and escorted him within to say hello to Mama.
Luke trailed a safe distance behind, still somewhat dazzled by the boisterousness of this holy man. But before he made it very far, a hand reached out and stopped him.
"Oh Luke! There you are." It was his Aunt Doris, the first of their family to move to America, and the quickest to shed everything French in order to embrace her new culture. "So, young man," she said running her forefinger across his milky tie, "What do you want to be when you grow up?"
In the past, Luke had learned to anticipate this question, for no matter what the occasion, she always asked it, but tonight he had forgotten to prepare.
"Eh," he replied, eyes following the retreating priest. "Eh." The priest, still being led by Papa, turned the corner into the kitchen and exposed the burning candle sitting upon the dining-room table.
"A fireman," Luke blurted.
"What a perfect choice! You'll be able to rescue damsels in distress!" Somehow, regardless of his answer, she had the uncanny ability to turn it into something about girls.
"Why would I want to do that?" Luke replied.
His aunt rolled her eyes and tousled his hair, sending him again on his way.
Entering the kitchen, Luke realized he had lost Father Harry. Mama was there though, wearing an ivory gown which covered her shoulders in a lace pattern resembling snowflakes, and she was laying out the next batch of hors d'oeuvres upon a long platter.
Mama smiled and said, "Bored already? Have any of your friends arrived yet?"
"I'm sorry. They should be here soon."
"Well," she said lifting the platter. "In the meanwhile, why don't you go play with your brother?"
"Ah, Mama! Do I have to? What if someone sees me?"
"Nicholaus may only be five, but he's still your brother," she answered as she carried the appetizers out of the kitchen.
"Man!" Luke mumbled to himself, for he knew he'd be in trouble now if he didn't do as his mother said. But he could delay the inevitable. Wandering slowly into the dining room toward their Christmas tree, he passed it for what seemed like the hundredth time that day. It gave Luke a queasy sensation, stepping so close to the unopened packages along the pine's trunk, and from the clock on the wall, he calculated that it would be nearly fourteen hours before he would be opening them.
"Fourteen!" Shaking his head he went off in search of his brother. He first climbed the stairs, hoping that Nicholaus was on the second floor because it would afford him some warning when his friends showed up. But after checking each room, he mumbled "Dang!" and leapt his way back down again.
Along the stairway, a large window ran---designed to further brighten the house during the day while also affording a view into the backyard---and out this window Luke could see into the pool as he passed. The lights were on, and against the black bottom, a large white blob rested. Luke halted. "Hmm," he intoned, trying to figure out what it was. Unsuccessful yet intrigued, for the time being he abandoned his search for his brother and headed toward the back yard to solve this new mystery.
Once out the sliding glass door, he made his way across the grass and noticed that the pool gate was open. "Hmm," he mumbled, passing through without closing it behind him and walking up to the edge of the pool. Wavelets bounced back and forth against the coping, distorting the underwater image. Bending closer, Luke tried to get a better view of the roundish blob, for there was something vaguely familiar about its blanched color. As one of the ripples marched by, his gaze was distracted and involuntarily followed it in its progress toward the diving board. And there, on the far side of the board, lay the elf-cap Mama had placed on Nicholaus' head before the party began.
Luke turned and bounded toward the house, screaming, "Mama! Mama!" Throwing open the glass door, he charged into the living room and yelled, "Mama!"
"Luke!" Papa hollered with a scowl. "What is it?"
"Nicholaus! Nicholaus is in the pool. He's drowning!"
Papa dropped his egg nog, spilling the thick beverage into the carpet, and sprinted from the living room and out the open door. Luke followed, and before he even reached the grass he heard the splash as Papa dove into the pool. Papa already had Nicholaus lying flat upon the cement when Luke came panting up.
"Nicholaus. Nicholaus." Papa cried. "What do I do? Call an ambulance! Call an ambulance!"
"Dear Lord!" Father Harry said as he arrived. He fell to his knees beside the soaking child's prostrate form and placed one hand over the boy's heart and an ear over his mouth. "Please!" After arching Nicholaus' neck and forcing his mouth open, the father bent down and blew several quick breaths within.
"Great Physician," he said and switched to pumping the child's chest. He returned to mouth-to-mouth briefly, and again pressed against the heart with the words, "Can't heal all." He continued these alternations, and each time he would speak. "But heal," Soon though, the phrases were more stilted as the strain began weighing on the father, and they eventually became one single word.
"Heal," he gasped between breaths.
Luke listened to the father's begging; he clenched his fists at his sides while a tightness formed in his throat, making it difficult to swallow.
"The ambulance should be here soon," Aunt Doris said with both arms cradling Mama who shivered, silently observing the terrible scene.
Suddenly, Nicholaus coughed. The priest turned him over and thumped his back. Water gushed from the boy's mouth, and he hacked harder. Father Harry lifted him and hugged him, now caressing his back.
"Yes, Lord, yes. Thank God." Rubbing Nicholaus' wet hair, he said in a soothing tone, "You're going to be all right. Yes you are." And louder, "he's all right."
At that instant both Papa and Mama fell upon priest and child. Luke could not see whose arms Father Harry placed Nicholaus into, as they were both wrapped about him so tightly, tears streaming from their cheeks.
"Mama," Nicholaus whimpered in a tiny, high-pitched voice that Luke could barely make out. "What's wrong? Why'm I all wet?"
Both Mama and Papa laughed and embraced him even harder.
"Good work, young man," Father Harry stated after he stood, and Luke realized the priest's hand was resting upon his shoulder. "Your quick thinking saved his life," Father Harry grinned down upon him.
"I didn't do anything. You're the one who saved him."
The priest's grin faded from his face.
"Where did you learn to do that anyway?" Luke asked.
With a sigh, Father Harry answered, "I was a doctor once."
"I know. Is that what they teach you?"
"That and lots more."
"I think I'd like to be a doctor. Can I learn that too?"
Father Harry's fingers gripped Luke as he replied, "Yes. But there're some things they don't teach you."
"That it doesn't always work. That sometimes you can't save them."
"Even if you're a really good doctor?"
Father Harry sniffed and rubbed at a drop of water which ran off a strand of hair that had become wet while he was trying to resuscitate Nicholaus. "I thought I was really good once," he said, "but a lot of my patients died. I wanted to save them---each and every one---but they died anyway."
Before Luke could ask another question, two paramedics burst from the house and jogged across the grass dragging a gurney behind them. Dressed in yellow and red waterproof clothing, the first squatted before Luke's parents, asking quietly to examine Nicholaus. He took the boy, whose eyes widened in surprise at seeing the rescue workers with their huge helmets and bright clothing. Sitting Nicholaus on the gurney, the paramedic removed a penlight and began his examination by shining it into the child's pupils.
Luke watched in fascination while Father Harry spoke again, "I couldn't save all of my patients. But after I became a priest, I learned that even the greatest physician of all could not heal everyone---even though he wanted to." He tapped Luke's shoulder, "Just like me."
"But you saved him," Luke pointed at his brother.
The paramedic completed his examination of Nicholaus, who now sat wrapped in blankets, while Aunt Doris rubbed a towel against his head. The paramedic faced Papa and Mama who stood holding each other. "I think he's fine, but we'd like to take him in to the hospital just to be safe."
"What?" Mama exclaimed, "No!"
Papa pulled her against him and uttered some words in French. She shook her head once or twice, but her demeanor soon softened. Sensing the change, the paramedic said, "He's okay, ma'am. It's just standard procedure. You can even get him some new clothes to change into before we go."
Aunt Doris hurried inside to find the change of clothes for Nicholaus, and Papa, still holding Mama, forced a tight-lipped smile and nodded.
"Well," the father replied to Luke as Aunt Doris returned. "I'm not sure if I'm the one who saved him." He removed his grasp from upon Luke. "How's this? Why don't we both take credit for it, one doctor to another." He presented his hand. "Deal?"
Glancing at Aunt Doris, who was leading Mama and Papa away after the gurney carrying Nicholaus, Luke reached out and said, "deal."
For Richard Bermudes.
Copyright ©1997 M. Stanley Bubien. All Rights Reserved.
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