SILENT NIGHT OF ’63
By Dale Thompson & Susie Christian
There was a dark part of my life during my teen years when a serious illness invaded my body. Unfortunately there was no cure for what was wrong with me. At the end of my high school years, when I should have been enjoying the Spring of my life, I was instead doomed to the confines of a dark room, with cyclic pain, and death waiting behind the door. A great feeling of helplessness seemed to hold me down to the bed with heavy imaginary straps. But somehow fear was never a part of my being. Life, even in the darkest turns, always for me had a light of hopefulness at the next bend in the road, and giving up never once entered my mind.
For three years a seemingly walled prison was my physical reality, but my mental reality was lived in ‘true’ dreams of gay fantasy and joyous adventures. Reading was my doorway to the adventurous life and I was in the jungles of Madagascar watching ancient monkeys and in the South Pacific with Michener, meeting cannibals and sharks.
As a youngster, I dreamed of flying with the many hummingbirds and butterflies who congregated along our enormous garage wall of honeysuckle. Ironically, I never could go above twenty feet, (fear of heights) but that never seemed to bother me or even occur to me as limiting. My heart truly was with the glinting hummers in their lightning speed flights of ecstasy and joy. My soul floated high on wafting Spring breezes, up there with the brilliant mosaic-patterned butterflies, looking down at the earth far below me. I did not feel that I was any better than the other creatures and I found in my imagination that I could fly with them in a joining of spirit and beauty, where we could exist as one.
Three Christmases went by, spent in the pain of my declining health, before a true diagnosis was found. By that time it was too late for surgery, which at the time, was the only known way to eliminate the scourge of Chrons disease, a disease which is very serious if left untreated for too long. It had been with me for too long for the normal medical institutions to be able to help, but hope for me had appeared through a very maverick Jewish physician who caught my spirit of faith and will to live. This savior was willing to do the radical surgery required for my possible relief. The hospital itself where the surgery was to be performed vetoed my physician’s request, as they did not want another death on their record.
Thus, hope met despair and faith won out. My chances were slim. Even with the radical surgery there was only a three percent chance that I would live past another three years.
This new Christmas of 1963 was a fresh start for me. The first year of freedom after surgery, where everyone except my parents and a physician with chutzpah were counting to be one of my last. There was no doubt that I was in serious trouble, being an eighty-seven pound weakling that needed to be carried around due to my weakness.
I was taken for rides in the family car to see my last Christmas lights which I dearly loved. The merrily-decorated streets had hundreds of houses decked out in thousands of twinkling lights of red, green and white. I looked with such great pleasure, imprinting each house and every decoration in my mind so that I could take every detail home with me.
The Christmas of ’63 united my family in what seemed to be the last one we would all be together. I had always been the main participant in decorating the tree with tinsel, garland, and especially my old-time ornaments made up of every animal that I could imagine. Most were of the barnyard variety, consisting of colorful glass roosters, geese, and Mother Hubbard. But it was the exotic animals that I dearly loved the most. There were elephants embedded with colored chips of glass making up a carriage sitting on his back; a group of three monkeys with their hands joined in friendship, in a vertical swing. Penguins, cockatoos, flamingos and pheasants adorned my tree, rounding out the feathered friend section of my collection.
Sadly this ‘last’ Christmas was one where I could not produce the physical energy to enjoy the warmth, sounds and gaiety of the wonderful season. I could only hear, watch and smell the activity of Christmas, as my family set up the Nativity scene on our coffee table, and placed the beautiful gauzy angel dressed in her finest white lace high atop the tree.
I watched with great anticipation of where my special animal ornaments would be placed. Penguins and elephants had to go on the bottom, but my glass hummingbird and nickel-plated eagle needed to soar at the top of the tree where I could be with them in spirit during the long days preceding Christmas.
With hot strawberry milk to warm my innards, I watched closely as the green tree limbs turned into a storyland of animals; but to me it was my very own zoo! I had lived for animals and birds, as my parents brought their three sons up on a three and a half acre farm in our earlier years. However I was always the one who gravitated toward God’s creatures, talking to skunks in high stalks of Owl’s Clover in the spring and caring for a seagull who was injured by a murderous fisherman.
Zoos were a special world to me and though I loved the monkeys and big roaring cats, the birds were always a fantasy for me. In my dreams I was a falconer in King Arthur’s court and enjoyed keeping mental company with the great parrots found in a wondrous land down under.
Among the birds there were three kinds that I have always had a special affinity for. The first was the Harpy Eagle with its majestic size and strength; the toucan with its gaudy colorful bill and great antics; and a parrot known as the Eclectus. The Eclectus was so breath taking, with its shining hair-like plumage. I was especially fascinated because the male and female coloring was completely the opposite of one another.
The very first time I saw the Eclectus parrot, the pair sat elegantly and impeccably still. The emerald male was busy eating from his dish, but the crimson female looked at me with a wise and knowing gaze that melted my senses. So still in action but so much understanding in her steady eyes. In that single moment, through her intuitive being, we both felt a joining of our spirits and we were united as one.
During those early days I had never seen any other Eclectus parrots except in zoos, magazines or biology books. I already had a proud eagle as a tree ornament and the year before was given a "fruit loop" toucan ornament, but never a pair of emerald green and crimson red Eclectus to adorn my tree.
The ‘last Christmas eve', my mother found a photo in a magazine of a pair of Eclectus parrots. She took the page from the magazine and glued it onto a piece of cardboard, salvaged from the back of her writing tablet. With great care she used her manicure scissors to cut out the outline of their bodies and twisted a thin piece of wire around their wings, so they could be hung on the tree with the others. I asked her to perch them half-way down the tree so I could see them better.
That Christmas eve I asked to bed down on the couch at the end of our living room so I could smell the pine fragrance of the tree and the remnants of popcorn that the family, except for me, had enjoyed. I was still fighting an enormous battle and was living on soft foods. I dozed off peacefully with my senses absorbed by these happy images and fragrances.
Hours into that Christmas Eve night in the middle of my sleep, I heard my name called. Was I dreaming? And if not who was calling to me? No, there it was again, over and over. I carefully rolled off the couch and slid painfully into the middle of the room.
To my great amazement the tree seemed twenty feet tall and the pair of cardboard Eclectus were alive and asking me to remove the wire that hung around their wings, suspending them from their branch. Thinking that this was some fantastic dream caused by drinking too much strawberry milk, I turned around to look for anything familiar. Sure enough, there was the rim of the couch, coffee table, and all the rest of the furniture in the dim darkness of the living room. I swallowed hard and turned back to the sparkling transformation before me.
The female Eclectus was the spokesman of the group, and was quick to tell me never to look to that darkness again in my life. As I began to realize that this wasn not a dream, I shifted my focus to the brightness of the Christmas tree itself. Not only did the tree glow with a multitude of lights, but chattering, songs, babbling and roars came from every part of the tree. The robin and the waxwing were singing sweet notes of encouragement to me. The Eclectus said "Do not ever turn back, in fact, never look back, for there is so much in front of you. You will be blessed with the joy of animals. Join us for the rest of your life!"
The remainder of that night I spent releasing all the animals from their wire bondages and they told me their many stories of where they originated. The elephant of the wonders of India among the great waters where the crocodiles lurked, with an occasional visit from a tiger. The toucan of the expanse of jungles of Central America where they would fly from the very tips of the trees in the wild abandon of freedom. I was taken around the world by all of them in their magical trip around the Christmas tree. There were storks, and frogs of beautiful color and deadly poison, strange creatures known as anteaters and pangolins, shearwaters that flew for days above the ocean waters and frigate birds, whose ancestors had seen Captain Cook and Charles Darwin in the South Pacific. The Eclectus told me tales of their ancestry and how they lived side by side with the birds that came from paradise.
As the pale cold Winter's light filtering in through the window announced the dawn’s approach, the Eclectus who were at the head of this group bade me Bon Voyage. They told me to stay close to them always, and that they would be by my side to guide me throughout my life. The beautiful red one promised me she would never be out of my life--ever.
It seems that every dream of mine came true as prophesied that ‘last’ Christmas Eve. Thirty-seven years later, amazingly I have seen birds from all over the world, reptiles of all kinds, beautiful bugs, butterflies and spiders that the tropics have grown into the greatest sizes and colors, and mammals from ocelots to Tamanduas (Lesser Anteater).
It's amazing to see how the Eclectus has been an integral part of my life for these thirty-plus years, from observing them in the wild to rearing many hundreds of baby Eclectus in captivity.
During my life, whenever I have been in despair or whenever a problem that seems insurmountable has come along, my guardian Eclectus redhead angel from the Christmas of 1963 appears to me with a smile as sweet as any image of the Madonna. She sits on my shoulder, where all good guardian angels are wont to perch and whispers gently in my ear to never ever look back at the darkness--to only look to the brilliant blue sky through the emerald canopy of the rain forest and see the light. "We Eclectus came alive for you in your darkest hour so many years ago; we never will leave you; you never will walk alone again. There is a red one for your right shoulder and a green one for your left, and we always are there to help you keep perfect balance. As you walk the face of this earth with us, you never will be alone. That is our promise."
Back to Stories