Ever since my teens I’ve hated Christmas, but last year something happened which made me change my mind. On 20th December, my teenage son was struck down by bacterial meningitis. No rash, no stiff neck. He’d been off school the day before but we all thought it was just a nasty cold. By the evening he seemed to be on the mend. He wolfed down a huge supper and sat up on the sofa, watching TV, tormenting his little sister. In the small hours he started throwing up. He became incoherent, then unresponsive. By the time the ambulance arrived he was like a statue. By the morning he was in intensive care, unconscious, wired up to all sorts of weird machines.
Mercifully, he came round, quite suddenly, 24 hours later. I was by his bedside. I’d been awake for three days. He still wasn’t in the clear, not yet, but it seemed the worst was over. They moved him to his own room on the children’s ward. He had to remain in isolation (meningitis is infectious) but I was allowed to stay there with him (they’d dosed me up with antibiotics) and so the two of us bedded down together for the strangest Christmas of our lives.
This was our first Christmas in hospital, and it was utterly surreal. At the most perilous point in my son’s illness, when he was first admitted, my wife and I were briefed by a doctor wearing a pair of antlers (Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer, I presume). Looking back it seems ridiculous, but at the time we were too distraught to care. However, once my son had regained consciousness, the festive outfits that the medics wore (I recall a nurse dressed as an elf) became oddly reassuring. Their fancy-dress costumes felt like a precious link with the normal world outside.
My wife and daughter came every day, but in the evenings they went home and we were cocooned within that little room. For most of the day and much of the night my son was attached to a contraption that pumped him full of penicillin. He was now completely compos mentis but he was still too weak to walk across the room. The nurses were in and out throughout the night, changing his drip, checking his blood pressure and his temperature. My armchair folded out into a makeshift bed, but it was impossible to sleep properly. Through the window above the door, I could see nurses hanging up paper chains and tinsel. Fairy lights flickered in the corridor. I recalled what a priest once told me, that Advent used to be a sombre time.
When my wife and daughter came to visit, I grabbed the chance to stretch my legs. I went to the chapel in the basement. The chaplain was Roman Catholic. He wasn’t bothered that I was C of E. Were his services Catholic or Anglican? I wasn’t sure. I didn’t care. In here, none of that seemed to matter. Most of the congregation were Filipino – nurses, cleaners, kitchen porters. One of them played the guitar, after a fashion. We sang along as best we could.
By Christmas Eve, my son was well enough to walk down the corridor to use the toilet. He’d been playing for Watford since he was eight, against Arsenal, Chelsea, Benfica, but this was probably his toughest test. There was table football in the playroom. Normally I can’t score a goal against him. This time I beat him easily. He said he needed to go back to bed.
It was only after he’d nodded off that I realised I hadn’t bought him any Christmas presents. I hadn’t had a chance. I threw on some clothes and ran across the road to look for something. It was the first time I’d been outside for several days. There was only one shop open, a convenience store. It sold only booze and fags and fast food. I bought some chocolates. When I returned he was still asleep. There were carol singers in the canteen.
For me, and my wife and daughter, the first day was the toughest. For my son, it was Christmas Day. He’d been getting a bit better every day, but that day he woke up feeling worse. What if he was even worse on Boxing Day? Trying to cheer him up, we opened his presents. He didn’t think much of my chocolates, but the nurses had bought him a football annual, and some aftershave, which made him feel grown-up and special. Watford had sent him a football shirt, signed by every member of the first team.
When we went out on to the ward, the playroom had been transformed. The nurses had built a fake fireplace in the doorway, big enough for Santa Claus to squeeze through. Father Christmas duly came down the chimney with a present for every child. Most of these kids were only toddlers. Some of them had been there a long time.
That afternoon we had some unexpected visitors — an extended family from the local mosque. We’d never met them before, but they’d come to bring us Christmas presents. There was something biblical about it. It reminded me of the Wise Men. On Boxing Day my son beat me at table football. Absurdly, I caught my little finger in my fold-down bed and had to go to A&E. In the evening we sat up in bed and watched Forrest Gump together. I’d never seen it before — I had no idea what a great film it is.
We stayed in hospital until new year’s eve, and then the consultant said my son was well enough to go home. His headaches had faded. His appetite had returned. I’d caught bronchitis and I couldn’t stay there any more and I didn’t want to leave him there alone. For a week or so, we took him back to hospital twice a day to plug him into his IV machine, and then a district nurse came to our house to hook him up at home. By the end of January he was back at school, in March he was given the all-clear, and then in May he went on a ten-day tour of Italy with Watford’s Under-15s, playing teams like AC Milan.
Last summer he took his English Literature GCSE a year early, and passed with flying colours. Then he went to Wales on Outward Bound. I couldn’t sleep while he was away. I admire him more than words can say. This year we’ll be spending Christmas at home. It’s the first Christmas I’ve been looking forward to since I was a child.
This article is from the Spectator’s Christmas treble issue.