A HEART FOR CHRISTMAS by E. C. Hannah | WINNER – Parousia Christmas Short Story Prize 2022 | PAROUSIA

PAROUSIA CHRISTMAS SHORT STORY PRIZE 2022 WINNER E C HANNAH

Chapter 1

Ijeoma

“A heart.”

“What?” I asked softly as I raised my head from my position on the floor where I was picking beans to stare at my daughter who had just answered a question my mother asked. 

“Grandma asked what I want for Christmas,” she said, shifting her eyes warily like someone who was caught stealing meat from the pot. “I said I want a heart.”

I looked at her tender face and my heart broke. How could I explain to my daughter that we weren’t even on the list for those in need of a new heart because we couldn’t afford one even if we found a donor? I felt a sob rise in my throat and I quickly ran out of the room.

Outside, I fell to the ground and let the tears flow freely. “Why? Why God? Why? She doesn’t deserve this!” 

I sobbed my heart out and stifled the urge to pull my hair out of the confines of the worn hair net I used to cage the long strands of my natural braids.

When it felt like I had exhausted my strength, I sat down and leaned on the wall. The tears still flowed unbidden. “I know I did wrong God but don’t punish her because of me. Help her, Lord Jesus. Help her please,” I prayed.

I got pregnant outside wedlock when I was just 21 years old. Basking in the knowledge that I had finished my university education ‘early’, I was eager to go for the compulsory national service. I met Korede in camp and I was smitten at first sight. He was the perfect ladies guy. He was so handsome and he knew how to talk. The ladies flocked around him but he had eyes for only me or so, it seemed. 

After the three weeks orientation at camp, we went home and returned in two weeks time. Incidentally, Korede and I were assigned to the same PPA – a private secondary school at Abeokuta. I was so happy. Three months into our service year, I finally gave in to Korede’s pleas and agreed to date him. Those days were so blissful. Since we both stayed back in the school’s accommodation for corp members, we’d cook and eat together. Korede took me out severally and we spent a lot of time together. The other corpers used to call us husband and wife. I’d always smile and blush. 

When we were almost done with our service year, I became scared that Korede will abandon me as we both planned to return to our respective states till Korede could get a job, settle down and come for my hand in marriage. Korede assured me of his love and promised never to leave me. In my naivety, I believed him.

I shook my head as I recalled the night of our passing out parade. All the corp members passing out had organized a grand party. I must’ve taken too much alcohol. Looking back now, I suspect Korede must have encouraged me to take more on purpose. I wasn’t too inebriated when Korede pulled me to the dance floor and all hell let loose. That was the night I lost my virginity to Korede. When the fog in my mind cleared in the morning and I realized what had happened, I cried. Korede consoled me and promised he was going to marry me so there was nothing wrong if we both had sex. At the end, I got over it…till three weeks later when I realized I was pregnant.

My father was livid. My mother was just disappointed. I was an only child. They had sacrificed everything to see me through school and I failed them. For the next few weeks, I called Korede countlessly. His line was never reachable. When I reached out to our mutual friends, I realized for the first time that I had been a fool. Apparently, while doting on me as his one and only, Korede had been frolickng with several female corp members and even some female students in our PPA! 

I felt wounded, bitter and angry. I swore off men but it was already too late. I hated myself so much that I wanted to take my life. But, when I considered the grief that would cause my parents, I discarded the thought of suicide. I hated the baby and I wasn’t prepared to be a mother but that feeling changed when I laid eyes on her after birth. She was so beautiful I named her instantly – Ifumnanya.

Ifumnanya had her father’s eyes but everything else was mine. Three years later, she started having pains in her chest region. At first, we discarded it as nothing but when she was rushed back home from school one day, we quickly rushed to the hospital and that was when we received the bombshell – Ifumnanya had dilated cardiomyopathy and her heart was failing. For days, I was a moving corpse. “How? When? Where?” I asked no one in particular. “How does a four-year old have a failing heart?”

That was the same question I was asking myself as I sat outside the house that evening. I cleaned my face with the edge of my wrapper and stood up. I turned and was about to re-enter the room when I heard my daughter’s voice. I stilled.

“Is Mummy angry with me?” She asked softly.

“No, she’s not,” my mother replied.

“I’m sorry Grandma. I didn’t mean to make Mummy cry. I just don’t want to be sick anymore. I overheard the doctor telling Mummy that I need a new heart so that’s what I want for Christmas.”

I rushed into the room and hugged my daughter tightly. “You’ll get your Christmas wish, my darling. You’ll get it, I promise.”

“Thank you Mummy,” she cooed as she wrapped her tiny arms around me. 

“Now, go to bed darling. We have to be up early tomorrow so we can go to the hospital.”

“Do I really need more medications? I don’t like them,” she whined.

“It’ll be okay darling. You’ll be fine, you’ll see.”

“Okay Mummy. Good night Grandma,” she greeted as she stood up gently and made to leave the room.

“Good night my baby.”

I helped Ifumnanya to bed and tucked her in before returning to the sitting room. I saw my mother eating eba and egusi soup.

“Why did you make that promise to her?” My mother looked up from her food. “There’s no money…”

“I know Mama. God will help us.  I don’t want her to die.”

“She will not die in Jesus name,” my mother echoed. “God will make a way.” 

I sighed and looked at the bright moon outside through the window. I breathed deeply and whispered, “God will make a way.”

Chapter 2

Richard

I smiled as I looked at the swinging Santa in the hospital reception. It’s that time of the year again – my favourite time of the year.

“Dr. Richard!”

I turned as I heard my name. “Nurse Titi,” I replied with a smile as the petite nurse made her way to me. “How are you this morning?” I greeted her with a hug.

“I’m fine, Dr. Richard. How was your off-call weekend?”

“It was great. I really needed that after being on-call for the past seven weekends.”

Nurse Titi laughed. “We are the ones that decided to be in the medical profession. It can be like that sometimes.”

“True true. What do you have for me this morning?” I asked as I fell into step with Nurse Titi who had resumed walking.

“Dr. Shade from the Children’s ward wants to see you on a very special case.”

“Okay?”

“Then, you have to take over three cases from Dr. Oguntokun who was in charge over the weekend.”

“Okay. Thank you dear. What would I do without you?”

Nurse Titi smiled. “Not much. You wouldn’t be able to do much without me.”

I smiled and tickled her nose. “You got that right.”

My face was still wreathed in smiles when I stepped into my office and dropped my briefcase. I  put on my medical coat and whispered a word of prayer before picking up my stethoscope and walking out of the office. I was about to step into the ward when I heard a voice in my spirit.

Go to the children ward first.

I had been a Christian for over ten years and I had grown accustomed to how God usually spoke to me. This was clearly a word from the Holy Spirit. I turned and took the stairs to the children ward. “Yes Lord,” I whispered quietly.

I decided to quickly check the office of the doctor in charge of the children ward first. I was about to go in when the door opened and Dr. Shade stepped out. 

“Ah…Dr. Richard, it’s great to see you here. What have you been eating? See how fresh you are,” she praised, looking me over.

I laughed. “Dr. Shade, stop abeg. Me fresh? Have you looked in a mirror lately? Our oga is taking good care of you o.”

She threw her head back in laughter. “Go jò. Well, he’s trying. Thank God for him.”

“Yeah, thank God. Nurse Titi said you wanted to see me?” I asked.

“Yes,” she nodded. “Hmmmm…we have a sad story here. What am I even saying sef? All stories of sickness are sad stories, especially in this children ward.”

“I can understand,” I muttered. “So, what’s the issue?”

“There’s this little girl that…in fact, the nurse informed me that they’re here already. Let’s go and see them together. I’ll give you the full gist later on.”

“Okay. Let’s go,” I turned and followed Dr. Shade into the ward.

I looked around the children ward and my heart broke. I felt what Dr. Shade had said about sad stories. This was one of the reasons why I studied medicine – to be of help to people in pain. “God, help them,” I prayed inwardly as I kept up with Dr. Shade till she stopped. I looked up and forgot to breathe. I was staring into the most beautiful set of eyes I had ever seen.

“Good morning Doctor,” the angel greeted. She had to be an angel, even her voice was angelic.

“Good morning Ijeoma,” Dr. Shade replied. “Good morning Ifumnanya,” she said turning to the little girl on the bed. The little girl smiled and mouthed “Hello Doctor”. The smile was more than a grimace.

“What’s wrong with her?” I wondered.

“This is Dr. Richard,” Dr. Shade said, turning to me. I smiled and greeted, “Good morning Ijeoma. Good morning Ifumnanya.”

“It’s Miss,” the angel spoke.

“Mmm? I’m sorry, you said?”

“It’s not Miss Ijeoma to you.”

“Oh, I’m sorry for my mistake, Miss Ijeoma.”

She nodded and turned to face her daughter. I thought I saw a flash of anger in her face but I reasoned that I must have been mistaken.

“How’s the pain, Ifumnanya?” Dr. Shade asked.

The little girl smiled again and mouthed “Big”.

I looked at the angel then. She looked ready to burst into tears any minute. “She must be the elder sister of the little girl,” I thought. I placed my hand on her shoulder. “It’s going to be okay,” I whispered. She flinched and shrugged off my hands.

I withdrew and kept my hands to myself. “What pushed me to touch her?” I wondered aloud, angry at my behaviour.

“Let me continue my ward round now,” Dr. Shade began. “I’ll be back soon. If I don’t return, I’ll send Dr. Richard.”

The angel nodded and then, glared at me. The little girl only smiled. Once again, it looked like a grimace.

“What’s up with the little girl?” I asked Dr. Shade as soon as we were out if earshot. 

“Dilated cardiomyopathy. Dr. Jide confirmed it.”

I nodded. No wonder I was called. I was one of the best cardiologists in the state and everyone knew it. It wasn’t a bragging right. I worked hard and God blessed my efforts.

“She will have to join the list of those looking for a heart for a heart transplant. We can schedule the transplant for mid-month, just before Christmas. If we move early, we might find one before the operation…”

“That’s the problem,” Dr. Shade interrupted.

“What’s the problem?” I queried.

“They don’t have the money. I’ve been administering pain relievers but…you can see the way the girl is, she’s not going to last for much longer.” 

“Oh God…” I whispered and rubbed my face with my left hand, a habit I had picked up as a kid. “Where are their parents? Why are they here alone?” I asked.

“What?” Dr. Shade looked at me, surprised. “The one by her bedside is her mother.”

Now, it was my turn to shout. “What?”

After my conversation with Dr. Shade, I returned to my own ward and went on ward rounds. Ifumnanya’s condition was pitiable but there was nothing I could do. Most times, people died from lack of funds to continue their treatment. Heart transplants were one of the most expensive surgeries to carry out. There was nothing I could do.

“But, why is my heart not at rest?” I wondered. I kept seeing that little girl’s smile, no, strike that, grimace…and it tugged at my heart. “What do I do, Lord?”

I was on my way to see the Chief Medical Director on a serious cardiological issue I had been instructed to report on when I bumped into someone. 

“I’m sorry. I’m so sorry,” I apologized till I looked at the person. The angel. No, the married woman. “Miss Ijeoma, I’m sorry. I wasn’t looking.”

“Of course,” she replied saucily. “You men don’t look.” She hissed and continued.

“What?” I replied as she walked away.

Chapter 3

Ijeoma

I knew I was being ridiculous but I couldn’t help it. Since I found myself pregnant and alone, abandoned by the person I thought was the absolute love of life, I decided to completely ignore the male folk and focus on my daughter. That gender was not to be trusted. As people always said online ‘Men are scum’. I let out a slight hiss and continued on my way to the restaurant when I felt a strong hand pull me backwards. I looked up and saw the ruggedly handsome doctor.

“What do you think you are doing?” I seethed.

“What was that?” He asked. “Why did you just say that in such a rude manner? Have I offended you in any way? You know, when we met earlier, I thought you were rude to me but I ignored it and thought I was mistaken. Do I know you before? Have I ever wronged you?”

“Leave me alone.” I shrugged out of his arms and made to walk by him. He blocked my way and pulled me back gently.

“Miss Ijeoma,” he pinned me with a look that made me squirm. “What’s the problem?”

“Nothing. I didn’t tell you there was a problem,” I replied, looking away.

“Then, why are you so angry with me?” He asked.

“I’m not angry with you.”

“Okay,” he replied, folding his arms. “Where are you off to?”

“How’s that your business?” I asked, turning to look at him. Bad idea. He was so handsome and he looked so good with his medical coat and stethoscope. I had seen doctors before and they were never so appealing. “What was it about this Dr. Richard?” I wondered.

He smiled and I felt butterflies in my tummy, literally.

“I’ll go now,” I muttered as I saw him smirk, he must’ve noticed my reaction to his smile. 

“I’ll go with you,” I heard him say. “You are obviously on your way to the cafeteria. It’s the only place at the end of this lane.”

I shrugged and continued.

At the cafeteria, he hovered around me as I ordered and called out greetings to all the workers. They all greeted him warmly and I deduced that he must be very popular.

I was about to pay when he held my hand to stop me and told the servers to put it on his tab. I glared at him.

“What is wrong with you?” I gritted through my teeth.

“Come on, Miss Ijeoma. Let’s go.” He held my hand and pulled gently.

Outside the cafeteria, I stopped moving and he was forced to stop. 

“Anything wrong?” He turned and asked.

“Why are you doing this? Why are you being so nice?”

“Because I’m a Christian and goodness is part of the fruit of the Spirit.”

I laughed. “Oh spare me. That’s how all you men are. You just want to get into my pants and you’re playing the Christian card,” I scoffed.

I froze as I looked at his face. He was frowning. His face had been in a permanent smiling mode since I met him this morning. This was the opposite of that now.

“Who hurt you, Ijeoma?”

“Wh…what?” I stuttered.

“WHO HURT YOU? Who hurt you? Who hurt you so bad that you can’t give the rest of us a chance? Was it Ifumnanya’s father? Is that why he isn’t here?”

I flinched and moved backwards. “Who told you that?”

He moved closer to me, sat on the floor and pulled me downwards to join him.

“Who hurt you?” He repeated as he took my hands and rubbed them between his own. I should’ve stopped him but I couldn’t. I just looked into his eyes and burst into tears. He pulled me closer and I sobbed into his coat.

I was oddly aware of his hand rubbing circles in my back. The gesture was oddly comforting. After sobbing, I raised my head and looked into his face. “I’m sorry.”

“It’s okay,” he replied. “I feel you have so many issues. Care to share?”

I breathed deeply and nodded. He pulled me up again. “Let’s go to my office. It’s more private.” 

I nodded and allowed him take my hand. I was getting used to it.

At his office, he pulled off his coat and I apologized again for sobbing into it. He waved off my apology and took off his stethoscope. “Care for anything? I have malt and water.”

“Malt is fine,” I replied.

As he turned to the small refrigerator by the side, I had the opportunity to look him over. His broad chest stretched out the shirt and his chocolate skin was beautiful. He looked like he had a proper skin care routine, unlike me. I shook my head and prayed silently, “God, help my heart.”

He brought out two cans of malt and a box of biscuits. He placed a can before me and dropped the cookies between us.

“Ijeoma,” he called, taking his seat on the opposite side. “Can I call you that?”

I nodded.

“So, what’s your story?”

“Hmmmm…I really don’t know why I’m about to tell you this. Apart from my parents and my pastor, no one…”

“Ijeoma, I’m here to help. I’m not the enemy, I promise.”

I looked into his eyes once more and saw his sincerity. I nodded and started talking, “It all happened when I went to Plateau State for service six years ago…”

Chapter 4

Richard

“A heart. That’s what my daughter wants for Christmas. A heart.”

Those words kept reverberating in my mind. Almost a week after Ijeoma had sat in my office and muttered them, the words were still ringing in my ears. 

“What do you want me to do, Lord?” I asked for the umpteenth time and like a flash, it came to me. I rubbed my head with my hand, “Of course! How could I have been so stupid?” I quickly put a call across to the donor centre and requested a heart.

“Ifumnanya Nwoke is the name. Put it on top priority please,” I said to the person on the other side. After the call, I quickly dropped the phone and rushed out of my office to the Finance department. I requested for the bill for Ifumnanya Nwoke and paid it all. Then, I transferred the total amount for a heart surgery.

“B..b…but Dr. Richard…why?” The young man at the counter blubbered. I knew what he wanted to say.

I smiled. “It’s okay, Demilade. I want the young girl scheduled for surgery immediately a heart becomes available.”

I walked back to my office and felt a sense of relief. For the past one week, it seemed as though I had been walking around with lead on my chest. I breathed deeply and smiled as I remembered her face. Her. Ijeoma. 

Just recalling her beautiful face made my heart beat faster. I decided to place a call across to her. I had not done that since and I knew why – I didn’t want her to treat me like she treated other guys. I didn’t want her to see me as someone who wanted to take advantage of her. I wanted her love because I was in love with her. 

I breathed deeply again. In love. At 28, I had never been in love. This was the first time and it was with a woman with baggage. I didn’t know what to expect. I dropped the phone I had picked up and decided to pray first. After praying, I placed a call across to her and asked if she could offer directions to her house so I could pay them a visit.

When she agreed, I was so happy I felt my heart will burst. I told Nurse Titi I’d be back in an hour, went out to buy a few things – fruits and a teddy bear for Ifumnanya before driving down to the house.

Ijeoma and her parents received me warmly. I was pained when I saw that Ifumnanya could barely walk as she was in so much pain.

“Why don’t you bring her to the hospital? Let her be on permanent admission till the surgery is done?” I asked.

Ijeoma looked at her parents before whispering, “No money.” I saw her quickly wipe her face and I knew she was about to cry. That tugged at my heart. I felt like hugging her and protecting her from all the hurt. 

“It’s going to be okay,” I whispered. I walked towards Ifumnanya and crouched to speak to her. “How’s my princess doing?”

She nodded and grimaced, in an attempt to smile.

I brought out her gifts – the teddy bear and a small toy radio. She mouthed “Thank you.”

That made me smile. “Let me put on the radio for you. It’s a Christmas Carol radio.”

She smiled again.

“Do you know my most favourite time of the year?” I asked, wanting her to keep smiling. 

She shook her head slightly.

“My birthday,” I replied. “And do you know my birth date?” 

She mouthed “No”. 

“December 25th,” I smiled.

“Christmas?” She mouthed and smiled.

“Yes,” I laughed. “That’s why Christmas is my favourite time of the year. I was born on Christmas day.”

“Wow,” she mouthed and smiled again.

God, I’m in love with this little girl and her mother. Help her. Let a heart come.

I switched on the toy radio and the first song that came on was in a child like voice, “All I want for Christmas is my two front teeth, my two front teeth, just my two front teeth…”

Ifumnanya smiled and spoke out in a whisper. “Heart. All I want for Christmas is a heart.”

Everyone gasped. 

“That’s the first she has spoken out in two days,” Ijeoma said, almost crying.

I hugged Ifumnanya and whispered right into her ears. “God will do it, dear. You’ll get your heart.”

Chapter 5

Ijeoma & Richard

I was in my office on the 22nd when my phone rang out loud. I looked at the caller and smiled.

Ijeoma.

In less than a month, my heart and soul had become knitted with this woman. Since the visit to the house, I couldn’t go a day without hearing her voice. I offered to pay for Ifumnanya to be admitted at the hospital severally but she rebuffed all my offers. Good thing I didn’t let her know I had already paid for the surgery.

I picked the call and relaxed on the chair, “Sweetheart?”

“Richard.” The way she called me made the hair at my nape stand. She had never called me Richard and she sounded agitated.

“What is it?” I asked. “What’s wrong?”

“Ifumnanya is not opening her eyes. She’s not… she’s…”

“Stay right there.” I ordered, getting up from my seat and running out of my office. “I’ll get an ambulance to come to the house.”

“Okay okay,” she muttered quickly and dropped the call.

I quickly sent the ambulance and called the donor centre, praying.

“There’s no heart yet doctor. In fact….”

“In fact, what?!” I shouted.

“Ah doctor, the strangest thing just happened. A heart just came in. It’s a perfe…”

“Send it to Marble Hill Hospital immediately!” 

“Thank You Jesus. Thank You God”. I muttered as I rushed back to the hospital to prepare for surgery.

———————————-

Ifumnanya didn’t open her eyes after the surgery till the morning of 25th. I was by the window when I heard her call softly, “Mummy”

I turned swiftly. “Ifumnanya? Oh my darling, you’re back.”

“What happened?”

“You got your wish, darling.” I smiled as I walked to her. “You got a new heart for Christmas.”

The door opened and Richard walked in. “Oh, you’re awake princess.”

“Happy birthday,” Ifumnanya cooed. “I remembered.”

“Of course you did. Wait till you see what I got you for Christmas.”

“But, I already got a gift for Christmas,” Ifumnanya smiled. “A new heart.”

Richard smiled in response. “You’ll get more princess.”

He held out his hand to me. I took it and felt the zap of electricity. I was in love with this man.

“I’ve got a gift for you too,” he smiled.

“Really? I didn’t get you anything.”

“You will.”

“What?”

“You can get me a most wonderful gift Ijeoma,” he replied, going down on his knees. “…by agreeing to marry me.”

I felt the tears coming and I quickly wiped them away as I nodded. This was the best Christmas ever!

“Yay! She said yes!” Ifumnanya cooed. We both turned to her and smiled. I also got a gift for Christmas. I got a heart of love, just like my daughter.

THE END

BIO

E. C. Hannah is a Nigerian lawyer by profession and in the academia, she’s an astute scholar. She is from Delta State, Nigeria.

Hannah is the Chief Editor at PANN Editorials – a virtual hub for professional book editing and proofreading. In her leisure time, she reads and writes fiction. She has a penchant for Christian romance though.

Hannah is also a poet. Some of her poems have been published in literature magazines and poetry anthologies. She currently lives in Delta State, Nigeria. She loves teaching and travelling. 

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