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Merry Christmas, Mrs. Moring
By Henry Hurt
Merry Christmas
(Originally published in Reader's Digest, December 1995)

Danny Moring had settled down to watch the eleven o'clock news in the den of his quiet home in Charleston, S.C. His children were tucked in bed. His wife, Allyson, who had complained of a bad case of the flu, was asleep at the other end of the house. Her illness was so severe--fever, chills, cramps, vomiting--that she had isolated herself so she would not pass along the bug to the rest of the family.

Suddenly Danny heard an odd scuffling noise in the kitchen. He went to look. There lay Allyson, curled on the floor in a fetal position. She had pulled herself all the way from their bedroom and now reached toward him, her face distorted in pain. "Danny, help me. I'm dying, " she gasped, her teeth chattering. "I really am."

Her husband was stunned. Allyson, 36, had enjoyed wonderful health--excepting recent surgery for a ruptured spinal disc. Only the day before, she, Danny and their children--Elizabeth, nine, and Robert, one--had returned home from a Thanksgiving-weekend camping trip.

Danny looked down at Allyson; the skin on her fingers and toes was turning purple. He carried her back to their bedroom and called 911. Then he stroked the wet, dark hair plastered to her face and hugged her icy body to him. "I've never hurt like this, " Allyson whimpered. "It's like pins sticking me all over."

Minutes later, when the emergency crew arrived, Allyson's blood pressure was undetectable. She was placed on a gurney and carried from the house. Standing in the doorway as the ambulance sped off into the night, Danny felt weak. Of all people, how could this be happening to Allyson?

Danny phoned his father to come stay with the children, who were sound asleep. In his mind he could see them, snuggled in bed, innocent to the fact that the very heart of their lives had been plucked out and taken away.

Lit by a Smile. "Stick your tongues way out, " Allyson Moring had said to her teen-age students at choral practice a few days before she fell ill. "Let's do our warm-ups." Then, Mrs. Moring, as her pupils called her, exuberantly jutted her own tongue out and led the vocalizing. Awful guttural noises, mixed with nervous giggles, resounded through the music room.

"Now we're ready!" Mrs. Moring said, convinced that nasal cavities were opened, voice ranges extended--and, perhaps most important, egos leveled by laughter. Her gaze swept the 50 youthful faces, and she hooked her arms into the air. She gave a crisp flick of her hands, and young voices rose in sweet unison. With her high spirits and smiling slate-blue eyes, Mrs. Moring had won over the hearts of her charges at Bishop England High School. They loved to watch her drive into the parking lot, her head bobbing energetically as she filled the car with her own rendition of "I Could Have Danced All Night." Even at her most intense moments of conducting, her face was lit by a half-smile.

Since her earliest days, Allyson, oldest of five girls in a family of six children, had loved music. From the age of five, she had taken piano lessons--and later voice lessons. As a teacher, she believed that music could change lives for the better--that it could foster emotional development and enhance all the good aspects of life, the serious as well as the frivolous. She believed, too, that it could soothe those parts of life that are most difficult. In every sense, Allyson Moring was an apostle for the power of music.

For the 1994 Christmas concert Mrs. Moring's group was attempting one of music's most difficult choral pieces, the "Hallelujah" chorus from Handel's Messiah. A challenge even for adults, the selection would be the centerpiece of the concert--if the students could get it right. The very first note had to explode from 50 throats in perfect harmony. Then the parts had to follow one another in a cascade of sound--new voices breaking in upon old with exquisite precision.

For 16 long weeks, the boys and girls had practiced after school, perfecting simpler selections and struggling with Handel's masterpiece. During Mrs. Moring's absence for back surgery, Katherine Allen, 17, a senior who had taken a course in directing music, filled in. But Katherine, slight of build with long blond hair, had found it hard to manage the large group. Believing she had failed as a conductor, she vowed she would stick to singing and leave directing to others.

Allyson Moring returned to choir practice, the success of her surgery marred only by a staph infection, for which she was given antibiotics. She finished the medication on Thanksgiving Saturday. Within hours, she had taken to bed with what she believed to be flu.

Last Rites. When Danny Moring reached the hospital, the news was brutally bad.

Medicine's oldest enemy--massive systemic infection, also known as sepsis--had laid siege to his wife's body. She had gone into septic shock, in which bacteria overwhelm the body's systems, blood vessels begin to leak, and vital organs start shutting down. A doctor took Danny aside and suggested he gather the family. There was little chance that Allyson would survive the night.

Gripped by this grim diagnosis, Danny rushed home. There, he sat on the edge of Elizabeth's bed, kissed her lightly on the forehead and nudged the little girl from her sleep.

"Where's Mom?" Elizabeth asked. Her eyes were beseeching now, confused, and Danny caught the color in them--the precise slate-blue of Allyson's.

"Mom went to the hospital, " Danny said, tears welling in his eyes.

"Is Mommy going to die?" she said, her voice wavering.

"Lizzie, " he said, "she could die, but we're going to ask God to be with us and we're going to pray and pray like we've never prayed before."

Elizabeth burst into tears as the two of them hugged each other. They prayed together, Elizabeth's small voice begging God to make her mother well. Then Danny tucked her in. With the light now off, Elizabeth cried in her pillow until sleep brought her peace.

Back at the hospital, among the doctors watching over Allyson was her father, pediatrician Allen Harrell. As her mother and sisters stood around her bed, Danny and Dr. Harrell each took one of Allyson's hands. The Morings' parish priest, Father Timothy Watters, stood by.

Allyson Moring's eyes opened for a moment. She looked around at her family and at Father Watters. Her father gently said to her, "Allyson, honey, you're very sick. It would give us all strength if Father Watters gave you the last rites." He rubbed her icy hand.

"Am I going to die?" Allyson asked.

"Honey, " her father said, gently squeezing her hand, "this is to give us the strength we need to go forward."

Tears welled in Allyson's eyes, and she closed them. Then the priest touched his fingers to the palms of Allyson's hands and to her forehead, anointing her with oil.

Katherine Allen made her way through the bustling corridor as classes changed at Bishop England High School. Suddenly she was face to face with Jessica Boulware, a junior from the choral group. Katherine could tell from Jessica's expression that something was terribly wrong.

"It's not true, " said Katherine after hearing the news. "There's no way Mrs. Moring could be that sick."

"I'm serious, " said Jessica. "She's been given the last rites." Speechless, the girls stared at each other, feeling empty and alone. Would Mrs. Moring really die? What would happen to the Christmas concert?

The next afternoon, the choral group met to talk about Mrs. Moring. The latest medical reports were dire. It would be almost impossible to stage the Christmas concert, only ten days away. But, more important, what could they do--now--for Mrs. Moring?

Jessica Boulware had an idea.

Joyful Voices. Allyson Moring's infection raged on. At first, in her delirium, she had mumbled about the Christmas concert, telling Danny it had to go on. Then she became totally unresponsive, and was kept alive only by a respirator. Her body swelled so horribly with toxic fluids that her eyes disappeared into bloated flesh.

Danny was standing vigil at her bedside when two of Allyson's colleagues from Bishop England, Barbara and John McPherson, came to the intensive-care unit and handed Danny an audio cassette. "From Allyson's students, " Barbara said. Danny inserted the tape into a small player and turned it on. In a sudden burst, the joyful voices of girls and boys singing Christmas carols filled the cubicle.

Staring into Allyson's face, Danny prayed that she could hear these voices that he knew she loved. Then his own heart jumped as he picked up the high, sweet refrain of one of her favorite songs: "Do you hear what I hear? Do you hear what I hear?"

As Danny prayed for God to let Allyson hear, the singers suddenly began the "Hallelujah" chorus. What happened next astounded him. Allyson's eyelids twitched, and he felt a firm squeeze from her hand. Staring into Allyson's face, he thought he saw a tiny half-smile, as thrilling as any smile he had ever seen.

Danny Moring wept with relief and knew that he would play the tape over and over. Then someone touched him on the shoulder. It was Allyson's father. "Danny, " Dr. Harrell said gently, "I cannot let you get your hopes up. Allyson can't survive without a miracle."

But there was no miracle. Pneumonia set in a few days later, and the illness grew worse.

"The tape made Mrs. Moring smile!" whooped a girl when Katherine came into the music room the next day. That spark of hope ignited the students. "There's no way we can not have the concert, " said Jessica. But who would conduct? All eyes were on Katherine Allen. "Never, " said Katherine. "I'm not capable of it." But efforts to find a substitute director failed. One night, Katherine and her mother talked until 1 a.m. Over and over, Katherine insisted, "I'm just not a conductor." But she couldn't stop thinking about Mrs. Moring. She remembered the powerful inspiration the teacher brought to their choral group--and the immense satisfaction they felt when she pushed them to their performing limits. The next morning, Katherine announced to her parents, "I've decided to do it." Practice resumed. As a perfectionist, Katherine wrestled with the pitch, the pacing, the soloists. But the greatest challenge was keeping the singers together for the "Hallelujah" chorus. "I can't get the altos to hold their parts, " Katherine told her parents in frustration. "I just don't see how it can all work." Her sleep was ravaged by nightmares of her own failure--something as a top student she had rarely experienced.

The rehearsals were also clouded by bad news from the hospital. At each grim report, someone would break down crying. Katherine was filled with fear.

"This is for Mrs. Moring."On December 8, Charleston's magnificent Grace Episcopal Church opened its doors for the Bishop England Christmas concert. Word had spread about the students who were determined to fulfill their teacher's dream. More than 500 people packed the seats and spilled into the foyer.

In another part of the church, Katherine and the chorus went over the difficult parts one last time. Finally, Katherine called for silence. "We are going to pray together for Mrs. Moring, " she said. "And then we're going to go out there and make her proud." As she led the group in the Lord's Prayer, Katherine heard sobs. She struggled for composure herself. Then she addressed them for the last time. "We cannot be emotional, " she insisted. "It'll ruin the concert. Keep saying 'This is for Mrs. Moring, this is for Mrs. Moring.' It must be the best we've ever done."

In the darkened sanctuary of the Gothic church, the chorus, holding candles and singing "O Holy Night, " made its way down the aisles. When the singers reached the front, the lights came up. Katherine could see Mrs. Moring's family in the front rows, their faces shining with the same hope the singers felt.

Steadying herself, she looked out over the crowd and informed them that their director was deathly ill. "We dedicate this concert to Mrs. Moring in the hope that she will get well, " she said.

Then Katherine turned and, with great flair, began the performance. As the voices intoned the familiar Christmas hymns, her confidence rose. But one thought continued to nag her: Can I keep them together for the finale? When the powerful opening to the "Hallelujah" chorus burst from the organ, Katherine took a deep breath and raised her arms. There was an excruciating pause. Then she flung her arms wide--and heard the voices explode, every note in place, warm and confident. Mrs. Moring's students were summoning sounds so pure that Handel's long crescendo of "hallelujahs" seemed to soar to the rafters, touching ears and hearts with the sound of heaven itself.

When silence finally fell, the listeners rose and broke into applause, some weeping and others crowding forward to embrace the singers. Exhausted, Katherine felt a hug at her waist. It was the Morings' daughter, Elizabeth, embracing her as tightly as she could. Looking into the child's slate-blue eyes, Katherine was overcome with joy.

That same night, less than a mile from the church, Danny Moring sat holding his wife's hand, the tape made by her students still playing. Allyson's condition remained hopeless. Danny didn't even know whether the news of the successful Christmas concert had penetrated her unconsciousness.

But slowly, remarkably, over the next few days, her systems began to stabilize. Lungs and kidneys started functioning. Allyson began to recover.

Faith in God's Power. On Christmas morning, just 17 days after the concert, Allyson sat quietly in her own living room. Baby Robert squirmed in her lap as Danny and Elizabeth fetched presents from beneath the tree. Allyson was bone thin and exhausted, but her face wore a radiant smile.

Why she got well, or even when the precise turning point came, is not important to Allyson Moring. The key fact is that her long, tortured slumber was filled with music. "What I remember is music, music, music--the beautiful music and voices that I love."

Soon after Mrs. Moring got home, Katherine Allen and Jessica Boulware and several others from the choral group tapped gingerly on her door, bearing gifts and flowers. There was an explosion of emotion as the girls and Mrs. Moring hugged one another. She told the girls what she had told so many--that the entire experience has certified her faith in God's power through music and prayer and the wonderful capacity of young people.

If the most precious of God's gifts is life, the Morings have realized a blessing every bit as special to them as Allyson's recovery--a baby boy born to them in October 1995, named Jonathon Tucker. Merry Christmas, Mrs. Moring.

Take me back the story page please

Jaci Rae has been named "The Christmas Expert!" She is also the author of Collista's Search for the True Meaning of Christmas! Congratulations Jaci Rae!

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