The New York Sunday World on Dec. 10, 1905, published “The Gift of the Magi” by William Sydney Porter (pen name: O. Henry). Here’s a modern version, No. 5 in an occasional series of short short stories.
One dollar and 20 cents. That was all. And 20 cents of it was in nickels. Three times Della counted it. Was it a sign from God that the one dollar and 20 cents she had grabbed out of the loose change cup was exactly the amount her co-pay would be for the medication?
Della flopped down on the shabby little couch and howled. She couldn’t shake the doctor’s cast-down forecast: “You might have only three months to live. This new chemotherapy drug probably won’t help, but it’s your only chance, medically.”
Della finished her cry and attended to her cheeks with a tissue. She stood by the window and looked out dully at the December scene: gray cat walking a gray fence in a gray backyard. She reviewed what the insurance company had told her husband Jim and her. The company would not pay for the costly drug her doctor had recommended but would pay the total cost of suicide pills, except for one dollar and 20 cents.
Della the night before had put the issue before her support group, which had been supportive until voters legalized assisted suicide the month before. “It’s different now,” one member said. “You have to weigh some extra time against a child’s education. We’re leaving for the next generation a huge national debt. Aren’t we selfish to add medical expenses to that?”
Jim didn’t accept that argument. “I love you and need you,” he insisted. Della protested: “We have no money. We’ve run through our savings since the plant shut down.” Jim said, “Don’t worry. I’ll find a way.” After making calls he had gone out an hour ago, joking that he was starting a collection agency.
One December years before, when Della had long hair and Jim a gold pocket watch, she had cut her hair to buy a chain for his watch, and he had sold his watch to buy tortoiseshell combs with jeweled rims for her hair. Since then they had taken a mighty pride in one attribute of their married life: They had pledged not to make any major decisions, ranging from borrowing money to undergoing an operation, without consulting the other.
Della smiled at the memory and whispered to herself, “I’ve known love.” On went her old brown jacket. On went her old brown hat. She faltered for a moment while a tear splashed on the worn red carpet. But then, with a sparkle in her eye, she fluttered out the door, heading for a walk that would, almost accidentally, take her by the pharmacy.
For Jim, the next four hours tripped by on rosy wings. He visited two old friends and two cousins and told them what the insurance company had decreed. All four took out their checkbooks. The result was enough money to pay for not just three months but a year of chemotherapy. “Think positively,” one cousin said.
Della told herself the same thing as she got into bed and looked upward, past the flaking ceiling: “Think positively.” She had a habit of saying little silent prayers. Now she whispered, “Please God, make him remember how much I’ve loved him.”
At 6 p.m. the door opened and Jim stepped into the living room. He had prepared his speech, “Della, Merry Christmas! Yes, I’ve borrowed money without talking it over with you, but I knew you’d say no, and your life is more important than anything else.” But where was she? He walked into the bedroom, saw her sleeping, and tiptoed to bedside.
There he shook her, shook her again, saw the empty pill bottle next to her, and a note: “I love you. Please forgive me. It’s better this way.” With a mighty howl Jim started beating the mattress with his fist and saying, “It’s not. It’s not.”