Christmas gifts

Christmas morning my wife took sick.

At the last minute we had to cancel our plans to host Christmas dinner. For the first time in forty years there would be no roast turkey with all the trimmings on the big table at the house.

I found the remnant of a loaf of crusty bread and hastily concocted a breakfast of french toast with a bit of bacon on the side.

My wife retreated to the bedroom upstairs while I cleared the kitchen table and did the dishes.

Afterward, I donned my padded vest, pulled on my woolen cap and stepped outside into the sharp cold winter sunshine. I ambled down the street to the center of town, then turned northwest to follow the road to the park.

Footsteps of previous visitors had iced up overnight. I found it easier to make my way through the crunchy snow along the margins of the path.

I skirted the frozen pond, blazing a trail through the brush under the bare towering trees at the far edge to the point where the two streams meet. The current had kept the water open in the center; great swaths of grey ice clung to the shoreline. Nothing moved in the quiet stillness: no winter bird, no air, no cloud in the sky.

Shortly, I turned and retraced my steps. Fifty yards further up along the bank I paused to survey the barren landscape. My eye glimpsed a grey shadow dart across the ice at my feet as a big bird dropped from its perch high overhead and floated over the dark open water.

A few powerful beats of its great black wings propelled the bird high above the river. Deftly, it dropped and circled, then climbed higher, then dropped again. With each pass overhead the brilliant white tail and white head flashed in the mid-morning sun.

Finally, the eagle turned and banked; then, with several more wing beats, it sailed off over the tops of the far trees.


This morning I thought to return to the point to see if I might catch another glimpse of the eagle.

Rather than make an approach through the town, I cut across the cemetery and picked up the trail along the river instead.

Several birds shifted in the trees on the far shore. One grey-blue form suggested a likely kingfisher, but I hadn’t brought my binoculars and couldn’t make a positive identification. Somewhere overhead a carpenter bird tapped out its coded message on a decayed limb.

As I stood there in the frozen snow, a small grey bird darted suddenly into the brush along the near bank and piped amidst the branches. Perhaps a sparrow, I thought; but no: this bird was uniformly grey.

Curiously, he flitted from branch to branch, seeking sustenance of some sort, finding nothing but a few lone winterberries, which seemingly held no interest.

Closer and closer he came, until finally he got to within several feet of where I stood.

Here he paused momentarily, bobbing nearly upside down on a fine twig; and eyed me briefly, revealing a bright yellow swath along the center of his crown: a little kinglet, meticulously surveying his vast winter wooded domain.


Christmas presence

Christmas was meant for children; so the old song goes. It comes round every year about this time—the song, I mean—and Christmas too, of course.

When I was a child, the anticipation of Christmas waxed more and more intense as December days waned. Hours of daylight grew shorter and shorter; and the anticipation of Christmas morning became so great, it almost hurt.

Then suddenly it came, that special morning like no other in the year. Presents, picture perfect, magically appeared, nestled beneath the tree. Happily, we tore into the wrappings, then “ooh-ed” and “aah-ed” with delight as we unveiled our treasures. The exercise didn’t take long; in a moment it was all over, the anticipation evaporated. Gift-wrapped presents had morphed into things that we touched, held, played with and hugged. Now, as a grownup, I recognize that these presents were given as gestures of love.

For a week over the Thanksgiving holiday this year we hosted my niece and her husband and their little girl from Spain. My wife began making preparations weeks in advance. The house was cleaned; collections of items were donated to the Veterans and the Salvation Army; the larder was stocked, brimming with food; sleeping arrangements were made; my daughter volunteered to drive to Newark to pick our visitors up at the airport. Anticipation coursed through the household, nearly palpable. You see, my niece had announced that she was pregnant with their second child, due sometime next spring.

At 3 years of age, my grandniece chatted frequently about the coming baby. In the Spanish culture children are revered. Many times I would overhear her parents refer to my grandniece with terms of endearment: “Princesa,” “Amor,” “Vida.” My niece spoke candidly about the pregnancy. “Que milagro, el desarrollo de un niño!” she said. What a miracle, this knitting together of a child in the dark recesses of the womb!

The Spanish refer to parturition—the act of giving birth—as “dar la luz,” literally, “to give the light.” The reference makes sense: at birth the infant passes from the utter darkness of the womb out into the intense light of day.

All mothers know the pain associated with childbirth. It is acknowledged to be some of the most severe pain that a human being can suffer. (Kidney stones are close, I’m told. I’ve never had a baby, but I’ve had several kidney stones, so I feel as though I can relate.) The scriptures refer to the pain of childbirth as travail. It costs quite a bit to move an infant from utter darkness to blinding light; but in the end the suffering is forgotten, replaced by joy—the joy of witnessing the presence of precious new life.

I must confess that sometime ago I lost the delight of receiving presents at Christmas time. It’s not that I don’t appreciate the gesture behind the act of giving; it’s just that, well, at my age I really have no desire for more material possessions.

Now, as Christmas approaches, I reflect on the anticipation of presence instead—you might say the present of presence: the presence of a newborn child, clothed in flesh, which is come into the world that we humans might pass from utter darkness into the realm of exquisite light and experience joy in the morning.

Presents and presence — Good gifts

This past Wednesday evening, the day after Christmas, I sat at my desk, staring intently at the monitor of the computer. There, amidst frozen swirling splotches of green, yellow, purple and blue, rested a stationary icon — a tiny orange airplane with a pink line emanating from the tail. All of this was superimposed on a map of the eastern United States. The software was tracking American Airlines flight 1581, en route from Bradley International Airport to Dallas, Texas.

I had a special interest in this flight, because my eldest son was on board. He had come home for Christmas. As always, the time was short; and so we made the best of the three days we had together. After a final meal of smoked ham and sweet potatoes, I drove him to the airport to catch his flight. Because of the impending storm, it was delayed nearly two hours; but unlike many other flights that evening, it was not canceled.

After I returned home from the airport, my youngest daughter went out to get gas in her car. Meantime, the snow had begun to fall.

My other daughter, sick with a nagging cough for the past two weeks, telephoned in a panic. She couldn’t stop coughing — she could barely get out the words over the phone — and she wanted to know what to do.

In the midst of this hubbub I had opened another browser window on the computer. Intermittently, I read Maureen Dowd’s NY Times column “Why, God?” In view of the recent spate of violence in Newtown and elsewhere, Dowd had asked a special guest to offer some thoughts on the holiday season.

Father Kevin O’Neil has shown himself to be especially understanding at the bedside of the dying. This is particularly poignant, because by his own admission Father Kevin feels woefully inadequate at such times. Indeed, he relates the story of how, early on in his career, he was called to minister to a family who had just lost their 3-year-old daughter to a sudden illness. The family was from Peru; they spoke little English, and Father Kevin spoke little Spanish. Nonetheless, he came and sat with these parents, offered what words of comfort he could muster, and stayed with them in the hospital over the course of the night. In the end the young couple seemed grateful for his presence.

Father Kevin writes that in his opinion, God manifests his presence through his people. In a very real sense God works through individual human beings to minister to a broken world.

I found some solace in Father Kevin’s words that night as I stared at the updated progress of my son’s flight on the computer monitor, as I first listened to and then advised my sick daughter what to do, as I watched the snow descend outside the window, knowing that my youngest daughter was out there somewhere on the road in the darkness.

One hour later I called my sick daughter to find that her cough had settled. My youngest daughter texted that she was driving home, taking it slow because of the snow. By then the tiny orange airplane icon on the computer monitor had passed beyond the borders of the green-yellow-purple-blue cloud.

I breathed a sigh of relief. On the map there was no discernible weather from Louisville to Dallas.

I picked up the cellphone and drafted a text message. “Tracking your flight online. Looks like the worst weather is behind you now. Should be all clear to Dallas. Safe home.”

It was.

A Christmas story

In “A Victorian Christmas,” New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd describes Charles Dickens’ final Christmas as “painful and miserable.”

In many of his literary works Dickens had managed to find some redeeming value in Christmas.  At the last he was confined to bed, beset by sheer exhaustion and severe gout.  Even after a lifetime of literary successes, the novelist was haunted by the fear of future obscurity.

And yet Dickens seems to have come to accept the hand that fate had dealt him.  With an air of equanimity he advocated that each one of us should “Welcome, alike what has been, and what never was, and what we hope may be, to your shelter underneath the holly.”

As enlightening as Dowd’s Dickensian column is, to my mind one reader’s comment trumps it.

Bryan Barrett of Malvern, Pennsylvania, records a tale of forgiveness recalled from a boyhood Christmas long past.

In 1950 Santa was intercepted and his gifts placed in my Dad’s car mysteriously disappeared. Panic at midnight ensued; the police were informed as was the toy store owner. I accompanied my Dad to the toy store to replenish and returned home where the police were waiting with the purloined toys and the suspect. My Dad invited all inside our home where he poured Irish Whisky. He requested that the police not press charges, drive the man home with the gifts, and all drank a toast to Christmas. The following morning Dad arose early, drove to his sisters store, loaded his car with food and delivered it to the man, who had seven kids, no job, no money and was desperate. They had grown up together. My Dad arranged a job for him which he held until he retired. For many years Dad sent a Christmas food hamper to them until the kids were raised and never mentioned this wonderful incident to anyone. My Mom and yours truly were the only witnesses, other than the police and the desperate man.

Would that we all, like Barrett’s father, might practice the Dickensian tradition — both at Christmas time and throughout the year.

Christmas Day, 2010: A magical moment

I made French toast from the leftover loaf of coarse bread on Christmas morning.  Everyone gathered in the kitchen and took turns eating at the small table as the toast came out of the skillets, thick and hot and golden brown.

Afterward we opened the gifts.  This year there were useful and useless presents—garments and books, gift cards and money, toys and electronic devices.  I retrieved A Child’s Christmas in Wales from the small marble-topped table in the parlor and read Thomas’s section on the presents.  When I got to the part about the “celluloid duck that made, when you pressed it, a most unducklike sound, a mewing moo that an ambitious cat might make who wished to be a cow,” my granddaughter hugged her stuffed slice of bacon toy to make it say “I’m bacon!” and everybody laughed.

We redd up the boxes and the wrappings and then I took the dog out for a walk up along the ridge to the power line cut where you can look out over the wide expanse of the valley.  Off to the northeast the Barndoor Hills lay nestled in at the base of the far ridges.

The dog and I stood for a moment surveying the scene when a cacophony drifted in from across the valley.  Louder and louder came the cries.  Breathlessly I studied the far ridge line, which began to undulate, as though inked in by an unseen hand in real time.  Then suddenly the whole line lifted up against the backdrop of the overcast sky.  Black dots appeared along the now broken line as bleating and honking reached a deafening crescendo in the cold air.

Closer and closer they came, companies and battalions of geese flying in formation, rising up across the grey sky, a massive ornithological sortie.  There must have been three or four hundred, perhaps more.  In a moment the sky was filled with the deafening cries of geese as they passed overhead.

The dog and I stood stock still with our eyes raised.

A few breathless moments more and the entire gaggle had disappeared over the second ridge to the south, leaving no trace but an occasional stray bleat.

It was only after the last straggler had gone that I realized my heart was in my throat.

Christmas was meant for children

Even the most mundane things take on special significance at Christmas time. Little Melody Banner’s case was sad to begin with; maybe it was the Christmas season that made her situation seem all the more tragic.

I picked up the new chart from the wall slot and called her name. A dirty-blonde, toothless mother stood up, cradling a weeping, blue-eyed, curly-haired child in her arms.

As I escorted them into my office, it occurred to me that seeing a new patient was like opening an unread book. The story had already been written, the plot lines laid down, the characterizations set. It was my job to discover these secrets. On occasion, I would find myself pulled into the next chapter.

The mother maintained her composure, in spite of Melody’s obvious distress. I still remember the toothless smile, a rarity among my mothers in their 20s.

They had fled their cramped apartment and their small South Carolina town. There, Melody’s father, who did not live with the family, had occasionally visited to satisfy himself sexually. He was usually drunk when he showed up, and Melody’s mother would bear the brunt of his anger. During his last visit, he had beater her soundly, raided the few dollars from the covered tea can in the kitchen and smashed the television.

That’s when Melody’s mother decided she had had it. Before dawn, Melody’s mother and grandmother piled their few belongings into the back seat of an ancient ’62 Chevy, and the family of three headed north.

Four days later they arrived in Hartford, where Melody’s mother had been born 28 years earlier. Unfortunately, she had no relatives left there, so the family made the rounds of the women’s shelters and the Salvation Army soup kitchen, but continued to live in the car.

The mother kept the engine running overnight to heat the car’s interior. She knew enough to keep the window open a crack. She was breastfeeding Melody but produced little milk on only one meal a day. When Melody developed a fever and started vomiting, the mother decided to bring her to the clinic.

I paused from my examination to look at this whining child clinging to a dry, flaccid breast. Temperatures had dropped to the teens this past week, and Melody’s mother had no more money to buy gasoline to fuel the heating system in their car.

Medical records hand-carried by the mother delineated past weights and heights. I glanced at the new chart on my desk. Melody had lost two pounds over the past three weeks. In two weeks she would reach her first birthday.

I almost rejoiced when I saw the inflamed eardrum through the otoscope: otitis media—this acute problem, coupled with the weight loss, was Melody’s ticket to a hospital for the next few days. Fortunately, the local hospital had rooming-in privileges for parents of pediatric patients.

As I picked up the phone to call admitting, my eyes fell on the desk-top calendar: December 22nd. With a little skillful manipulation, I could arrange for Melody to remain in the hospital over Christmas. Normally, I make every attempt to get sick children home for the holidays. But in Melody’s case, the hospital was the only home she had now.

“Uneventful” is the accepted medical description for Melody’s hospital stay. However, from Melody’s viewpoint, the four-day stay was anything but uneventful. During that time, she had regular nourishing meals, a soft bed and a warm room. She even had a visit form Santa, who brought her a teddy bear, the only present she received that year.

Like so many other clinic patients, Melody missed her follow-up appointment with me. The following spring, I received an authorized request from a clinic in northern Maine for the release of Melody’s medical records. Melody and her mother were still running.

Since then, not a Christmas has passed that I haven’t thought about those blue eyes and that toothless smile.