Bonnie and I decided against a Christmas tree. Our income, cut in half, didn’t really lend itself to spending forty dollars on a tree that would be up for two weeks then out with the trash. The pile of medical bills that continued to grow on the dining room table was an additional reminder of the need to use our funds wisely. Plus, we reasoned, we weren’t sure the two of us—with the help of an adolescent boy—could wrestle a six-foot evergreen onto the top of my ancient Celebrity. So, no tree.
It was the right decision, my
daughter and I told each other. With full-time jobs and college classes and
hospital visits to make each day, we needed to conserve our energies. I
liberated my grandmother’s ceramic light up tree—the one that had sat atop her
television console for fifteen years—and set it up on an end table in the living
room. “Behold,” I said, “our Christmas
tree. Already decorated.” “Perfect,” said Bonnie. Her cheer
seemed strained. But we were all a little bit strained. Ron’s last lab results
had not been promising. An infection, yet unnamed, still raged through his
weakened body. It looked like another holiday would be celebrated in a hospital
room. “It will be enough this year.”
Her little brother was not
convinced. At twelve, Allen hovered somewhere in between giving up on the
reality of Santa Claus and retaining faint hope that Christmas magic still
existed. “Where will we put the presents?” he asked. “There’s no room under the
“I’ve got it!” shouted his sister. She
ran out the backdoor and returned with the Flexible Flyer Sled we hauled out of
the basement each winter. Plunking the sled down next to our ceramic tree, she
declared it the perfect spot for presents.
"Not much room,” Allen said glumly.
“Can’t put too many presents on that.”
Bonnie and I looked at each other
sadly. The truth was that there would not be a lot of presents this year. She
hugged her brother. “It’ll be fine,” she told him. “You’ll see.”
Allen remained skeptical. “Just doesn’t feel
We forced as much holiday cheer as
we could into the house, stringing garland on the mantel and lights around the
door. Each day when I came home from the hospital, I dropped my school bag and plunked a Christmas CD into the player. We ate our spaghetti or pizza suppers
by candlelight, singing along to the carols. At night, after Allen had checked all the door
locks twice and made sure the spotlight in the backyard was turned on because “I’m
the man of the house now and I have to make sure you girls are safe”, he went
up to bed, and Bonnie and I planned out Christmas.
We had a turkey the church had given us at
Thanksgiving and which we hadn’t used because Thanksgiving had brought with it
an emergency surgery on Ron’s pancreas. We had some canned goods in the pantry
and enough money between the two of us to manage the rest of a Christmas
supper, even if we needed to transport it to the hospital.
And while the presents were few, we
had things for Allen and silly items to stuff into Christmas stockings. And we
had our white porcelain crèche on the mantel, the one Ron had given me piece by
piece each Christmas.
But despite the forced cheer, part of
me agreed with Allen. It just didn’t feel like Christmas. Every morning when I
left to teach my middle school classes, I noted the empty corner of the living
room where the tree should stand, adorned with the plastic ornaments Dad
brought home from Germany when he was in the Army and the glass bells that had
hung on my grandmother’s tree. The front of the house looked bare without our
plastic Nativity set; the complicated lighting had been beyond Bonnie and me.
The hospital I visited each day had
its own forced cheer: trees in the lobby, golden garland hanging from the
ceiling, red poinsettias clustered into pots in the cafeteria. Each patient’s
door held a small red Christmas stocking.
Still, it didn’t really feel like
Christmas. The closer we got to December 25, the more excitement ranged in the
halls of my middle school. And the more depressing was the news from the
hospital. As Ron battled against the infection, his damaged pancreas refused to
process food so once again he needed a tube to provide nutrients. No turkey for
him. In the ten months since the car accident that had almost cost him his
life, we had spent almost every holiday in a hospital room. What kind of
Christmas would it be? I asked myself. No tree. Few presents.
It wasn’t about the tree, I knew.
Or the presents. Since accepting Jesus as my Savior when I was fourteen, the
meaning of Christmas was deeper and more spiritual. I sang “O Holy Night” on my
way to school each morning, reminding myself that even if there were no
presents on the Flexible Flyer Sled for me beneath our ceramic Christmas tree,
it would still be a meaningful Christmas. Even if there was no special gift from
my spouse of 25 years, no “just because” gift that wasn’t a need but a want, we
would be grateful to be together and joyful that Ron was still alive.
And we would all be together. Dennis would be home on semester break and
stay with us for two weeks before going back to the city. Bonnie would have no
classes at community college and the daycare center where she worked would be
closed. And Allen and I would have two
weeks off from middle school. We could spend more time visiting Ron, trying to
make it feel like Christmas to him.
I tried to ignore the empty corner
in the living room. I tried even harder to ignore the empty corner of my heart.
It was four days before Christmas
and Bonnie and Allen and I huddled under blankets in the living room to converse
electricity, munching on popcorn and watching National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation. Dennis would be home
tomorrow and there was a slim chance the doctors would allow Ron home for
Christmas Day. It would, we told ourselves, feel more like Christmas.
There was a knock at the door. The
kids and I looked at each other. We weren’t expecting anyone. The minister had
already stopped by with a love offering taken up for us, money we would put
towards the mortgage. Bonnie looked out the window. “Someone with a truck,” she
said. I went to open the door.
And there on our steps stood two
church members. Between them they held a beautiful and fragrant Douglas fir. “Wow!” shouted Allen. “That’s some
tree! Is it for us?” He scampered to help Rich bring it into the house. I hugged Rose tightly. “How did you
know?” I asked her. She smiled. “Pastor Bill called us.
We had asked what we could do to help you. He said you didn’t have a tree.” Tears threatened to spill from my
eyes. “Bonnie and I just couldn’t…we didn’t…thank you. Thank you!” Rose beamed. “It is our pleasure.” Allen ran for the boxes of
ornaments we had stowed away for another year, and Rich set the tree up in the
vacant corner with expert care. Bonnie set the tea kettle to boil and made hot
chocolate. My heart was bursting with love and gratitude to God and His two
servants. But God had one more surprise for
me. Rose reached into her bag and handed me a red box wrapped with a big white
bow. “We saw Ron today,” she said. “And he asked me to buy you this. So, this
present,” she said, “is from your husband.” I hugged Rose tightly and let the
tears flow. She patted my shoulder. “I know, honey,” she whispered, “and so
does God.” Rich plugged in the lights on our
beautiful Christmas tree, given to us with love. “Now,” declared Allen, “it feels