I remember one Christmas more than all the others.
Thinking of it now almost 60 years later, surrounded by new generations of healthy family members, I wonder if it might not also have been the best Christmas our family ever had.
My father always kept in good physical shape and generally stayed in good health. But a persistent problem with his kidneys and bladder led to some minor surgery, just before the Christmas holidays. Maybe he planned it then so he would not be missed so much at work.
His doctors operated on him at Baptist Hospital in Winston Salem, about 65 miles from our home in Davidson.
With his surgery a seeming success, he came home before Christmas, in time to be with his family as it gathered for the holiday.
He was not home for long. He had sharp pains and his bladder jammed up. He said he felt like he was going to burst.
Panicked, we called his doctors and rushed him back to Winston Salem. Our alarm turned to joy when his doctors reported that they had fixed the minor clog and that he would be all right after a few days in the hospital.
It was Christmas Eve, but notwithstanding the doctors’ assurances of my dad’s good prospects for speedy recovery, we were at first subdued. His stark hospital room was distinctly “un-Christmassy.” No gifts, no Christmas cards, no decorations. We were very thankful, but we had missed the holiday.
Then, the joy of Christmas began to slip up on my mother.
“We ought to have a tree in here,” she said.
“What do we think?” she asked, looking at me. “Could you go somewhere and get us one?”
It was already dark, but I drove from the hospital towards downtown Winston. Every store had closed. The few Christmas tree lots I passed were empty or closed.
Except there was one, where I caught an old man who was just turning out the lights of a lot that had sold every tree except one very small, very dry, very scraggly tree.
It must have been passed over a hundred times.
“How much will you take for it?” I asked.
“What’ll you give me?” the old man laughed in a funny, friendly way.
“How about a couple of dollars?”
“I’ll take it, but I’d of give it to you for nothin’, if you’d asked.”
Surely the fire code should have prevented me from dragging that little tree up to my father’s room. But on that Christmas Eve, nobody at the hospital stopped me.
I had almost forgotten what a sorry tree it was when I pushed it into my dad’s room.
My mother promptly put me straight. “That is the most pitiful tree I have ever seen.”
She laughed, though, when I told her about what the old man said and the tree being the last one on the last open lot on Christmas Eve.
When Dad smiled his approval, my mother started finding things to put on the little tree.
As scraggly as it was, it became hers and ours.
Our beautiful, scraggly, happy tree.
Somehow, my father’s little crisis and that little tree left us with something special and rich. And, it might have helped prepare us to face the devastating illness that would brutally wreck my father’s good health a few years later.
This Christmas, as my family enjoys our large beautifully decorated tree and sits around our table eating the wonderful dinner my wife has prepared for us, I will not forget that many others this season will be comforting sick family members or facing the holiday alone, braving the cold, and marking Christmas without even so much as a scraggly tree.
Mindful and very grateful.