They all knew. But none of them would speak of it. It was business as usual. On the surface. By all outward appearances. Perhaps they all thought that if they ignored the elephant in the room, it would eventually turn and go back out the door from whence it came.
Life does not work that way, of course.
His wife baked and cleaned, preparing the home they had shared for one than thirty years in just the same way she had every year. She conferred with him about the toys they would give to their beloved grandchildren. Whether they would prepare and serve the food they had traditionally enjoyed when their children were young and, in recent years, when they returned with their spouses and children to celebrate the various holidays and other milestones.
She stayed busy, puttering in the kitchen, addressing and mailing Christmas cards, preparing baskets of freshly baked treats to share with the neighbors, all of whom had lived in their homes at least as long, if not longer, as they had resided on that quiet street.
During those last weeks, he occasionally helped her with the preparations. And they enjoyed a few outings to the local stores to purchase gifts. However, each such individual trip was brief. Although he never complained, after more than fifty years of marriage, she could tell when he was getting tired. So she would feign displeasure with the store’s selection of merchandise, saying “Oh, this isn’t the kind I want. Let’s go home and we’ll look at the other store tomorrow to see if they have what we want.” Or she would claim that she was feeling tired and suggest that they pay for the items they had selected thus far, offering, “We can come back later in the week. I just didn’t sleep well last night and I’m very tired today. Is that all right with you?” Since he was a gentleman, accustomed to assuring that his wife was comfortable and cared for, he, of course, acceded to her wishes.
When they would arrive back at home, he would make himself comfortable in his rocking chair, the remote control for the television in his hand, while she put her purse away, checked the telephone messages, and otherwise left him to relax. After a few minutes, she would tiptoe into the family room, turn down the volume on the television, gently cover him with the afghan she had crocheted for him so many years before, and give him a soft kiss on the top of his head before continuing with her various chores and activities.
But every few minutes, she would look in on him again. She never spoke of her habit, but it was, by this time, precisely that: A ritual. She needed to reassure herself that he was still breathing. She tried to resign herself to the fact one day in the not-so-distant-future, she would most likely discover that during the moments she had left him to rest, he had stopped breathing and the life she had lived for more than half a decade would be forever and irrevocably changed.
“But not today,” she murmured in a soft, breathy whisper, as she stood in the doorway and watched him sleeping peacefully. “Not before Christmas, God. Please. Just give us one more Christmas.”
He wanted to play with his grandchildren. He loved them more than his own life and she delighted in watching him, especially with the grandsons he adored. They were old enough to enjoy conversing with and learning from him about all sorts of topics, including how airplanes managed to lift off the ground and take flight. He would tell them stories about his days as a pilot as they sat next to him drawing pictures of the various models he told them about. If he felt up to it, they would go for walks through the neighborhood, bursting back into the house, yelling, “Grandma! Grandma! Do you know what Grandpa showed me today?” Their pockets would be full of dried leaves or a pine cone or two. Sometimes their mouths and fingers were sticky from the treats Grandpa had purchased for them if he felt well enough to walk with them all the way to the ice cream shop.
Sometimes his lips were sticky, too, as he gave her a light kiss, his eyes twinkling and his cheeks red from the brisk fall air.
Would his doctors be displeased that he was eating ice cream? Probably not. At this point, what difference would it make? she thought to herself as she resolved to serve some of his favorite dishes at Christmas that she had not prepared in recent years due to the dietary restrictions imposed in an effort to prolong his life as long as possible.
Just three days before Christmas, the house was very quiet. She thought he was napping, but when she went to check on him, found he was not in his favorite chair. Just then, she heard a noise in the garage and rushed to investigate.
When she opened the door and found him at the top of the ladder, stretching to retrieve something from the rafters overhead, she nearly fainted.
“What in the world are you doing? You could fall! Get down from there right now! You’re scaring me to death!” she blurted out.
“Now, Mother, I know what I’m doing. Just give me a minute,” he said breathlessly as he struggled to manage a large piece of wood that he had retrieved from storage and was determined to carry down the ladder.
Instantly, she recognized it as the platform he had constructed several years ago.
“Honestly, what do you think you’re doing, old man?” She was becoming angry now, as the reality of the chance he was taking sunk into her consciousness.
“We are going to put up the entire village this year. I came out to get the platform and all the boxes. I want to see the whole little town lit up. You know I just love to look at it in the evenings.”
“I thought we agreed it was too much work for us this year?” Her protest was not as vehement as a few moments before as she came to appreciate the real meaning of his words. “Are you sure you want to do this?”
“Yes, I am. I want to enjoy the village again. And I know the kids will love it. They are bigger now and they will appreciate it more.” As his feet touched the garage floor, he was panting and unsteady. She helped him set the heavy wooden structure down and took his arm, silently insisting that he go back into the house. He made it only as far as the kitchen before he had to sit down and attempt to catch his breath.
“You are the most stubborn man I have ever known,” she fussed as she brought him a glass of cold water and lovingly dabbed the sweat from his brow with a cool washcloth.
“I know,” he grinned up at her. Even after all the nights over all the years they had slept entwined in the same bed and all the crises they had weathered, her knees still buckled slightly when he looked at her with that mischievous grin. When he did so, she did not see the elderly, frail man he had become. She still saw a handsome young man of 24 with thick dark hair who had “come calling” for her so many years ago.
“All right,” she sighed. “But you rest first. We are not starting with that project until you have taken a nice, long nap. Deal?”
“Deal,” he replied, giving her a playful pat before rising and slowly walking over to his rocking chair. He was asleep in a matter of seconds and, as he slept, she continued to perform her daily ritual of checking on him and praying that he would wake and spend this one last Christmas with her and their family.
After he had rested, they got to work. After so many years and countless projects, their teamwork was effortless and natural. She followed his directions, as it was evident that he had a plan in mind and this project was very special to him. They took breaks as needed so that he could regain his strength before resuming their efforts. In that fashion, it took them the better part of the remaining three days, but as the sun set that Christmas Eve, the goal had been reached. As he sat in his chair, dressed for church and anticipating the arrival of his beloved family, he smiled as he gazed at the display they had created.
“Grandpa! Grandpa! We’re here!” they shouted excitedly. “We brought presents for you and Grandma! Do you have presents for us? Do you have your Christmas tree up? Let’s see!!” They all arrived within moments of each other, hugging him enthusiastically as they came bounding through the front door.
“Oh, my heavens! Come on in . . . come on . . . take your coats off. Hurry now, I have a big surprise for you!” He had been feeling bone-tired just before the doorbell rang, but the several rings — each child had to have a turn ringing the bell, it seemed, before their parents caught up with them and ordered them to stop! — had re-energized him for the evening’s festivities.
“All right. Now I want you all to stand still right here in the entryway for a couple of moments. Then you can all see the surprise at the same time. Mother, are you coming?” he called to his wife.
“Yes, yes, I’m right here! Oh, my goodness, don’t you all look wonderful in your Christmas outfits?” she gushed as she hugged and kissed each one. “Oh, you’re all getting so big. You boys are going to be towering over me by next year. What are your mothers feeding you, anyway?” She laughed as she stood next to her handsome grandsons, stretching up on her tiptoes to show that she was still — for the time being, at least — taller than them.
Just then, he came back into the foyer and announced, “The surprise is ready. Follow me.” With that, he led them into the living room. He had turned off all of the lights except for those emanating from the beautifully decorated tree — and the village they painstakingly spent several days assembling. It sprawled around the living room. Part of the structures were on the platform he had specially constructed, part of them were under the Christmas tree.
“Grandpa! You put the village up! Oh, it’s . . . beautiful!” This was the moment he had been looking forward to. This was the moment he wanted to live to see. As each child stopped, silenced by the beauty of the display they had erected, mesmerized by the twinkling lights, toy trains running on the intricately arranged tracks, and the sound of Christmas carols coming from the miniature church.
He watched as they slowly walked toward the little town that they had built, their eyes taking in all of the details from the hardware store, post office, drugstore, and movie theatre on Main Street to the train depot with the tiny conductor waving his hand in the air to the church on the hill just outside of town to the ice skating rink flanked by carolers bundled into coats, mittens, and ear muffs.
“Oh, look at this!” one of the children would exclaim, drawing the others’ attention to the little corner of the miniature world that they had discovered.
He put his arm around his wife, partly to be close to her and enjoy these magical moments with her, and partly to steady himself as the excitement, followed by such intense effort, was wearing on him.
As always, his wife sensed that he needed to sit down. “Tell you what! Are all of you ready for a nice snack before we open some presents? I have cookies and other goodies. And I bet you would all like some hot chocolate, wouldn’t you?” she asked.
“Oh, yes, Grandma. That sounds great!” they all responded enthusiastically.
They all went into the living room and settled down comfortably, still surveying the little town spread around the room.
“Grandpa, how long did it take you to set this whole village up? It must have been hours and hours! And where did you hide all the chords for the lights?” His oldest grandson was full of questions about the mechanics of the display. The young man came and sat next to his chair as he carefully explained how he had organized each piece like a large jigsaw puzzle. Then he turned to the table next to the chair and produced a diagram consisting of several pages resembling a blueprint for a whole city.
“I mapped the whole town out. See?” He pointed out the details of the system he had designed for mounting the tiny city in exactly the same way. The instructions included an explanation of the wiring and control panels he had carefully concealed under the wooden platform he had constructed several years prior.
“Now I’m going to give you these instructions. I want you to take them home with you and put them in a safe place. Swear to me that you won’t lose them,” he said with his hand on the young man’s shoulder. “I’m counting on you. Next year, you’re going to be in charge of helping your grandmother get this village set up in just the same way so that you can all enjoy it again. You’ll help her, won’t you?” His tone and demeanor were grave.
As the young man looked into the eyes of the grandfather he loved and desired to emulate, his response was sincere. “Yes, sir,” he said quietly, painfully aware of the message his grandfather was imparting to him.
Smiling with relief, the old man squeezed his shoulder and then shook his hand. “I know you’ll help look after your grandma.” With that, he had to break away, moving slowly out of the chair toward the kitchen so that his grandson would not see him wipe away the tears that were clouding his vision.
“Dad, it will be time to go to church soon,” his oldest son gently reminded him. “How ’bout it? Are you and Mom following all of the traditions this year?”
“Oh, I think we should if your father feels up to it,” his wife offered, looking into his eyes for a sign as to whether or not he was able to read the story this year.
“Well, if you will all put up with me one more year, I would love to follow the tradition,” he said.”I have the book right here, Dad,” his youngest daughter said, as she came and sat next to his chair just as she had on so many Christmas Eves gone by.
“All right then. Mother, are you going to come sit in your place?” he said, motioning to his wife to sit at his other side as she always did, while all of the children, spouses, and grandchildren gathered around on the floor and in the chairs scattered about the room.
“Well, then,” he began, “this is our very favorite Christmas story. We began reading to you children as a bedtime story on Christmas Eve when you were just tiny boys and girls, and the tradition stuck. I love this story because it always makes me remember how beautiful I thought your Grandma was from the very first moment I met her. She had long, beautiful hair just like the young woman in this story, and I knew I would do anything to make her happy.” He gazed over at his wife and gave her a playful wink as she put her arm around his shoulder and snuggled close to him, looking at the well-worn pages of the book he was holding. “To me, this story demonstrates unconditional love. The kind of love we’re going to hear about in church in a little while. The kind of Christ-like selflessness that we are called to show to those we love every day. Not just on Christmas.”He opened the book and began reading: “One dollar and eighty-seven cents. That was all. And sixty cents of it was in pennies. Pennies saved one and two at a time by bulldozing the grocer and the vegetable man and the butcher until one’s cheeks burned with the silent imputation parsimony that such close dealing implied. Three times Della counted it. One dollar and eighty-seven cents. And the next day would be Christmas . . . ”
” . . . The magi, as you know, were wise men–wonderfully wise men–who brought gifts to the Babe in the manger. They invented the art of giving Christmas presents. Being wise, their gifts were no doubt wise ones, possibly bearing the privilege of exchange in case of duplication. And here I have lamely related to you the uneventful chronicle of two foolish children in a flat who most unwisely sacrificed for each other the greatest treasures of their house. But in a last word to the wise of these days let it be said that of all who give gifts these two were the wisest. O all who give and receive gifts, such as they are wisest. Everywhere they are wisest. They are the magi.”When he had finished reading “The Gift of the Magi,” no one moved for a moment as the melodious tones of his clear voice, so strong as he read the words he loved, hung in the air while the white lights danced on the Christmas trees needles and in the windows of the little buildings of the miniature town.
“Oh, Grandpa, that was a sad story,” one of the young granddaughters said. “She had no more hair!” she wailed, causing the rest of the group to giggle as her father swooped her up in his arms and changed the subject.
“Well, you do have hair and now it’s time to put it up in your cap so that we won’t be late for church! Go get your coat on, young lady!” He put her down and she scampered toward the hall closet with her siblings and cousins.
“Dad, would you like me to get your coat for you?” his daughter inquired.
“No, thank you,” he said quietly. “I don’t think I feel up to going to church tonight. I think I’m just going to go get into my rocking chair with the remote control and have a little snooze while I wait for all of you to return and open your presents. Does that sound all right with you?” he gave her hand a little squeeze as he pulled himself up from the chair to see them off.
“Well, sure. Will you be all right here by yourself?”
“Oh, of course I will! I’m just going to relax and take a little nap so that I will have the energy to enjoy watching the kids open all of their packages. You go on ahead now and I’ll see you when you get back. Stay awake during the sermon so that you can tell me what the preacher says this year,” he grinned with his trademark mischievous twinkle in his eye. How many times had his wife stuck her elbow into his ribs when he nodded off during a Christmas Eve service? he wondered to himself.
As they were all leaving, his wife stayed behind. “Dear, are you sure you’ll be all right here by yourself?” She was obviously concerned about leaving him alone.
“It will only be an hour or so. I’m going to take a nap so I won’t even miss you. You wake me up when you come back so I can watch the kids open all those presents.” He smiled and gave her a tender kiss. “Of course, you could just let them go to church without you and we could go over there under that mistletoe you hung up . . . ” He nuzzled her neck playfully.
“You’ll never change,” she whispered into his ear. “That’s why I love you so much, sweetheart.” Then she pulled away and looked at him sternly. “I’m going to put my cell phone in my pocket where I will be able to feel it vibrate. If you need me, you call me immediately. Promise me!”
“I promise! Now go! They’ve got the car running and they’re waiting for you. With the price of gas these days, this is getting to be an expensive conversation. Go!”
Reluctantly, she walked to the door, turning back to gaze at him. He was standing in the entryway watching her. “I love you,” she said.
“I know. And that is what has made my life worthwhile. It would have been meaningless without you,” he whispered.
She smiled and closed the door quietly as he slowly shuffled over to his favorite chair, snuggled under the comfortable afghan and promptly dozed off.
The church was full to overflowing with many worshipers standing in the back of the church and along the aisles. Because of the large crowd assembled, it was warm in the sanctuary.
But as the choir began singing her favorite carol, “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing,” she felt a cold chill and a strong sense of foreboding that quickly gave way to understanding, knowledge, and acceptance. She sensed that another angel had joined the realms of glory and her life would never again be quite the same.
As the certain realization of what had just happened crept into her conscious thoughts, tears began to roll down her cheeks. Her prayer had been answered and they had been given this final Christmas Eve together, just as she had hoped. Despite her sorrow, she found herself singing the final verse and chorus of that familiar carol almost as though she had stepped outside of herself. The words came from somewhere deep in her soul with a level of appreciation and understanding that was entirely new to her, compelling her to sing:
Hail the heav’n-born Prince of Peace!
Hail the son of righteousness!
Light and life to all he brings,
Ris’n with healing in his wings.
Mild he lays his glory by,
Born that we no more may die,
Born to raise each child of earth,
Born to give us second birth.
Hark! The herald angels sing,
“Glory to the newborn king!”