It was a cold, wet, snowy, and blustery Sunday afternoon in early December, 2012. My husband and I were running errands at a local mega-warehouse in search of our daily necessities. Our trip had nothing to do with Christmas. However, we were surrounded by thousands of holiday shoppers who appeared to be planning an all-out invasion of the warehouse, energized by weekend sales. Unfortunately, it wasn’t going well….
First, I very nearly had a fist fight in the entryway with a nasty woman who tried to snatch the last cart right out of my hands. Perhaps I should have let her have it…. The cart, I mean. Its handle was laden with dripping icicles. The front wheels would occasionally catch and careen the cart off to the left and the back right wheel emitted a shrill, annoying squeal with each rotation.
In this instance, sharing would have been a form of self-care…. And a touch of justice (or vengeance)….
But nope. Now that I had it, I wasn’t letting go. (I can be just a tiny bit determined (or stubborn)… People were staring as I was grumping and hrumphing up and down the crowded aisles. My hands were cold, the cart was dripping and occasionally smashing into people – all while making a horrible sound. My jaw was set and my teeth were grinding in rhythm with the cart’s squeaks and the annoying Christmas music blaring out of the store’s speakers. I’m pretty sure the fire in my eyes caused occasional smoke to roll out of my flaring nostrils and shoot out of my ears. Basically, the Christmas spirit had vacated my body and the Grinch with a capital G, had moved in.
My husband dropped back so he was several steps behind me. I’m pretty sure he didn’t want to be associated with the crazy woman and her obnoxious shopping cart…
And then, I saw it. The Christmas tree of my dreams -- standing tall, regal and proud. The right size, the perfect shape and pre-lit with over 500 pure white shiny lights. Already put together, every light working, and in the clearance aisle.
I love Christmas trees. I especially love them with lots of lights -- clear, steady, white lights. No blinking, twinkling or chasing stuff for me. Just beautiful, clear white lights that gently but persistently break up the darkness with a soft, steady glow. This one was perfect!
My heart grew ten sizes in that moment… I maneuvered myself -- and the cart -- over to the tree, quickly slipped my hand between the branches and into the center of the tree, pulled it toward me and tucked myself right next to it. It was MINE. Next, I placed my dripping cart between me and the crush of people grabbing and scrapping over the other clearance items. The smoke settled, the fire in my eyes changed to the glitter of victory and I sent my bemused husband in search of a store assistant and appropriate tree-hauling cart while I guarded my prize. Eventually he returned with a bedraggled associate pulling a dry, warm, flat, quiet cart. He helped us safely transfer the tree to the new cart, graciously offered the cart-from-hell to an unsuspecting shopper with her hands full, and guided us through the crowd to the check-out counter, where we purchased our perfect tree.
We gently placed the tree in our van and brought it home. Just as I imagined, it fit our corner like it was made to be there. All the bulbs were lit, our angel was settled on the top and the decorations caught the reflection of the light and ricocheted it throughout the room. I re-found my Christmas spirit - thanks to my perfect tree.
It became our bright spot in an otherwise tough season. My husband Kevin had been in and out of the hospital, fighting infections and complications of chemo treatments plus the general mess of living with a terminal cancer. The tree was our symbol of light in the darkness, love in the midst of pain, peace despite chaos and hope in our ability to overcome fear. Our family gathered around it, laughed, shared memories, read stories, exchanged gifts and celebrated life.
What we didn’t know, was… our first Christmas with the perfect tree would be our last Christmas with Kevin. He died December 7, 2013 -- eighteen days before Christmas.
That year, I was in shock and couldn’t think about celebrations. However, our 3 girls knew I needed comfort and a tiny shred of normalcy. So, after Kev’s services had been held and most of the family returned to their respective homes in far-away-states, the kids put my tree up for the second year. Once again, it was perfect. All the lights were lit and the decorations were beautiful.
I spent hours in the dark with the glowing tree. Much of the time, I sat in a rocking chair, wrapped up in a prayer shawl and cried. On Christmas Eve, I gently held our Granddaughter in my arms and with tears streaming down my cheeks, read her a story and rocked her to sleep. Under the tree were the last presents from Kevin. Three copies of his favorite childhood storybook. (He’d researched and found them at various places over the internet late that summer.) Three recorded storybooks. (He’d read them to capture his voice exactly one week before he died.) A set of mittens for each of us, lovingly created from his favorite sweaters. (Made for us by very special friends.)
Once again, the tree ministered to me. Its steady glow brought comfort to my soul. As tears pooled and filled my eyes, the images of the individual lights blurred and the tree was transformed. It was as though it became one solid light – with our angel at the top reaching her hands out in love toward me. I felt enveloped in warmth and experienced strength from the lights as they joined together to become a single powerful torch and lit my way to peace in the midst of despair.
Now, it is December of 2014. This will be my third year with the tree and my second Christmas without Kevin. Once again, the kids brought the tree upstairs for me. But this year I decided to be the one to plug it in, fluff it and decorate it. I wanted to put up my tree. It had been a year filled with pain and triumph. This time, I was going to take control, bring back my perfect tree and have a normal Christmas.
Guess again…. Over the course of 12 months of storage, something went terribly wrong. When I plugged it in, some of the lights didn’t work! There were spots of darkness throughout the tree. The unlit areas were random and scattered from top to bottom. Sometimes a few missing lights were in a cluster. Other times the darkness took over an entire row of branches. It didn’t make sense. There was no rhyme or reason to the areas of darkness. They were just there and I couldn’t figure out how to fix them. My perfect tree was broken.
First, I was perplexed. Then I got angry. Next, I decided to get rid of the tree. Finally, I simply cried.
Memories flitted through my head like fireflies sparkling across summer’s nighttime meadows. I remembered the day I found it with Kevin. I remembered the warmth. How the lights glowed in the dark and brought light to our living room. How we sat together in the evenings, holding hands and snuggled together, listening to Christmas music or watching Hallmark movies while the light from the tree bounced off of walls and windows. I remembered the laughter, joy, memories and silliness as we opened our gifts seated around it on Christmas morning.
I remembered my despair. The shock of losing him two weeks before Christmas. His last presents under the tree. The pain and grief. The struggles of figuring out how to live life without him by my side.
I also remembered the victories and grace of unexpected gifts discovered in the midst of my forever-changed life. I smiled as I remembered the day I rediscovered my heart’s ability to sing – even with a hole in it. My tears of pain co-mingled with tears of joy.
At that moment, I realized that in its imperfection, the tree was a perfect reflection of life. We all have things missing. People die, jobs are lost, relationships are broken, disappointments occur, wars happen, and distance separates us. Our lives are a mixture of light and darkness. It is up to us to open our eyes and recognize the beauty of the light and to honor the dark spots. To remember that light shows up best when placed in darkness. To never forget that darkness is overcome by light. To see the gifts of God’s love, grace, compassion and gentleness in the light. To accept those gifts and ultimately carry them out to others.
This broken tree perfectly reflects my life. It’s a gift to be treasured. I’m keeping it.
May the light of this season shine bright in your heart and lead you forward into the new year. Merry Christmas….
“In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.” Matthew 5:16 (NRSV)