Posted by: Patrice Fitzgerald | December 25, 2008

A Different Kind of Christmas Story

This is a true story.  I tell it here in the hope that it will remind you, as it does me, of Christmas blessings large and small. 

                                                * * * * *

Seventeen years ago, I was asked to sing at the Christmas Eve service in a church some distance away from my West Hartford home.  It may have been in Wethersfield, but I can never remember.  I can only say that I’ve not been to that church before or since. 

The invitation came at a time when I wasn’t in a choir.  I missed singing, and I was flattered to be asked.  I knew that I could work this one-evening commitment into my life — nurse five-month-old Laurie, leave the house by 10:30 p.m., get to the church for a brief rehearsal, and be back in time to get a few hours sleep before she woke up for her 6:00 a.m. feeding.  Now I wonder why I felt compelled to make this trip, in virtually the middle of the night, to a church I didn’t know. 

Or maybe I don’t wonder at all.           

On the way down, it was bitter cold, and I lost my way.  I found myself on a grand four-lane highway.  At this time in my life, I was in baby mode, and my world was circumscribed by the tiny and tender.  The traffic on that highway, sparse though it was so late on Christmas Eve, seemed to crush in on me.  Cars in a hurry.  Trucks in a hurry.  People in a hurry.

I stopped by a lonesome payphone to double check the church address.  I felt the bright bite of tiny snowflakes on my nose and inside my collar. 

When I arrived at the church, I stepped into a glorious, light-filled foyer, aglow with candles and flowers.  The rehearsal was nearly over, but I knew this music.  I donned a choir robe, and I was ready. 

Slowly, as the congregation assembled in the pews, the vaulted ceiling filled with happy voices exchanging holiday greetings.  Those of us in the modest choir made our way up the aisle in a candle-lit procession, our music echoing throughout the sanctuary.  We sang “Angels We Have Heard On High” and the harmonic peals of the “Gloria in Excelsis Deo” swirled around the church and beamed off the stained glass saints.  It was a moment out of time, jeweled and perfect. 

I was so glad I had come. 

Afterwards, I got in the car for the long, cold drive home.  It was 1:30 a.m. on Christmas morning.  Still sated with the glow of music and warmth, but very tired, I coasted back toward West Hartford.  I knew that my baby daughter would be up with the dawn.  All I could think about was how good my bed would feel. 

Just before I turned onto Homestead Avenue in Hartford, in a part of town where I sometimes lock my doors, I noticed a car ahead trying to avoid something in the road.  In the middle of the street, on a patch of ice, lay an old coat.  No.  It was. . . an injured dog? 

Oh my God. 

It was a body.  Was he dead?  As I watched another car swerve around him, I was stunned that anyone could ignore this human splayed on the pavement.  If he hadn’t been hit already, he would be soon.  Someone would be driving too fast.  Too tired.  Too drunk.

I stopped in the middle of the road, directly beside the body.  The lump of fur staggered to its feet.  It was a woman, in high-heeled boots, slipping hesitantly along the ice.  Two more cars rolled past.  As I opened the door of my husband’s leather-seated car, a voice inside my head whispered, “Is this safe?”  I ignored the voice. 

The woman came over to the passenger door, and the smell of alcohol preceded her.  She nearly tumbled in.  She was coherent, and she was grateful.  “Thank you,” she said.  “I’m so cold.” 

She told me she’d had an argument with her mother, and had gone out for a drink.  She was about my age, maybe younger, looking older.  She had a five-year-old daughter.  I told her my name, and she said that it was the same as her daughter’s.  I can count on the fingers of two hands the number of people I have met who share my name.

I drove her home that 2:00 a.m.  It was no more than a couple of miles, but it would have been a long, painful walk in the freezing wind, wearing spike-heeled boots and a fake fur jacket.

I brought her to one of a long row of attached houses.  I lived nearby, but I had never seen these houses, tucked off the main road just a few blocks from where the Governor of Connecticut has a mansion.   

I wondered why she was here and I was there, in my snug little home with my two daughters and my husband.  I knew that no argument could be harsh enough to send me out to a bar on Christmas Eve, leaving me to stagger home alone in the bitter cold.  I felt wonderment that I was blessed with so good a life; so full a life; so happy a life. 

She asked me to stop by on Christmas day.  My older daughter could play with her daughter.  I said thank you, knowing I would not come.  I hope it wasn’t snobbery, only shyness.  The fear that we would have nothing to say.

                                                * * * * *

I have thought of her many times since that Christmas Eve.  I have thought about what she gave me.

Wonder.  Awareness.  Gratitude.

I believe I gave her something too.  I believe I gave her a moment of grace that lifted her out of harm’s way. 

And I believe that the ending of this story might have been very different if the next car had not carried me, soft and warm with singing and a nursing babe, willing to open my door to a stranger on Christmas Eve. 

 

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