After the last of our four children left the nest, Janice and I started getting a bit lax with our Christmas decorations. We still did a lot of decorating, but we decided that putting up our Christmas tree was just too much work. However, in December of 2004, as Janice was recovering from surgery, we knew it was time to get the tree back out of storage. Whether is was the surgery or the hospitalization of simply the season, our struggles that year reminded us of an earlier Christmas and the special meaning the Christmas tree had for us that year.
A Phone Call
Allow me to explain. The phone call came on a Saturday morning in early December of 1988. Janice answered and, after a short silence, said, “OK Mom. I understand. We will be there soon. Good bye.”
She hung up the phone and took a deep breath before turning to face me. “Dad’s back in the hospital. Things don’t look good.” I held out my arms and we hugged silently. Irvin had struggled with cancer for years. He had undergone surgeries, chemotherapy, remissions and setbacks. We both knew that this time he probably wasn’t coming home. As we made the one-hour trip to the hospital we tried to explain to the kids just how ill their grandfather was. They nodded their heads and blinked back tears. They had seen his lack of appetite and weight loss. They realized the effort it took for him to stand and walk. They knew that he could no longer drive a car. They understood.
Doris (Janice’s mom) met us in the waiting room. “Kids, he is retaining fluids and getting weaker. The doctor says all we can do is try to keep him from suffering. And he keeps insisting that we put our tree up! What are we going to do?”
Just then, Janice’s sister Debbie, her husband and their two daughters arrived. We had a short conference about the tree and then all eleven of us filtered into Irvin’s room. His face, once gaunt and yellow from the ravages of liver cancer, was now puffy and pale. He lay very still as his bright blue eyes made the rounds of the room, resting briefly on each of us before moving to the next. A smile crossed his face as he whispered, “How about that tree?”
Debbie broke the news, “Dad, we are going to put it up today.” His eyes flickered and he nodded his approval.
It was the same store-bought tree, the same ornaments and the same lights from previous years, but this year it was especially beautiful. Throughout that Christmas season, as we shuffled back and forth between the hospital and Irvin’s house, that tree was a sparkling reminder of a holiday that was otherwise poignant and melancholy. As we enjoyed the tree it seemed that Irvin was there enjoying it with us. We even allowed ourselves to hope that Irvin might come home to see it. But it wasn’t to be.
He lived through Christmas and through New Year’s and died just before sunrise on the morning of January 5. Janice, Doris, Debbie and I stood surrounding his bed as his breathing slowed and then stopped. Janice clutched my arm, “Do you feel that? He is here in the room!”
Debbie and Doris both exclaimed, “Yes! Yes!” We looked at each other and held hands as we realized that we were experiencing a brush with eternity. There was an undeniable presence in the room and then, just as quickly, it was gone. At our time of loss, we found ourselves celebrating, for we knew without a doubt that Christ had come to escort Irvin to his new home. As I looked out the hospital window I saw a solitary star shining brightly in the early morning light.
Today, as I reflect on that particular Christmas, I realize that Irvin knew all along that he would never come home and see that tree. He knew that life would go on and he wanted us to experience the season as best we could under the circumstances. He died as he lived: thinking of others.
In 2004, with Janice recovering from surgery, it would have been easy for us to forget about the tree. But our kids insisted on decorating our house for us. And yes, we did get our tree up that year, and have continued to do so every year since. Our annual Christmas tree is more than a decoration; it is a reminder of a tree that Irvin never saw and a challenge to follow Irvin’s example of thinking more of others than ourselves. Irvin never saw that tree in 1988, but I like to think he is smiling from heaven today as he looks upon our tree.
My prayer for you is that Christ will also come to you during this special season and you too can experience the wonders of Christmas.