“Good morning, Henri,” Dr. Cooper said.
“Good morning, Dr. Cooper.”
“Are you ready for another story?”
Joseph pounded his fist against the steering wheel.
The car costs a fortune, and it breaks down in the middle of nowhere!?
He glared at the black screen on his phone.
Great! And my phone’s dead.
An elderly man with ripped pants and matted silver hair appeared out of nowhere. He limped toward the car.
Did he climb up that embankment? Great! He’s going to ask for money. He’s even carrying a cup.
Bending close to the car window, the man knocked on Joseph’s window with the mug.
“Wanna cuppa coffee?” His voice sounded muted by the closed glass.
Joseph didn’t roll the window down but waved the man away instead.
“It’s gonna get cold. I can fix your car,” the man said.
Joseph was getting cold. His breath came out in white vapor.
What choice do I have?
He popped the lid, and the man set the steaming mug down on the berm near the car door.
“Coffee’s warm,” said the man as he bent over the engine.
Joseph opened the door and picked up the cup, sipping the hot bitter brew.
Leaning towards the driver’s side of the car, the man shouted, “Try it now.”
The car sputtered and turned over.
Now, what do I do? Maybe he’d take some money.
While Joseph was busy retrieving his wallet, the man disappeared.
It was Christmas Eve and a lot of work needed to get done before Joseph and his staff could take off for the holidays. Sitting at his desk, Joseph’s thoughts returned to the man who fixed his car earlier that morning. He felt guilty at the way he had treated him. Throughout the morning, while in meetings or on the phone with clients, the man came to his mind.
Was he cold? Was he hungry?
After a long day at the office, Joseph drove towards home. Arriving along the road where his car broke down that morning, he pulled to the berm and turned off the engine. Buttoning his coat to the top and pulling his hat over his ears, he got out of the car. He placed one foot carefully in front of the other to avoid slipping in the mud.
He asked himself for what seemed the umpteenth time, “What am I doing?”
Climbing down the embankment and crossing a narrow stream, he arrived at the entrance to a concrete tunnel. The man from that morning sat holding a metal wire, with three potatoes affixed to it, over a fire. Two broken down shopping carts sat nearby, filled with clothing and various items. A dark brown German Shepherd with a light spot on the fur of his chest lay beside him. The dog’s head rose sharp, and his eyes bore into Joseph.
“Hello,” the man said without looking up. He reached over and scratched the dog’s ears. He whispered, and the dog relaxed.
Joseph pushed further inside the tunnel which was shrouded in darkness except for the glow of the fire. He barely missed stepping into a narrow waterway of stagnant liquid. Water slid down the walls where mold grew in black patches on the cracked cement.
“Hello …” Joseph stammered.
“Here’s your cup, Michael.” Joseph handed it to the man sitting at the fire. “Thanks for fixing my car. Let me give you something for your help.”
“No, I don’t want that. Want a cuppa coffee?”
Michael laid the wire down at an angle so the potatoes continued to cook. He filled the cup Joseph had just handed him, from an old-fashioned silver coffee pot that sat on a grill over the fire. Not wanting to offend the man who fixed his car, the man who had distracted him the entire day at work, he took the offered cup. Joseph picked up a folded newspaper from a stack piled high against one wall. He placed it beneath himself as he sat across the fire from the man. Pulling the metal wire from the fire, Michael removed the potatoes and placed them in a metal pan to cool.
“This is Lincoln,” he said introducing the dog.
Michael asked, “Instead of giving me something for fixing your car, how about you spend the day with me tomorrow?”
He offered Joseph a potato. Michael pulled another one apart and fed Lincoln while eating the third one himself.
They ate in silence.
Waking early Christmas morning, Joseph dressed in jeans and a t-shirt with a sweater on top. He pulled on his coat, hat, and gloves. He grabbed his keys and locked his Upper East Side apartment. He was greeted by Michael who waited on the berm holding a large cardboard box.
Rolling down his window, Joseph greeted him. “Hey, how long have you been standing there?”
Michael didn’t answer but nodded toward the back of the car. Turning the engine off, Joseph got out and opened the hatch. Michael slid the box inside. He turned and walked down the hill toward the tunnel. Joseph closed the back and followed him. Below a large tarp, he hadn’t noticed the night before, sat more large boxes. Rows of them. With a nod from Michael, Joseph helped carry them to his SUV. Peeking into the boxes, he saw clothes and toys. The capacity of the car housed only four boxes. After Lincoln and Michael climbed into the car, Michael told Joseph where to go. They arrived at a large red brick house. A cheery older woman came out of the door.
“Hello, Michael! Hello, Lincoln! Merry Christmas!”
Michael introduced Joseph. Two little ones peeked from behind the curtains as he and Michael carried two of the heavy boxes to the porch and set them down by the front door. When the woman opened the door to enter, the children bolted out and hugged Michael around the knees. They looked up toward Joseph with suspicious eyes. They hugged Lincoln tight and he licked their faces. Joseph waved and the children smiled shyly.
“Okay, children, back inside. It’s cold. Michael and his friend have more stops to make.” Turning toward them, she gave Michael a warm smile. “You look tired. Take care of yourself and as always thanks so much!”
After returning to the car, Joseph asked, “What was that?”
“It’s an abused women’s shelter. Women come here, sometimes with their children, looking for a safe haven,” Michael said.
After Michael gave instructions for their next destination, Joseph winced. “That’s a bad part of town.” Michael simply shrugged.
Arriving in the parking lot of a broken-down old church, they grabbed the two remaining boxes. Joseph and Michael juggled their boxes and fought for balance as they descended the outdoor steps. Inside the basement, a large room filled with tables and chairs was crammed with people of all ages and backgrounds. Christmas music created a festive air. Children danced in delight when they spied Michael entering through the door. A young man wearing an apron laid down the ladle he was using to scoop some sort of stew into bowls. Smiling broadly, he wiped his hands and reached out to shake Joseph’s.
“Welcome and Merry Christmas. I’m Father Antonio, but you can just call me Antonio.”
A beehive of men and women worked the kitchen and called out cheerful greetings. Joseph shook Antonio’s hand and placed his box on the empty table Antonio indicated. Michael helped a toddler, wearing only a t-shirt, into a thick flannel coat. He handed the little one a stuffed bear. The boy danced away with a smile on his face as bright as the early morning sun.
“You give out the rest. We’ll be back with more,” Michael said to Antonio.
Before he could argue, Michael and Joseph were climbing the steps. Returning to the tunnel, they loaded four more boxes and took them back to the church where children were waiting in the parking lot. Joseph couldn’t help but snicker watching them jumping and dancing as the car approached. They wanted to help and Joseph called out, “Be careful on the steps!”
Again, returning to the tunnel, they gathered four more boxes. Their next stop was another concrete tunnel. People stood around metal drums warming their hands over fires blazing inside. They were dressed in worn and ripped clothing like Michael’s. A man in threadbare jeans approached and sighed as he spoke.
“Michael, you didn’t forget us.”
Blankets, coats, canned goods with pop-tops along with a few toys were disbursed amongst the men, women, and children. Joseph wrapped a blanket around the bent shoulders of a tiny frail woman. Her wrinkles creased deeply as pecked his cheek. Joseph stared a moment before returning to his task. When they finished and Lincoln sat in the back seat of the car, while Michael climbed into the front, Joseph hesitated.
“I’ll be back,” he said.
Finding the frail woman huddled in a corner, he took off his coat, gloves, and hat, and wrapped her up with them. She gave him a nearly toothless grin and waved her thanks. After their final trip to the tunnel, with boxes tucked in the back, they slowly drove down Main Street, stopping often for Michael to jump out and give a blanket or a coat to someone in a cardboard box or huddled in a doorway. The boxes gone, they sat around the fire Michael started in his tunnel, warming their hands and eating the fast food Joseph talked Michael into letting him buy.
“How do you survive?” Joseph asked.
“I live simply. I had it all at one time, like you, yet I had nothing.”
He leaned toward Lincoln and ran his hand down his back. Joseph could tell that was all he would say.
“How do you do it? Buy the gifts and everything I mean.”
“Through the year, I gather stuff people throw away and clean, mend, or fix it. Some things from the trash can be sold for a little money at the flea market across town or at second-hand shops. I keep only a little of the money for what Lincoln and I need. With the rest, I buy toys that are nearly new or ones that I can fix, as well as clothes that are nearly new, and I wash them in the public bathroom on Central Avenue.”
“Why do you do it?”
“I’ve taken so much. Now, it’s my turn to give. I’ve learned in my long life that it’s not about what you have, it’s about what you give. That’s the answer to, ‘Was my life well-lived?’ At the very end, not many people wish they had more stuff or that they had worked harder at this job or other.”
Michael looked directly at Joseph, something he hadn’t done all day. “Besides, someone needs to care.”
Something stirred in Joseph. That night, he couldn’t sleep. He tossed and turned. Rising early, he dressed and returned to Michael’s tunnel. A heaviness sat on his chest before he entered and found Michael lying still and lifeless beside the cold embers. He had no pulse. Joseph called “911” and tried CPR but he knew Michael was gone. After the paramedics took his body from the tunnel, Joseph motioned for Lincoln to follow him. He jumped into the back seat.
Remembering Michael’s last words, he turned and scratched Lincoln’s ears.
“I think that someone is me,” he said.
Dr. Cooper said to Henri, “As I mentioned yesterday, and like the story today, a key element of the spirit of Christmas is giving. Giving gifts, giving time, giving hope, and giving help to someone else. During this time of year, we’re reminded that Christmas is about those who are around us.”
Henri asked, “Could you explain further?”
“We can either give or we can take. Giving makes us humans a better version of ourselves as we care for each other. Showing compassion through acts of giving have a positive impact on the recipient, but also creates feelings of satisfaction and well-being within the giver.”
Again, Henri simply said, “I see.”