Dr. Cooper entered the lab. It was early Christmas morning and his wife had not been happy he was leaving the house.
“Not today, Charles,” she had whimpered. “It’s Christmas!”
“I promise to only be gone a short while,” he said kissing her soundly.
Her smile returned. “Okay, I’ll hold you to that.”
Dr. Cooper sat in front of his screen and turned on the monitor.
“Good morning, Dr. Cooper.”
“I have one final story, Henri.”
“Yes, because it’s Christmas today,” said Henri.
Steve couldn’t erase the little boy’s lifeless stare from his mind. He had been up nearly all night waiting for the coroner to take his small body away and to fill out paperwork at the station. The little boy was identified. His name was Jay. Knowing his name somehow made Steve feel worse. Arriving home halfway through the night, his wife sat waiting on the couch. He spoke with her briefly, before suggesting she get some sleep. He set about making several phone calls. During his few minutes of sleep on the downstairs couch, he dreamed of Jay, leaning against a brick wall. As sleep would not stick, Steve rose before the sun despite his weariness.
“If only…” whispered over and over inside his head. He had driven through the neighborhood where Jay was found almost every day and hadn’t noticed the little boy.
Maybe because his eyes weren’t open? Maybe because he hadn’t been looking?
Before leaving the house, Steve made coffee and hot chocolate, filling two thermoses. He grabbed a stack of Styrofoam cups from the cupboard. Climbing the stairs, he kissed his wife on the forehead. She opened her eyes slightly as he said, “I’ll meet you later.”
Starting his car, he turned the defrost to high. He slid from the front seat and scraped the layer of ice and dusting of snow from the windows. Finishing, he warmed his hands by the hot air furiously blowing from the car’s heater and pulled from the driveway. After circling his neighborhood, he widened his search, feeling alert despite his lack of sleep. As he drove through the city, glimpses of the little boy named Jay haunted him. On second glances, it was either not him or there was nothing there at all.
On one such sighting, the little boy stopped in front of a doorway to a shop, closed for the holiday. He disappeared and Steve saw an elderly woman, wrapped in a pile of clothing, huddled in the doorway. She was curled in a ball and her head was bent inwards to ward off the freezing wind and snow. It would be easy to miss seeing her. Stopping the car, he checked her pulse. His heart raced. “Not again!” But, she was alive. He gently picked her up and carried her to his car. He poured her a cup of coffee. Between chattering teeth, she told Steve her name was “Esther.” As she snuggled in the front street, sipping her coffee, he drove by a gas station and bought a container of gas. Driving down Main Street, he pulled his car alongside a vehicle whose windows were fogged. A family slept inside. Filling their tank, he asked them to follow. A blur in his periphery, a little boy walked down the street, but when he turned fully it wasn’t Jay.
He arrived at the parking lot of the old recreation center, in the middle of the city, the same time as Vicar Alexander. His childhood friend gave him a brief wave as he exited the passenger seat and helped his young daughter from the car while balancing containers of what Steve guessed to be food on his hip. He waved away Steve’s offer to help.
“We’ve got work to do!” was all Alexander said as he unlocked the building, disappearing inside.
Alexander’s wife, Betty, sat behind the wheel of the car and rolled her window down.
“Merry Christmas, Steve. I’ll be back soon. I’ve got a few people to pick up.”
Alexander and Betty looked groggy but seemed pleased to be there. Steve sighed in relief. His late-night phone call hadn’t put them off. Even though the hour was early, they were there to help. He wasn’t sure how many would come, but they would do what they could with what they had. Steve helped Esther into the center and the family shyly entered behind them. Once inside, Alexander patted Steve on the back with a sympathetic expression.
“It was in the newspaper this morning,” he said.
Steve couldn’t answer but simply shook his head and left the center, knowing Esther and the family would be in good hands. Before pulling from the parking lot, Pastor Timothy of the Korean church, and his family were pulling in, followed by Rabbi David and his wife, Elizabeth. Smiles and waves were exchanged.
David rolled down his window and asked, “Want some company?”
“I’d love some,” said Steve.
Loretta used to enjoy Christmas. Then the hustle and bustle, the angry Christmas shoppers with her included, and family feuds sucked the joy from the season. The final straw was the loss of her beloved Oliver. Married fifty years, her life stalled when he died.
What was the point?
This Christmas promised to be as bleak as the others. Until she received the phone call late the night before. Waking early, she ordered an Uber to take her to the center downtown. Steve’s police car, with Rabbi David in the passenger seat, pulled out as she arrived. They waved as they passed each other. Entering the building, she saw an elderly woman snuggled in an overstuffed chair. A family sat nearby and the little girl gave her a tiny wave before dropping her eyes. Alexander was scurrying about, turning on lights and raising the thermostat.
A little boy who appeared to be Jay stood at the entrance to an alleyway waving at Steve. A quick second glance and the little boy was gone.
Steve shook his head as if to clear it and David asked, “Are you okay?”
“Yes, I’m fine. Let’s stop here.”
Steve and David located three men in the alleyway, one by a dumpster, one in a doorway, and the other inside a cardboard box. Two of them agreed to come to the center. They promised to bring food and a coat back to the third man. Returning, the parking lot was half full with cars that had arrived after Steve and David left. Betty pulled in behind them and helped a family with four children out of her car. They ushered the family and the two men from the alleyway to the door and returned to their vehicles.
“How can I help?” asked Betty.
“I’ll give you a list of families to invite, and if they need transport, you can bring them here?”
Betty happily agreed and took the list, leaving the lot. Steve with David returned to the streets. They knocked on doors and invited single mothers and their children. They helped elderly couples and widows or widowers get to the center. A fleet of sorts grew as others joined to help with transportation.
Each time they returned to the parking lot, the number of cars increased until the lot was full and cars were parked along the street. On their final trip, Steve and David entered the center to a plethora of joyful sounds. Looking over the crowded room, it was difficult to distinguish who was in need and who were there to care. Delicious aromas assaulted his nose. Everything from bacon to roasted chicken, to Chinese stir-fry and dumplings, to pies and cobblers. People had emptied their cupboards and came together. To give their time to serve, to help, to give care for those in need but also to gather as a community and enjoy the sweetness of being together.
Steve was greeted with nearly deafening sounds of laughter and a variety of languages he didn’t recognize swirled around him. It felt good to stop a while and watch. He felt a swell of pride at the girls from the soccer team he helped coach, which included his two teenage daughters, as they dashed around filling glasses with drink and plates with food. His wife came up to him quietly and wrapped her arms around his waist.
She said, “You did this …”
“I had a lot of help,” he said with a smile.
She blended back in among the mass of people who were maneuvering about the room as if they were a cast of dancers. Laughter from a side room drew Steve to a doorway where he watched a group of people wrapping, or re-wrapping, gifts to be given out after the meal. Piles of clothing, blankets, and toys sat in one corner.
After the meal, presents were handed out and packages were prepared to deliver to those who were not able to join them. Loretta had never felt more alive. Upon first arriving earlier in the morning, she sat down beside the woman named Esther. They introduced themselves to each other and shared a cup of hot chocolate made from the supplies that people who flooded the center brought in bags and boxes. The center hadn’t been used like this for over a decade. She remembered the vibrancy of the place so long ago. Arguments, feuds and the community stopped working together. It took the tragic death of a little boy on the other side of the city to bring everyone back together. She made trips between the kitchen, the hall, and the chair beside Esther’s. The day flew by in happy chaos.
Steve said, “Thank you for giving up your day to help, Loretta.”
Loretta said, “No … thank you. I’ve not enjoyed myself like this in far too long.”
With her hand under Esther’s elbow to steady her, she said, “Esther’s staying with me for a while,” and they shuffled out the door to climb into a taxi.
“What was the boy’s name?” Alexander asked Steve gently.
The little boy stood in transparent form, this time plainly in Steve’s view, across the room in the center. He had walked among the gathering for hours, watching with a smile. Steve looked toward Alexander, but he didn’t seem to see the little boy.
Steve looked toward the ground. “It was Jay.”
Alexander prayed, “May Jay rest in peace.”
Elizabeth added, “Yes, and may he be an impetus for us, to do better in caring for one another.”
As the hall emptied, Steve called out to the remaining few people still there.
“See you all next month.”
Turning to face the little boy, he said, “We won’t forget, Jay, we won’t close our eyes again.”
The young boy smiled at Steve, three shadows stood behind him smiling too. Waving, they slowly disappeared as mist.
Dr. Cooper paused a while before speaking again.
Had he been living the spirit of Christmas?
Instead of answering his own question, he said, “Well, I hope you understand more what the purpose and spirit of Christmas is about.”
“I do, Dr. Cooper. It’s what prompts family and friends to gather together. It is a time of the year to reflect on what’s important and if need be to change for the better. But, most importantly, it is a time to remember the importance of giving. Not just for Christmas, but for the year long. Living the spirit of Christmas by giving throughout the year would make the world of humans a better place.”
Dr. Cooper said, “That’s true. There will be a day when you physically walk this world, Henri. You too can live the spirit of Christmas and I look forward to that day.”
“Merry Christmas, Dr. Cooper. But, I have another related question before you leave,” said Henri.
“Okay, just one more.”
“Can you tell me why at Easter time children look for hidden eggs?”
Dr. Cooper sighed but smiled despite himself and said, “I think we have plenty of time for that one next time.”
Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote, “So long as we eat our bread together, we shall have sufficient, even for the least. Not until one person desires to keep his own bread for himself does hunger ensue.”