by Don Hartness
Some would say that I ran away from my problems, but I now know that this isn’t correct: I ran so that I could be alone with my problems; just me, God, and no interference. The lessons I learned along the way are for me. The stories are for you. This is one of them…
“Oh, how terrible!” she exclaims, horrified at the thought.
It’s a cold holiday afternoon in the church’s choir loft, and I’m working with the audio/visual director on a new PowerPoint presentation for the pastor’s sermon coming up on Sunday, just before Christmas. As a budding IT technical student, it’s the least I could do as a service.
No, that’s not right: it’s the most I can do. For somebody who can’t be sure whether he will eat that day, I can’t do much else for anybody.
“Yup. They both threw me away in a single weekend,” I reply, shaking my head in disbelief. “Can you believe the callousness?” Sweating, I take off my hoodie.
I just finished telling her my story about how I ended up in this part of the country. It was a story of two people I met at the same time: one a young man where I came from, and the other a woman (doesn’t it always involve a woman??) I met online in school, and who lived across the country. It was a story involving a cross-country move, partly to aid the young man in getting him to his father’s house, and partly on behalf of the budding love affair with the woman, who would be within a day’s drive.
Ultimately, it was a story about abandonment: discarded by the woman after a passionate weekend, and discarded by the young man when I got back, my meager possessions dumped on the porch before I was able to settle in. Just another common tale about a stranger being abandoned and left for dead in a part of the world that is not home.
“My heart and my life was broken in the course of a single day,” I say as I put my hoodie back on, chilled by my sweat coming into contact with the lack of heat in the church. “Everybody I know is thousands of miles away. I don’t know a soul. It’s how I found this place,” I continue as I work. “The owner of the restaurant I’m working at…”
“Jeff,” she responds, her eyes lighting up.
“…yea, Jeff. He mentioned he goes to this church. I was just hoping to…you know, make some friends and serve somewhere. I figure God has me here for a reason, even if it isn’t for the two people I came here for!”
We sit and work for a few moments on the presentation. Talking about my situation is a salve for my wounds, but sharing doesn’t provide solutions to looming problems, such as my coming loneliness this Christmas.
“Sooo, you don’t have anywhere to go for Christmas?” she asks slowly, reading my thoughts. I shake my head gloomily. “Dammit,” I mutter as I take my hoodie off again. I quickly apologize for my language. “Sorry, I just can’t find a happy medium in this church. I’m either too hot or too cold!”
“Where did you get the hoodie?” she asks. “I’m sure they don’t sell those in California!”
“Salvation Army,” I smile weakly as I chuckle slightly. “I’m glad they had some heavy winter clothes, but they didn’t have anything for a cold church!”
We finish the project over the next hour, my hoodie going on and off a few more times. She catches me as I get up to leave.
“You know, me and my husband get-together with our friends once a year at our house,” she says. “I know it’s not the same as being with family, but it’s better than nothing. Would you like to come?” I am grateful for the invitation, if only to break the loneliness. I accept.
The night of the party, I immediately notice something out of place: it’s a family get-together, not friends. I’m the only person not related to everybody else.
“Hey, it’s okay,” she says as I pull away like the shy kid at camp. “I admit, I fibbed a bit: I knew you wouldn’t come if you knew it was family. But you aren’t the first outsider invited to our yearly get-together.” She takes a hold of my hand, patting it gently in a grandmotherly sort of way as she leads me back into the room. “It’ll be okay,” she says with a gentle smile. “I promise.”
And she’s right. Every family member treats me like the guest of honor. Stories and jokes are told in such a way as to include me. The matriarch of the family shows me her various hobbies and collections, regaling me with endless stories on how she acquired them. All of the family members take great pains to include me in every sampling of desert or hors d’oeuvres. My role in every activity is carefully selected for maximum involvement and enjoyment. At dinner, I’m given the seat of honor.
For one single evening, I have a family. For one single evening, I am home.
The evening’s activities remind me of my own family, and my emotions become too burdensome to bear. With heartfelt thanks, I take my leave of the gala, making my way to the foyer. She calls my name, catching me once more before I head out into the night. In her hands is a wrapped box.
“Stop,” she says, cutting short my protests. “I just happened to see it yesterday and knew it was my job to get it for you, because you need it so much.”
I unwrap the box. It’s a long-sleeved shirt.
Speechless, I pick up a shirt weighing much more than similar apparel sold in the Sun Belt. At her encouragement, I put it on, feeling the high-thread count embracing my torso like a baby’s swaddling. I choke back my tears, unable to say a word for such a thoughtful gift.
“You’re welcome,” she says as she kisses my cheek. “We’ll see you next Sunday. Merry Christmas.”
I walk out the door and go to my car. As I sit down in the seat, I contrast the last few months of cold cruelty with my feelings at this moment. “I am warm,” I say out loud, to nobody in particular. Both inside and out. The tears begin to flood down my cheeks. It’s been a long time since I could say this. Too long. It’s also a long time before I can see clearly enough for driving.
Sadly, I never did see her again, not that Sunday or any other: I left a few weeks later, scraping together enough money to go back home. I don’t even remember her name. Yet, to this day, when I am faced with the cold cruelty of an unfeeling world, I recall the precious gift of warmth. And it’s enough.