Dale Heinold – Christmas 2014
“The Christmas Pageant will begin in five minutes,” a nurse announces through the PA system. My daughter, Angel, has been typecast, beautifully and rightly so, as one of the Christmas angels. “Alright, let’s see, wings?”
“Check,” she replies.
“Golden thing that kind of sort of looks like a robe?”
“Halo on straight?”
“Check, um I think?”
“What are your lines?”
“Daddy, I’ve been saying them all morning,” she pleads.
“Come on, one more time.”
“O that’s terrible,” she moans.
“Your forgot your lines? That’s ok the first one is…”
“No the TV,” she says as she grabs the remote to turn up the volume. On the screen is a video of a manger scene without a Baby Jesus. The scrolling banner under the reporter proclaims, “Jesus missing from churches around the city.”
“That’s right Mary Anne,” the reporter begins. “Northside Presbyterian is the latest church to report that their Baby Jesus has been stolen. One week before Christmas and churches all over town have either taken down their Nativity displays or are bringing their Baby Jesus statuettes in at night. Police are clueless. Earlier today the Mayor of Greenville held a press conference imploring the thieves and pranksters to return the Baby Jesus.” The scene cuts from the reporter to a sound bite from the press conference.
“That’s hilarious,” I say as I check the clock. “Better shut that off though or we’ll be late. Wig or no wig?” I ask.
Angel ponders for a moment, “No wig,” she decides. “Do you have your phone so you can record it for Mom?”
“Check” I respond as I help her out of the bed and maneuver the IV stand to her side. A shepherd in a wheelchair nearly runs us over as we leave the room. “I see that Charlie’s excited about the play,”
“I think we all are,” Angel observes. “We’re finally doing something instead of having it done to us.”
The hall by the nurses station is set and darkened for effect. Pointing the camera at myself I softly announce. “Um, Hi, ah welcome to St. Mark’s Children’s Hospital 2014 Christmas Pageant.” I turn the camera back on the scene and mumble, “I hope this thing is recording.” A tall fourteen-year-old boy stands stage left and begins….
“In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. And everyone went to his own town to register. So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David. He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child.”*
Another boy dressed in a brown robe pushes a wheelchair with a very pregnant looking Mary. The boy stops by a few of the nurses along the way to ask if there is a room in the inn. All simply smile and shake their heads. The boy then stops at a doctor and asks “Any room sir?” The Innkeeper doctor leans down, examines Mary with his stethoscope and effects a worried look.
“You’d better get her indoors, I don’t have any rooms but you can use the stable,” the doctor reports as he points the way. The tall boy continues,
“While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.”
Mary and Joseph disappear into an examine room. One of the nurses squeezes a toy which plays the same lullaby used when the hospital announces a birth. The couple reappears with a baby doll and settle in while four wheelchair rolling shepherds appear.
“And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified.”
Three angels, one of them my Angel, step in front of the shepherds. Two security guards illuminate the angels with their flashlights from across the room. “Fear not,” my Angel says. “We bring you good news of great joy,” announces the second angel. “For today in Bethlehem the Savior, Christ the Lord, has been born,” proclaims the third angel. “You will find the baby lying in a manager,” my Angel says. Together they say, “Glory to God in the highest, peace and goodwill toward men.” The angels retreat and the security guards lower their flashlights. “Let’s go see this thing,” one of the shepherds encourages. The others nod in agreement and spin towards Joseph and Mary.
“So they hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in the manger.”
“Slow down,” one of the nurses whispers as the shepherds speed by.
“When they had seen him,” the boy narrator continues, “they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child, and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them. But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen, which were just as they had been told.”
After the shepherds retreat nurses aids dressed like camels push three wheelchair bound kings into view.
“After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star in the east and have come to worship him. King Herod suggested that they search in Bethlehem after a scribe recalled a prophecy concerning the City of David. After they had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen in the east went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was.” The security guards focus their flashlights on the ceiling above Mary, Joseph, and the baby. “When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him.
The camels push the kings closer. “We have gifts for the baby, mine is gold.” The first king offers Joseph a bedpan filled with gold foil wrapped chocolates. “Mine is frankincense” the second king offers holding out a spit tray filled with cotton balls. “Here, have some Myrrh, whatever that is,” suggests the third king holding out a urinal with a pale golden liquid. Joseph tentatively grabs the container. “Its not what it looks like” the third king loudly whispers, “Its Mountain Dew.” The crowd chuckles at this unexpected departure from the script.
After the Kings depart the head nurse claps her hands and announces, “OK children, gather around like we practiced.” All of the cast members make their way forward and sing Joy to the World. As the song ends the audience of family, friends, and hospital staff shower them with a healthy round of applause. Once things quiet again the head nurse announces, “Thank you all for coming. I know that it means a lot for our children. There are refreshments in the waiting room. Merry Christmas to all.”
Turning the camera back on myself I say, “Merry Christmas.” Then blurting out I yell, “Hey, would anyone mind if I uploaded this to YouTube?”
The next day my wife and I are standing by Angel’s bed as a Doctor examines her.
“You did very well in the play yesterday, you were a wonderful angel.” the Doctor says while he listens to her breathing. “Ok, you can lay back down. How are you feeling?”
“Tired, I suppose. Some pain, like a 5, right here.” Angels said while pointing to her side just below the rib cage.
The Doctor makes a note, “We’ll get you a little something for that. The nurse will take care of you while I talk to your Mom and Dad. Okay?” Angel nods and closes her eyes. The Doctor signals us to follow and leads us to one of the small conference rooms. “Angel’s cancer has reignited and it’s spreading faster than ever,” the Doctor calmly announces. “You have some decisions to make, I’m afraid that there is nothing more we can do.”
“How long until, um?” my wife asks without looking up.
“Well, that’s one of the decisions. If we do nothing she has a week at the most. We could do some very heavy chemo and maybe buy a couple more weeks. But she’s weak and barely recovered from the last round. I’m afraid that her quality of life during those extra few days would be poor and painful. But it is your decision. We also need to talk about end of life care.”
“But she’s doing better, you saw her yesterday at the play!” I argue.
The Doctor pauses. “Yes, she had a good day yesterday but that was her body reacting to the chemo leaving her system. It’s like a runner training with weights, take off the weights and you feel as light as a feather for a bit. Her weakness is already catching up to her, you saw that today.” The Doctor looks at both of us, “I’ll leave you alone to discuss this. Would you like me to call the Chaplain?”
My wife nods yes while I shake my head no. The Doctor purses his lips for a moment, “I’ll call him anyway, at least he can sit with you and maybe answer some of the procedural questions.”
My wife and I look at each other. Tears roll down her cheeks while I stiffen and clench my fists in fear and anger at what lies ahead.
I’m not happy about it but I lost the fight. I would have rather stayed at the hospital and fought the cancer until the last moment. Angel and my wife decided differently. The hospice counselor keeps talking about the stages of grief, I guess I’m stuck at anger while they’ve moved on to acceptance.
Christmas morning is supposed to be filled with wonder and magic, mine is filled with anger, dread, and frustration. They’ve got Angel so pumped with morphine that she’s out of it most of the time. Instead of the buzz of family and friends enjoying each others company we are a muted and somber bunch. Someone has turned on the TV which is running the annual marathon of “A Christmas Story.” The silliness of Ralphie’s desire for the “Red Ryder BB Gun” is bitter irony given my sole desire to have my Angel well again. I stare at the screen like a zombie, fruitlessly trying to escape into the silliness of Ralphie’s dilemma.
“Dear, Angel’s awake.” my wife says pulling me back to reality. Hand in hand we walk to her room. The hospice nurse moves aside as we approach Angel’s bedside. Catching my eye the nurse slowly shakes her head and mouths, “not long now.”
Gently taking Angel’s hand I lean down and say, “Hi honey.”
“Hi dad,” she whispers.
“You were so cute in that play,” I begin struggling to find something good to talk about. “Our Youtube video has over 20,000 hits, what do you think about that?”
“That’s nice dad,” she manages as she fades for a moment. “Dad, fear not. Find the baby lying in the manger,” she whispers and fades, never to return.
“She’s gone,” the Hospice nurse confirms.
Hugs and cell phones seem to be the order of the day as those gathered offer us shallow comfort and make the obligatory phone calls. I hang in there as long I as can stand it, which isn’t long. There is no comfort for me, only a smothering, smoldering burn that needed fresh air to become a flame. So I escaped. I walked out. My neighbor Phil tries to follow, determined that shouldn’t be alone, that is until threaten to give him a black eye and busted nose for Christmas.
Alone I wander the streets, angry at God, angry at the world, the doctors, the well-wishers, and at Christmas. My wandering takes me past a large stone church with a tall steeple. As I pass their Nativity display I notice that there is no baby in the manger. “I wonder if the thieves took him or if he’s safely hiding inside,” I wonder aloud. The church bells ring 10 o’clock and begin a rendition of Joy to the World. My anger and the bell’s joy fight for a few moments until Angel’s last words echo in my head, “find the baby lying in the manger.”
I hurry to the corner and turn right, there’s another church a few blocks ahead. Their Creche is placed beside their white framed entrance, but baby Jesus is AWOL. I visit church after church with no luck, the bandits have done their jobs well. While crossing the downtown district to continue my search on the other side of town I stumble across a storefront church I had never noticed before. Plywood versions of the stable, Mary, Joseph, and the rest of the cast are attached to the building. Resting on the sidewalk in front of Mary and Joseph is a small wooden manger complete with baby Jesus. Lifting the doll from the manger I cradle it and walk to their door.
“New Life Chapel, Rev. Josiah Brining,” the door proclaims. I push against the door expecting it to be locked but it swings open. “Hello! Anyone here?” There is no foyer, instead, I see rows of folding chairs under a low ceiling. The room is dark except for some Christmas lights decorating a small stage with the remainders of a Christmas pageant. I see movement in the deep shadows to the right of the stage. “Hello, Sorry to bother you. You, um, left your baby Jesus out last night.” Out of the shadows steps an older black gentleman with short cropped salt and pepper hair.
“Just a moment. Let me get the lights,” he says walking to the left side of the stage. In an instant the room is flooded with light. “There, that’s better. I wasn’t expecting any company this morning,” he explains as he walks my way. “I’m Reverend Brining but folks just call me Josiah.”
“Hi, um, I’m Dan Carter. You left your baby Jesus out last night. I thought you might want it so the pranksters don’t steal it.” I say holding out the wrapped doll out to him.
He begins to chuckle. “We want them to take it,” he explains. “Unwrap the doll.” Doing so I notice that an envelope has been taped around the baby’s midsection. “In that envelope is a letter inviting them to church and a twenty dollar bill.”
“Jesus told us to give our shirts to those that steal our coats, this is our way of fulfilling that command. Why don’t we sit,” Josiah offers and moves some of the chairs around so we can see each other, “That’s better,” the old pastor sighs. “Now, I see that you’re troubled about something deeper than someone stealing a doll. What’s going on?”
“I’ve lost my Angel,” I respond while looking at my shoes.
“They’ve stolen your angel?”
“No, my daughter, she, um, passed away this morning. She has cancer.”
“I’m sorry,” Josiah softly replies. “It’s never a good day to lose someone, but Christmas day, that’s hard. How old was she?”
“Does your family, your wife know you’re here? I mean, you should really be with them.”
“I got so angry that I had to get away and get alone.” I go on to relay Angel’s last words and my search for a baby Jesus laying in a manger. “My wife, she, well she, oh my. Can I borrow a phone?” Josiah pulls a cellphone from his pocket and hands it to me.
“Hello, this is the Carter’s” an unfamiliar voice says.
“Hi, hey this is Dan can you put Doris on?” In the background I hear, “Hey Doris its Dan, we’ve found him.” A few moments later I hear the noises of a phone being passed.
“Dan?! Are you alright? Where did you go?” My wife asks.
“Doris, I’m sorry. I just had to get out of there. I’m downtown at a church. Did you know there’s a church next to Wallace Jewelry?”
“I called the cops, they’re looking for you. How soon are you coming…Your downtown, how’d you get…? Oh never mind, how soon are you coming home?”
“I can give you a ride,” Josiah offers.
“Soon, what, maybe twenty minutes or so,” I suggest. “Please call the police and tell them that everything is ok. I’ll see you soon, love you.”
“Ok, hurry back, I need you.” she pleads. I hand the phone back to Josiah, “thanks for offering to give me a ride, we live up in Wildbrook, are you sure that’s ok? Anyone you need to call?”
“No, I’m by myself now. My Evelyn died a few months ago, pancreatic cancer. This is my first Christmas alone. I was angry like you when God took her. Angry with the doctors, angry with the world, angry with God.”
“But you’re a Reverend…” I begin.
“And a person, just like you,” he corrects.
“So how did you get over it, the anger part?” I ask hoping to find a way out of this dark place.
“What I tell folks is that you can’t beat it out, burn it out, or drink it out you can only forgive it out.” He pauses, “I didn’t realize how true that was until Evelyn died. I had to forgive the doctors, the world and most of all God. What I didn’t realize is that I also needed to forgive myself. Say why don’t we get you home, give me a moment to lock up.” While Josiah was shutting off the lights I wander back outside and gently place the baby back in the manger.
“So how can you forgive like that?” I ask after Josiah’s battered Buick had left the curb.
“You were holding the answer in your arms, that’s what your little girl was trying to tell you. Jesus is the only way we can forgive that deeply and completely. Look at all those decorations.” He says as we pass through town. “Christmas is all about God becoming human, becoming flesh and blood like you and me, for the sole mission of providing forgiveness for mankind. Remember what the angels announced? ‘we bring you good news of great joy for everyone’ and ‘peace on earth’, right?”
I thought back to Angel’s play at the hospital, “Yes.”
“Well, Jesus also wants to come and live in our hearts, our soul. By receiving his forgiveness we can forgive others, by receiving his love we can love others. Today can be a whole other kind of Christmas for you. Left or right here?”
“Um, left,” I reply. In between giving directions I accepted Josiah’s offer. I forgave everyone on my list including God and myself. I asked God for forgiveness and for His direction. With each word I felt more of the anger melt away. “I don’t feel as angry anymore…” I reported.
“Good,” Josiah encourages.
“But I feel more empty and sad,” I continue.
“That’s normal everyday grief, you will always have that although the pain of it will lessen. I feel that way myself sometimes. Today is one of those times.” Josiah confessed.
“It’s the third house,” I instruct after we turn on Cedar Street.
“You mean the one with all the cars in front?” Josiah asked.
“Sorry, I guess that was a bit obvious. Will you come in? I’d love for you to meet Doris?” Josiah nods and he parks the car a few doors down.
* All Scripture quoted from NIV.