This is not the story I expected to tell you today.
It’s Christmastime. I have way too much to do. My errands are each assigned a set number of minutes, and I’m trying hard to stay on schedule. It’s a mistake to live this way, I know. It leaves no room for the unexpected—and the unexpected is often where I find life’s most satisfying moments. But this is how I have to operate right now. I’m sure you know what I mean.
So I wasn’t planning to dawdle last week when I stopped by the grocery store for a few things and took a detour past the ultra-cheap Christmas trees to see if there were any I liked.
They leaned against the yellow-brick front of the store like condemned soldiers—tall, furry condemned soldiers, tied up tightly in twine. A sign said they were $24.99. Quite a deal.
But wait. Some were wrapped with different color twine. Were even the tall ones so cheap?
A man lingered next to the trees, bending over a beat-up bicycle. He wore ripped jeans and a worn leather jacket. I glanced at him and mistakenly assumed he was in charge of selling the trees. “Are these all the same price?” I asked.
He looked up and regarded me through pale blue, watery eyes. His gray hair was held back in a ponytail. “I guess,” he said. “That’s what the sign says.”
I felt my face grow warm. I should have known better than to jump to that conclusion. “Great price,” I said awkwardly. I stood looking at the trees, wondering if I should unwrap one and assess its shape. But I wasn’t going to buy one just then. “Guess I’ll wait to pick one out with my husband,” I said.
“Yeah,” the man said, “I’m gonna wait and pick one out with my sons.” As I started to walk away he muttered something that sounded like, “but they’re dyed.”
I turned around. “These trees are dyed?” I’d seen it before, Christmas trees painted to mask their brown needles. If they were, I didn’t want one.
“No, died,” he said. “Died. If they haven’t died. My sons.” He looked at me, suddenly furious. “One of ‘em already has.”
The breath went out of me. “I’m so sorry.”
“Marines,” he said. “Afghanistan.” He was standing tall now, almost as if at attention. “I was a Marine too. Our family’s had someone serving in every war since back in the 300s BC, that’s Before Christ, except the Civil War—we skipped that one, out of principle . . .”
I didn’t have time for this guy’s family history of military service, and who knew if it was even true. But he was a grieving parent, and it was Christmas.
His name was Dusty. He told me this only at the end, after the rush of emotion had passed. Luckily, I happened to be in fine shape. That evening the sharp, devious pain that can ambush bereaved family members, a pain that seems to gain strength during the holidays, had seen fit to leave me alone.
Dusty had three sons, including a set of twins. When death came, one of the twins was in Iraq, standing guard duty in the Green Zone. The other was in Afghanistan, patrolling with his platoon. It was late afternoon. The platoon had gotten the okay to return to safety. But as they made their way back, a distress call came, “and the green-horn lieutenant, who was looking to make a name for himself, insisted they respond. There was already someone else on the way, but he said they had to go.” They quickly ran into fire. Dusty’s son was shot in the head.
“At that exact moment,” Dusty said, “his twin brother in Iraq got a sharp pain in his forehead and fell down, unconscious.”
I stood silently, shaking my head in sorrow.
It’s been several years since that young man was killed, but sometimes grief still buries his father. I was glad I could be there while he dug himself out. That’s all you can do, offer a silent presence as the person clears away the rubble.
When he had finished, I told Dusty about our son, killed in a car accident at age 16. We shared a hug and said goodbye.
I had a different story to tell you today, but this one nudged it aside.
A priest I know in Richmond, a skilled practitioner of Seva, says that one of the most valuable things any of us can give another person is our presence—our quiet, focused attention. I hope I can remember that as I move deeper into the melee of Christmas.