His wife said the first sign that something was wrong was when he tossed a pebble at a cardinal that was fighting its reflection in the side mirror of their Toyota. The bird was chipping the paint on the car with its beak, and they couldn’t figure out how to get it to stop. James tossed the pebble to scare the bird away, and his arm broke. The long, hard job of being sick started right then.
She was by his side the whole time, pushing for him to get every treatment, wishing, yelling, wanting a cure—it seemed to her—more than James did. James was pretty easygoing about most things, but she felt he shouldn’t have been easygoing about dying. He was also quiet, funny, handsome, and famous for being a good kisser.
The first Christmas without James, the whole idea of family, faith, and cheery songs sung by rosy-cheeked carolers made her so mad she felt like her hair was on fire. Her teeth were gnashing and the pain in her heart clawed to get loose. One cold afternoon in early December, she bundled up and marched out the door. In the biggest box store in town, lit by fluorescent lights, trashy canned music making a mockery of the season, she stomped up and down the aisles until she saw her Christmas tree. White plastic needles held on for dear life to a bent aluminum frame. Gobs of scabrous fake snow clumped on a few of the branches. On a clearance table were a couple of boxes of dull mud-colored balls, a color between brown and gray. They were too big for the white tree. It would look awful.
She dragged her purchases back to the house, clenched her teeth, and set them up. The gray-brown balls weighed the tree down; the whole thing looked downcast and ashamed of itself. A few wads of tinsel tossed at it contemptuously and she was through.
The spectacle gave her an evil satisfaction every time she passed the living room. It was ugly, wrong, out of proportion, unbalanced, bedraggled, and assaulted by clumps of snow, wads of tinsel, and dull off-color balls. Perfect.
At some point she found herself walking past it because it mirrored her so well. The ironic remove, the arch sense of playing a game with Christmas, faded. The tree was her heart, and her heart was downcast, ashamed, unbalanced, and bedraggled. One day she went into the room and sat down. The tree kept her company. They made it through Christmas together, my friend and that tree.
When I was training at Walter Reed to be a hospital chaplain, one of my mentors told a story about prisoners of war on a long forced march without enough food or water. An elderly priest was having trouble, falling farther and farther back in the line. A younger man walked beside him. “I don’t think I’m going to make it,” said the priest.
“I may not make it either,” said his friend.
Lying on the ground at night, hungry and thirsty, the priest said, “This is awful.”
“Yes,” said the younger man. “It’s terrible, what we are enduring.”
This went on until they arrived at the camp. The old priest had made it.
My mentor said if the younger man had tried to cheer him up with words like, “Come on, you can do it; I know you can,” the priest would have died. What suffering needs is compassion. The word compassion means to suffer with someone. The younger man had companioned the priest in his trouble rather than cheering him from a place of strength.
That tree certainly didn’t try to cheer my friend. It mirrored her sorrow, her feeling of being ugly and alone and abandoned, of being out of balance and out of place, a reject from the warm family light of American Christmas. The tree was my friend’s compassionate companion. It’s in a box somewhere now, smiling sleepily at the memory of a job well done, a destiny fulfilled, of how it got her through.