No one can find the spirit of Christmas faster than a child — or children, in this case.
I wasn’t looking for Christmas spirit, as I had just marked the one-year anniversary of my husband Jim’s death from pancreatic cancer, but it certainly found me.
I was wandering among the people milling about and talking during coffee hour after church one Sunday in December 2011, when out of the crowd emerged local author Sarah Smiley and her three boys. Sarah and I had gotten to know each other a little bit through church and through work.
Sarah, whose column about being a military wife and raising her children has been published in the Bangor Daily News for several years now, was facing Christmas without her husband too. Dustin, who is career military, was being deployed again.
We talked a few minutes about our individual situations, and Sarah told me she was taking her boys to a tree farm to pick out and cut down their Christmas tree, trying to distract them all from Dustin’s recent departure. “Why don’t you come with us?” she invited generously.
After having several reclusive excuses run through my head, I finally said, “Why not?”
So after changing clothes, we met at a local restaurant and headed in Sarah’s vehicle to a local tree farm, which was bustling with family activity. Children were running around excitedly. The little shop that carried ornaments and other decorating adornments smelled of hot cocoa, cinnamon and evergreens. People were shopping and talking and laughing, adding to the happy spirit of the season.
Such an atmosphere of hope and fun. It let me forget my reality for a few minutes, and remember happier times.
Sarah’s children were excited and happy and couldn’t wait to find their own Christmas tree. The youngest could barely contain himself as Sarah and I shopped among the ornaments and decorations. His bright smile seemed to come from his heart and his eyes sparkled, even as he bounced around on his feet in anticipation. Waiting clearly was torture as we did “grown-up” things.
It was a cold day, but we went for a horse-drawn wagon ride through the farm and checked out the trees on our journey. The driver told us about the farm’s history, and the ups and downs associated with tree farming. It wasn’t a heavy snow year.
Sarah’s sons’ laughter was infectious, and its joy and warmth reached my aching heart. We all laughed together. I was surprised at how easily laughter came to me when I was with them. And I hope I helped distract them for a while too.
After the wagon ride, we could have purchased trees that were already cut and waiting to be loaded on a vehicle, but instead, we wanted the full tree farm experience.
One of the farm attendants armed us with a handsaw and off we went — Sarah, the three boys and me. I was getting a tree too, so we fanned out in search of two trees. It was kind of slim pickings as it had not been a great year for growing evergreens, but we found a couple we liked.
The boys — after much debate over methodology and who would take the first shift — took turns sawing, and Sarah and I helped too. It looked like it should be such a simple process: tree is standing; use saw to cut tree down. But the work truly is awkward and tedious and young bodies tire easily and get cold.
There was lots of advice flying between the pre-teen boys, and at times a little angst as they took turns sawing. But in the end we all found the humor in the positions the boys had to get into to do the sawing they insisted on doing themselves, and in the Christmas songs we mangled in ways that sent us all into fits of laughter.
Between the five of us, we managed, with cold fingers and toes and undefeatable spirits, to finish sawing and to drag our two freshly cut trees to the edge of the field and wait for assistance from the attendant to net and load them.
We piled into the vehicle with our other purchases too from the little shop and headed out, still laughing and talking — a little patchwork family of sorts. The boys were so accepting of my presence, as if it had been a family tradition for years. I felt like part of them.
Not wanting our fun afternoon to end, we went into the restaurant where my vehicle was parked, and had a snack together. More laughter. More joy. No pain for a little while longer.
I’ve often thought about that afternoon with the Smileys and how it seemed a special gift from God to both of us. We needed each other. They needed to do something for someone else to distract them from Dustin’s departure into an unstable world. I needed to feel the love and joy in their family to distract me from my unstable world.
I know Sarah appreciated having another adult along for the tree caper to help her with the boys. I’m sure the idea of doing it alone was daunting to her. But I needed them so much more.
I needed to feel life and hope. I needed to escape what I considered the burdens of widowhood. I needed to help someone else for a little while, to reconnect with humanity and another person’s reality. I needed to reach out and embrace another human being and help her carry her burden for an afternoon.
I needed to feel like I was part of something important, something bigger than myself or my feelings of loss and desolation. Something that would leave happy memories in its wake.
Because all of those things shed light on a person’s life and push back the darkness of feeling alone.