Monday, September 8, 2008

A Last Christmas

It was a perfect Christmas Eve day!
by Charlie Leck

It was the kind of wintry Minnesota morning my sister liked. She figured if you were going to leave the warmth of Texas in December, to come to l’etoile du Nord, you should experience it as legend tells it. The snow fell heavily outside and we sat at the counter in the kitchen looking out at how it piled up in the yard. The house was very quiet, matching the silence of the falling snow. We could hear the fireplace in the dining room crackling and the warmth from it seeped out to us. My coffee was too strong for her, so I offered to dilute it with some hot water. She consented.

Sixteen years before this day, on a Halloween afternoon, we had stood in this same kitchen, unpacking the cartons that had been brought in from the moving van, and watched the snow fall so heavily. Over thirty inches piled up before it stopped. We were stranded. No one could come in and no one could go out. My wife was away, in New York. It was just my sister, the children and I. She was intensely happy. She was in charge of our safety! In command! What stories she would tell her friends when she returned to Texas.

Now, in the last year of her life, we knew it would be a white Christmas. It was only a day away and this promised to be a heavy snow that would pile up somewhat extravagantly. She smiled out at the cleanness and purity of it all. It was as if God were blessing her with this stunning gift. She was pleased even though a sad thought revealed itself in her eyes. She knew this would be her last Christmas.

Coming to Minnesota had been a desperate act for her. What could she do? Her days were running out and she still had things about which she needed to worry! There were so many loving deeds yet to be performed. She brought with her a grandchild about whom she was so concerned. The youngster was tangled in confusion and was struggling intensely with life’s seeming meaninglessness. My sister knew she didn’t have the time to rescue the kid. She was trying to pass the child off to me; however, I didn’t know how to love the way she did. I didn’t have the gift that Jesus had given her. I wouldn’t take the bait.

“Have I been so wrong?”

Her question was asked in a soft, quiet way; perhaps it was in a pleading manner. I took a long sip from my big coffee mug.

We had avoided the question for so many years, but she remembered the hours long, long ago when we would debate her total fidelity to her Roman Church. Childishly, I would argue with her about it. I read a number of anti-catholic diatribes and I memorized checklists about the errors and foibles of her faith.

“Incense is an abomination to me, sayeth the Lord!” I quoted the prophet.

I read the Bible devoutly as a youngster. Some old, faithful women in my church (Sunday school teachers), told me I must. I read it to find signals that the Catholics were all wrong, that they didn’t get it.

On that snowy morning I wished that she wouldn’t remember my foolishness, but the question hung there in the silence and beauty of that winter day.

“No,” I said very softly, “you weren’t wrong and neither is your church. The only thing they mess up on is this exclusivity stuff. Others will be there with you. Mother and Father! Buddhists and Jews will be there, too. Muslims! And, Frank and John and I will come along shortly. That’s the only thing they mess up on. All the rest is silliness. Faithfulness is all that counts. That we love the way he asked us to. That’s all that matters. You did it all so well. You were a faithful servant. No one was better at caring for those in need.”

She looked out into the brilliant, bright, snowy day. She nodded her head almost imperceptibly, a smile on her lips and a huge tear crawling down her cheek.

“I see angels,” she whispered.

“Hundreds of them,” I replied. “They are surrounding us with love.”

Now, as I write this on a summer night, there are billions of stars twinkling across the heavenly sky. I think of her almost every day and thank God for giving her to me. From out there among the stars she still watches over me and all those she loved so much.

One of my favorite pictures of my sister, Jean,
along with our son-in-law, Warner Bruntjen.


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