Insofar as Christmas Eve traditions go I have many, each born from years upon years of practice, whittled down and streamlined for maximum effect.
This year is different. And as it’s turned out, I’m not alone. For proof, I offer the hundreds of people on either side of me.
We’ve been here on Main Street for about two hours now, some standing, others sitting, our signs and American flags at the ready, waiting for news. At some point in the very near future, an off-duty policeman will steer his car into the intersection of Routes 340 and 608 just up the street where, lights flashing, he will block all traffic. Santa is here and at the ready. To my right, a crowd has gathered in front of the elementary school. Fire trucks, gleaming red and decorated with wreaths, ready their sirens.
Meredith is coming home.
She’s been gone for months, trading her quiet home for the busy hospital at the University of Virginia in order to battle her Stage IV cancer. Her one wish was to come home for Christmas. The doctors granted her two days.
Here we all are.
This is what small towns do. We’re constantly up in one another’s business, as separated by race and religion and politics as anyone else, have our own sorrows and our own burdens to carry, but we love each other. And the harder our times come, the deeper our love gets.
There is no other place any of us would rather be than here. Right here, where only a few weeks ago our town’s Christmas parade eased by. We celebrated then in the midst of floats and candy and fake snow pumped from the back of lifted trucks bearing American flags and names like Country Boy’s Dream. We celebrate now for deeper reasons, as evidenced by the tears in so many eyes.
Word is that Meredith has just exited the highway. Ten minutes.
There is joy here. Should there be one thing you must know, it’s that. Christmas joy, the purest kind. The sort which bubbles up from a hopeful expectation that lives inside us all, whether buried or visible for all to see. A joy that defies hardship and pain, one that bears us up under the hard things. Doesn’t matter who you are or what your story is, we’re all hope-shaped creatures. We need it, no less than air.
Far off, a siren wails. A police car ready at the intersection. Chairs shuffling. Everyone stands.
Across the street, I hear someone say: “She’s coming.”
I think about this little girl, ten years old. A baby. And I think about that other baby as well, whose birth we will celebrate a little over twelve hours from now, that miracle wrapped in a baby boy.
Flashing lights. A county sheriff in the lead, a silver car behind. And trailing a mass of fire trucks, honking and blowing their sirens.
People waving, cheering. The crown of a little girl’s head.
Meredith, come the calls.
Merry Christmas. We love you.
And as she passes all the questions that have preyed upon me in these last hours fall away. I no longer wonder why God would allow this sickness to befall a child or why the world must be as broken as it is. Instead I think of that babe again, lying in a manger. I think of how so much has changed since that night in Bethlehem and also how so little, that the world is so different but the people in it are not. The things we pine for now are the very ones pined for then. Peace. Purpose. Healing. Life.
Should you have a mind, do me a favor? Say a prayer for little Meredith. I know I will. She has warmed my heart this year. She has touched us all. And because of her, my community has given me a gift this Christmas that I will not soon forget. We are bombarded each day with stories of just how much humanity gets wrong, but we can get a whole lot right, too.
Merry Christmas, friends.