The blowing snow swirled around me as I made my way down the street toward my apartment. It was Christmas Eve and I clutched my last minute packages tightly. OK, I admit it. They weren't my last minute packages. They were all of my packages. My job kept me from shopping until just now ... the last minute. Hehe ... at least that's my excuse. Retailers love people like me, because people like me don't care what the price is. We just need a gift. Any old gift will do, just as long as we have a gift to give on Christmas Day. I learned early on that not having a gift for my mother was one of the unforgivable sins in the eyes of my father. It didn't matter what the gift was, just as long as I had a gift.
Snow on Christmas Eve makes all the poets and romantics absolutely glow with excitement. Nothing could be more perfect. After all, that's the way it should be. I hesitate to mention to all those oh so perfect poets and romantic types that it doesn't snow everywhere. What about all those people celebrating Christmas in Hawaii? They don't get snow. So what's the big deal? All I do know is that it's cold and I want to get home. The job's a pain, but it does allow me to pay the bills, just barely.
Despite the fact that I wore a lot ... tee shirt, dress shirt, sweater and heavy coat ... it was cold. No, not chilly ... cold! The wind was cutting through me like a hot knife though butter. And, of course, I was the last fool out on a night like this. The streets were deserted. Not a dog, nor a cat, not a living soul was crazy enough to be out on a night like this, except me and a dogged determination to have a Christmas gift for everybody. I'd have to eat rice for a month just to pay for it all, but I wasn't about to commit an unforgivable sin. Damn the torpedoes and full speed ahead ... straight into debt.
As I made my way down the street toward my apartment feeling sorry for myself, I noticed some movement to my right. I casually glanced in that direction expecting to see a stray dog or something. What I saw, I will never, ever forget. The small figure was trying to keep the wind from blowing the cardboard roof off the box he was huddled down in. In any other circumstance it would have been funny. But this was way far from that. As I approached the alley the figure was tucked back into, I unconsciously slowed down. The cardboard box was nestled up against a dumpster. As I drew closer, I realized it was a child.
A strong gust of wind suddenly ripped the "roof" from the child's hands and blew it straight toward me. As if on autopilot, I dropped my packages and grabbed the flimsy piece of cardboard as it sailed through the air. The small child's eyes met mine as I stood there on the sidewalk holding on to the cardboard "roof." We stared at each other for what seemed to be minutes, but in reality, it couldn't have been more that a few seconds. He took a few tentative steps toward me. I looked at the ratty long sleeve tee shirt, the too big jeans, the nasty tennis shoes, the grubby face and my heart immediately melted.
"Hey, thanks for catching that," he called out bravely. It took a moment, but I finally acknowledged him with a nod, picked up my packages and walked toward him. He met he half way and held out his hands for the piece of cardboard.
"Thanks, mister. I appreciate it," he said. I was dumbfounded. The sweet little cherub face looking up at me belonged to a boy that couldn't have been more than twelve years old. He face was smudged with dirt, but his bright blue eyes were dazzling. I handed him the piece of cardboard, desperately wanting to say something, but I found myself completely lacking for words. He glanced down at my packages.
"Last minute shopping?" he asked. Visions of the gifts I just bought flashed through my mind. Without a second thought, I put them down on the sidewalk. I quickly rummaged through the bags and found what I was looking for. My younger brother would just have to do without a present this year. I pulled the heavy winter coat out of the bag and handed it over without a word.
"Oh I could never take that. It's someone's Christmas present and it's Christmas Eve. If I took it, someone wouldn't get a present tomorrow and I just couldn't do that, but thanks anyway," he said with a smile.
"But it's so cold," I finally managed to say. He just grinned back at me.
"It's OK, mister. My mommy's coming for me tonight."
"But this coat will keep you warm until your mom gets here," I said as I once again held out the coat. He just smiled and shook his head.
"Thanks anyway mister, but my mom will be along anytime."
"Look kid, it's Christmas Eve and magical things are supposed to happen tonight, so go ahead and take the coat. I really want you to have it. When I explain to my brother, he'll understand." The boy hesitated a moment, then broke out into a huge grin.
"OK mister. Thanks. It really is kinda cold tonight." I smiled outwardly ... and I smiled inside. I helped the little tyke put his arms through the sleeves, threaded the zipper and pulled it up protecting him from the icy wind that seemed to be increasing in intensity. The little street urchin smiled broadly and shoved his grubby little twelve year old hands into the coat's pockets. He beamed with satisfaction.
"Thanks. For an old dude, you're OK," the boy said with a tooth grin. At first I was taken aback by the "old" comment, but I recovered quickly. After all, to a twelve year old, a forty-seven year old man must be positively ancient.
"And you're pretty cool for a, well, a handsome young man." The boy's smile shone like a beacon in the night. My thoughts suddenly veered to the contents of my packages and I smiled at their memory.
"How about a scarf to keep you neck warm? These winds can be deadly." He smiled back at me with that toothy smile and I melted all over again. By the time I was finished, the young boy had a new scarf, new gloves, new boots and a teddy bear to keep him company. My packages were empty, but I couldn't have cared less.
"Thanks mister. You've made Christmas really special. My mom will be along shortly and I know that she'll scold me if I didn't thank you properly. So, thanks, mister. Not many people would do what you've done for me." I beamed inside and smiled broadly at the young boy in front of me.
"Are you sure I can't take you somewhere warm, a shelter perhaps?"
'Oh no, thank you sir, but my mom will be along soon." I hugged him tightly, almost refusing to let go. And then he whispered into my ear. "Merry Christmas, sir. Thank you." Hot tears rolled down my cheeks as I held him at arm's length.
"Are you sure you mom will be along soon?"
"Oh yes," he beamed. "My mom promised and she never breaks a promise." I looked at his smiling face and finally requited.
"OK, stay warm until she gets here," I admonished. He grinned broadly and nodded.
As I made my way down the street toward my apartment, I suddenly panicked. I had no gifts to give on Christmas Day. Then my heart was filled with thoughts of the young boy and my panic quickly faded away.
Christmas morning came and I made my way toward my mother's home where I knew I would be looked down upon for bringing no gifts. Upon entering her home, no, my home, for I had grown up there, I hugged my mother fiercely and told her how much I loved her. She smiled at me questionably, but accepted my hug and love with only the grace a mother can do. The smells of baking turkey filled the air. Green bean casserole came out of the oven along with stuffing, rice, gravy, deviled eggs, sweet potato casserole, and more desserts than imaginable. It was truly a feast fit for a king.
My thoughts kept returning to the young boy. As I settled down into my father's chair with a cup of coffee, I picked up the local paper. On the front page, the headline drew my attention.
"Young boy found dead." I choked on my coffee and nervously set the cup down in its saucer. One hundred percent of my attention was on the article in the newspaper.
As I read the words, tears rolled down my face. The reporter told about the young boy's life. His mother had died a year earlier, following a long fight with cancer. The young boy had somehow slipped though the cracks with social services and had ended up on the street. That's when the young boy's words came back to me ...
" ... my mom is coming for me tonight."
My tears fell and wet the newspaper. My brother noticed my grief and asked what was wrong. I looked up at him and somehow managed a smile.
"Your Christmas present is in heaven now," I started. He looked at me and blinked his eyes. As I started to tell the story of the young boy, my family gathered around me. When I was finished with the story, there wasn't a dry eye in the house. I looked down into the six year old eyes of my grandson. He had a questioning look on his face.
"He's with his mom now, right?" my grandson asked. I nodded. "And Christmas is about love, right?" I once again nodded with another tear rolling down my cheek. "Then he got the best Christmas present of all ... to be with his mom," he said happily. More tears rolled down my cheek as I realized that a six year old's thoughts erased the grief in my heart and replaced them with joy.
"Yes, that's right. He's with his mom. He's not cold anymore and he'll never feel pain again." My grandson looked up at me and smiled.
"That's what Christmas is all about, right grandpa? Being with the people you love." He crawled up into my lap and gave me a great big hug. "I love you grandpa," his sweet voice whispered into my ear. It was a Christmas I will never forget.
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