A Christmas Story – Dr. Jon R. Roebuck, Executive Director
Joyce found herself alone at Christmas for the first time in her entire life of 82 years. There was a deep sadness that had settled in all around her like she had never experienced before. Two defining events had taken place in the past 9 months that profoundly changed her life. The first was the death of beloved husband Tom. Tom died in the early days of the Spring after a very long and debilitating illness. He actually had been in the process of dying for over two years. During the previous fall, he had become bedridden. By late November his words had ceased and all meaningful conversation was gone. But still Joyce talked to him in the hope that he could hear and understand and feel her love. She often sang the songs that he loved. She bathed his body, combed his hair, brushed his teeth, changed his clothes, and literally kept him alive with the tenderness of her compassion and the grit of her resolve not to let him slip away. But despite her best efforts, the illness prevailed and on an unseasonably warm March morning, she watched as the funeral folks lowered him into the red clay soil of South Georgia. Along with his body, she buried a very real part of her own life. They had been married for over 57 years. Unable to have children, they found companionship and joy in each other’s lives until the day he drew his last breath.
Her best friend Margaret had been her rock during the worst of her grief. Margaret had been a neighbor and friend for over 20 years. She even insisted on staying with Joyce for the first few nights after Tom had died. She was that kind of friend. She did her best to make sure the darkness of grief did not win out over her friend. She helped Joyce regain her footing after Tom’s death. She called every day and visited every week. The two of them even made a summer trip to the hills of Tennessee. Margaret literally saved her life. But then it happened. Margaret’s daughter, Tammy, stood at her door one October morning, clothes and hair soaked by a driving rain. Mixed in with the rain running down her face were the tears that streamed from her eyes. All Joyce could muster were the words, “No… please tell me Margaret is okay…” When Tammy told her the news, Joyce collapsed in her arms. Apparently, Margaret had a massive heart attack in the middle of the night and was gone in an instant. Tammy knew something was wrong when she couldn’t get her mom on the phone that morning. She found her in her bed. There were no signs of struggle or pain.
Suddenly Joyce was stripped of the two people she loved most. The pain was unbearable some days. She cried a lot. She walked aimlessly through the house. Some days she would forget to even eat. Other friends called and came by from time to time. Folks from the church would check in and Tammy tried to stop by at least once a week. Joyce slowly began to show signs of emerging life. Slowly, she looked better. She seemed to care about herself a little more. She starting paying attention to her diet. She kept the routines of her life alive… the simple but necessary routines. She shopped for groceries. She attended church. She ran errands with some friends from her book club. She kept her doctor’s appointments. But still the sadness and loneliness were deep and dark. She felt very alone and living on the fringe, as though life was passing by all around her but she was not included.
The thought of being alone at Christmas was more than she could bear. The story of hope and joy brought her only sadness and despair. All she could think about were the memories of the way things used to be. She couldn’t muster the strength, energy, or care to decorate the house. No one was coming anyway. She didn’t set the Christmas table like she had done for the past 57 years. She didn’t even bother to set out the small tabletop tree on the table in front of the bay window. She didn’t even bother with Christmas cards… it was all just too sad. She watched a few of those “feel good” TV movies but even that depressed her. They all ended on a happy note… she knew her story wouldn’t. Nothing seemed right, or happy, or joyful. The short days of December only exaggerated the darkness of her grief.
She turned out the lights and turned off the TV around 10 o’clock on Christmas Eve. She slipped into her gown and crawled into bed wondering if she could force herself to even think about sleeping. She hadn’t been in bed for very long when she heard an unfamiliar sound. At first she couldn’t figure out where the sound originated. It was coming from somewhere in the back of the house. It stopped. Then it started again. It was like the sound of something brushing against the house. She decided that it must the wind blowing the limbs of the maple tree in her backyard against the siding of the house. Her mind got to wondering about how difficult it would be to keep up the house and how much it would cost just to trim the tree. It was the kind of thing Tom took care of. After a while the strange noise stopped and she was just about to drift off to sleep when she heard it again. The sound was too constant to be branches against the house. It sounded more like an animal scratching at her back door. Her mind raced in a dozen different directions. Maybe it was a raccoon, or a squirrel, or God forbid, maybe an old possum was trying to escape the cold of the winter night. She quietly slipped out of bed, stepped into her house shoes and shuffled her way through the house with a flashlight in one hand and her husband’s old cane in the other. She had no idea what she would do if she happened upon some “wild beast,” but the light and the cane seemed like logical things to take along.
The noise was definitely coming from the back door. She finally peered through the peep-hole but could see nothing. She glanced through a small window but could still see nothing at the door. Whatever it was, it had to be fairly small, but determined. The noise continued for at least 10 more minutes. It would stop momentarily, as if the animal was catching its breath, and then continue again. “I wish it would go away,” she said to herself. She knew that she couldn’t possibly go back to bed until the scratching on the door stopped.
It was too late to call a neighbor or bother Tammy about it. She finally decided that it was her problem to solve. Mustering all the courage she could collect and tightly gripping the cane in her hand, she cracked open the back door to solve the mystery of her persistent intruder. When she turned on the porch light, she finally caught a glimpse of the nighttime noise maker. It was a small dog, shivering in the cold… at least she thought it was dog. He was grey with long, wiry hair… maybe about 10-12 pounds. His hair was matted and caked with mud and grass. His feet and legs were wet as though he had been walking through some tall weeds. He looked way too skinny and had no collar. His whole body shook with the cold. She said to the dog, “Shoo! Go away now! Go back home!” and the she closed the door in his face. But he didn’t shoo, or go away, or go back home. He started scratching again but this time added a very faint whimper. After about 5 minutes she opened the door again and repeated her admonitions for his departure. Again, she closed the door and again the scratching began.
She finally thought to herself, maybe if I give him something to eat, he’ll be satisfied and be on his way. She scrounged around her kitchen trying to think what a dog might want to eat. She had a couple of leftover Sister Shubert sweet rolls and a piece a bacon. She tossed it out the back door and within seconds the small dog started gobbling it down. He looked like he hadn’t eaten in a week! Before she could close and lock the door, the food was gone. And within a moment the scratching started again. She started talking to the dog through the closed door, as if the dog could hear her and understand her. “Now you need to go away. It’s time for you to go home. I’m sure your owner is looking for you.”
Joyce turned on the TV to distract herself and to drown out the noise of the once-again-whimpering dog. A local weatherman was giving a “Santa watch” report. He went on to say that the lows would be in the upper 20’s overnight and that houseplants and pets needed to be inside. She snapped off the TV set trying to act like she hadn’t heard what he said about bringing in pets for the night. But it was too late. The words kept running around in her mind. She knew herself well enough to know that she was going to cave in and let the dog come inside for just the night. Of course, what she didn’t know was that she was about to let the dog into her heart, and not just for one evening.
She went down to the basement and brought up a cardboard box. It was sturdy and the sides were tall. She took an old towel and lined the bottom of the box. “That ought to do it for just one night,” she said to herself. She wondered how she was going to get the dog into the box. She wasn’t about to pick up the filthy animal. She decided that she would lay the box on its side with the opening toward the door. When the dog stepped into the box she would turn it upright and he would be trapped inside. At least he would be warm and dry. Her plan worked to perfection. The little dog stepped into the box and when she righted the box he seemed to settle in around the old towel. He looked up at her with big brown eyes and slightly turned his head. She walked to the kitchen to get a bowl with some water. He stood on his hind legs with his paws and face peering over the edge of the box, watching every move she made. As she walked back to the box, his tail was wagging wildly. He lapped up the water in about 2 minutes, never taking a moment to stop or catch his breath.
As he started to settle in, she had the urge to reach down and pet the poor puppy, but then she thought about how dirty and grimy he was. She decided that it was best not to touch him at all. She turned down all the lights except for the lamp on the end table near the couch. Once she was sure that he was fast asleep, she tiptoed back to bed. She looked at the old, wind-up clock on her nightstand. It was well past 1 a.m. A bit more exhausted than her earlier attempt at falling asleep, she relaxed and quickly drifted off to sleep. Her slumber would not last for long. She was awakened by a loud thump and then the pitter-patter of small dog paws on the linoleum. Before she could pull the covers off her legs to investigate, the small dog had raced down the hall, and bounded onto her bed and in a flash, was standing on her chest licking her face! She tried to push him away but he was too quick. Within moments her face was wet with dog kisses and her bed was filthy with dog dirt. Her earlier resolve to not touch the dog quickly dissipated. She grabbed him with both hands and set him not-so-gently on the floor. He just looked at her, tail wagging, bright eyed and ready to play.
She decided to close him up in the bathroom. She pushed him inside, turned on the light, and quickly closed the door. It seemed to work… but within moments, the scratching started all over again. The little grey dog was at it again, wanting nothing more than to be wherever she was. She opened the door to fuss at him, but those big brown eyes and wagging tail quickly diffused her anger. She walked over to the tub and started running the water. She said to the dog, “If you are going to be a quest in my house, at least you are going to be a clean guest.” She plopped the small dog into the warm water. She lathered him up with a little vanilla bean body wash that was sitting on the edge of the tub. Soon the clean water turned into the color of ice tea. She rinsed him and repeated the whole process. She finally toweled him off and set him in the middle of the bathroom floor. He shook from head to toe in that way that only a dog can shake. She took her hairdryer and blew him dry. He seemed to enjoy the warm air and never squirmed at all. “You’re not a bad looking little pup,” she remarked. In fact, he was downright cute.
She looked at her gown and had to laugh. It was as though all the dirt from the dog had been transferred to her clothing. She quickly changed and loaded the washing machine with dirty towels, sheets, and her gown. The little hand on the clock had dipped well below 3 and the big hand was swinging past 7. “What a way to spend Christmas Eve,” she thought to herself. Before the night ended, she found herself asleep on the couch in the den under a homemade quilt, with a very clean and happy grey dog sleeping at her feet.
Christmas morning surprised Joyce. The sun was up before she awakened. She slept a little longer than she had slept in weeks. She discovered that not only had the sun appeared, bright and cheery, but something about her countenance had lifted a little as well. Somehow she didn’t feel quite as down, or as lonely, or as defeated as she had before. She looked down at the small dog still resting at her feet. She wondered how something so small and seemingly insignificant could change her perspective in a single night. Noticing that she was awake, the small dog stirred, stretched a little, and crawled into her lap. It was apparent that he needed her and she needed him. “Want something to eat?” she asked. The tail started wagging again
She tried, although not too hard, to find the real owner, which she never did. She named him Miracle, because of the way the small dog rescued her life. The two of them became the best of companions and looked after each other for years.
Who would have ever thought that a small, tiny, little creature which arrived unexpectedly in the middle of the night could change everything? Who would have ever thought that someone’s darkness, despair, and gloom could be transformed into light, hope, and joy? Who would have ever thought one night could make a world of difference? Who would have ever thought that salvation would come through one small miracle. “For behold I bring you good news of a great joy which shall be for all the people, for unto you is born this day, in the city of David, a Savior who is Christ the Lord. And this will be a sign unto you, you will find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, and lying in a manger.” Luke 2:10-12 One small, tiny, little creature which arrived unexpectedly in the middle of the night changed everything.