I have always believed in angels. The universe is so vast, and God must be incredibly busy. So I figure He deputizes the angels to help spread goodness across the world. That is probably why Christmas resonates so deeply within me. I can’t get enough of it. Where else and when else can you see a plethora of angels on daily display? The stores and TV stations beginning the holiday blitz right after Halloween provide welcome balm. If anything, I bemoan the fact that in our fast-paced world, signs of the season are gone no sooner than the clock strikes midnight on December the 25th. The twelve days of Christmas have morphed into twelve seconds.
Of course, not all good will among men (and women) comes from the angelic host. Some of it comes directly from us, from a bit of angelic nature deep within our being. This is a story about one Christmas, a number of years ago, where I personally benefitted from angelic intervention that had a decidedly human cast.
“Christmas has come early for you, sir!” the lady from the airline brightly informed me. I had just been summoned via the PA system to report to the check-in desk at the boarding area. Groaning slightly, I made my way to the counter with some trepidation. You see, this particular year the office had me doing an ungodly amount of travel. Today was no exception. December 21, just four days before Christmas, and I was off yet again for a client meeting, this one in Orlando, Florida.
The meeting next day would be over by the end of business hours, so I was booked on a flight back on the 22nd, enough time to celebrate the holyday where it should be celebrated, at home, and of course at Mass in my local parish. Fortunately I am pretty good at time management, so the holiday shopping, gift wrapping and decorating were all done. Usually I plan to be done by early December, so rather than brave the “jingle, jangle, jungle” of last-minute Christmas shopping, I can coast to the 25th and enjoy all the delights the season has to offer.
Sitting at the gate at Newark Airport, my eyes went beyond the bored and in some cases frenzied looks of fellow travelers, as I enjoyed the trees, garland and other secular signs of the season. I decided to wait until on the plane to treat myself to a nice Christmas read. I had brought two books. Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, which I enjoy re-reading every year. And a new book that came highly recommended, An Angel’s Noel.
In any event, the public address message brought me back to reality, and a certain Scroogian thought, for in the past months I had never had a good experience with the airline agents. “What now?” I wondered,sighing as I approached the desk.
When the agent with forced cheeriness informed me Christmas had come early, I expected the worst. In the aviation business, I have found there is an inverse relationship between the demeanor of the airline employee and the news about to be handed down to the business traveler. I thus assumed I was going to be told the airline had overbooked and I was being kicked off this flight.
Imagine what my wondering eyes and ears beheld when the lady told me there was availability in the first class section of the plane, and since I was now a “frequent flyer”, I was being upgraded…at no additional charge.
I do not fly first class. It seems an undue extravagance that I cannot justify, going against my Jeffersonian instincts, even if it is on the firm’s tab. But if being offered it gratis, well as the Trojans said, never look a gift horse in the mouth. I thanked the nice lady, accepted my revised boarding pass, and was among the select first few allowed early boarding privileges.
Nestled all snug in my seat, I pulled out my Dickens, accepted a Diet Coke and a warmed ceramic tray of mixed nuts from the steward and settled in for what I hoped would be, if not a short winter’s nap, at least a pleasant (and short) read. In a little while, I had gotten to Marley’s ghost, the remaining economy class passengers having filed in, when there was a rustling next to me. An attractive woman who looked vaguely familiar, came in with some pomp. She had the seat next to me, on the aisle.
She was quite pretty, in an expertly made up way, but what attracted my attention was the slightly beleaguered look she wore. I smiled and said, “Hello”, intending no more than to offer a cheerful greeting before seeing if Marley really was just an undigested piece of beef. It had been years since I had any interest in male-female relationships, so my intentions were pure.
To my chagrin, she rolled her eyes and muttered, loud enough for several rows to hear, “Oh puh-leese!”
I may have winced slightly, for I have never taken kindly to random acts of depravity, and turned back to Dickens’s classic prose.
Marley’s chains were not all that disturbed, as not another twenty seconds later my attention was again diverted, this time by a greater disturbance at the front of the aircraft. The steward and a stewardess were handling a wheelchair-bound older woman. They were clearly having trouble navigating the airplane’s aisle. It may have been a jumbo jet, and the seats may have been shrunken to accommodate more fare-paying passengers, but the aisles did not benefit from any increased roominess.
“Where is her seat?” the steward asked.
His companion stewardess replied, “20E.”
Steward number one groaned slightly. “This is not going to be easy.”
“Excuse me,” I offered. “If it helps you, I’d be happy to give up my seat to this nice lady, and I’ll take her seat in the back.”
“That would be wonderful!” the steward exclaimed. “Are you sure you don’t mind?”
“Not at all,” I answered. “There’s a little chill here anyway,” with a barely suppressed look at my frosty seatmate.
I got up, gathered my coat, carry-on and Carol, and waited a moment in the aisle to see if I could be of further assistance. They did not need me, though I waited, solicitously. They gently moved the woman from her bulky wheelchair to the window seat I had formerly occupied, then folded and stored the chair.
The old lady looked at me with a crooked smile and said, “I’m going to visit my granddaughter. She works for the Walt Disney Company. This is so exciting! I’ve never flown first class before! Thank you!”
I moved past the frosty woman in the aisle seat, who I suddenly recognized. She was Brittany Richards, the famous actress. I was probably the only person on the plane who did not spot her right off. I had an excuse however. I do not go to the movies. At least, I had not for the last six years.
I told the old woman, “Then it’s high time you enjoyed the first class treatment. Do me a favor however. Don’t go making eyes at the captain and distracting him from flying safely. I know how you young girls can be.”
She smiled that crooked smile again and waved me off, sort of an “Oh, you’re such a tease” wave. Then she again said, “Thank you, young man.”
Something in her look touched me. I leaned down and kissed her forehead. “God bless, and have a wonderful time with your granddaughter.”
The stewardess said she would show me to my new seat. As I started to follow, I overheard the old woman tell the actress, “He’s such a nice young man.”
I also heard Ms. Richards say, “Yes…yes he is.” I did not see the thoughtful look she gave as she turned in her seat to look at my retreating back.
“Here we are, Mr. Ryan. Seat 20E.” The flight attendant turned, the first time I had seen her face and…something hit me inwardly, an emotional force that was practically physical. I knew instantly what that feeling was. I had felt the very same thing once before. It was…well, I’ll share that later on in the story.
I didn’t have time to recover my wits when the stewardess smiled warmly and held out her hand, which I grasped. It was warm and soft to the touch, an appropriate match to her very pretty face. She said, “I just want to say I think what you did for that elderly lady was just wonderful!”
I looked down and bit my lower lip. Then shrugged and said, “It was nothing. Just the honorable thing to do.”
“No, it was more than that,” she said. We were still holding hands, longer than I should have, but later learned it was shorter than either of us wished.
I said to her, “Thank you for noticing. By the way, my name is Jim.”
“Jane”, she smiled broadly and again my insides were doing handsprings. I reluctantly let go of her hand and half-whispered, “Have a nice flight.” She smiled again and left. I followed her until she was beyond the curtain separating first class from the rest of us mere mortals.
Only later did I learn that Jane had gone back to the first class cabin with a wide grin on her face. Her companion flight attendant of course noticed right off and asked what was up.
Jane explained. “I just witnessed one of the nicest acts of charity. Makes me feel good all over.”
“Well,” her fellow steward rationalized, “it is the season for all that.”
Jane shook her head in disagreement. “No. No, it’s not. I mean, it’s supposed to be, but despite what people say about the ‘holiday spirit’ (she made quote marks with her fingers), they don’t practice what they preach. It’s actually a pretty crappy time of the year.”
Earlier in the day, Jane had gone gift shopping for her nephew and niece. She had no immediate family any longer, just a first cousin, and Jane dutifully bought presents for said cousin’s young son and daughter. It was only three shopping days to Christmas, or “X-mas” as the store signs proclaimed. With so many last minute shoppers, demon frenzy was unleashed, heralding poor tidings to all. It was virtually impossible to find a parking spot at the mall. Jane did, eventually, accompanied by a number of raised middle fingers as she navigated the aisles of the parking lot.
Inside was not much better. Jane saw a father slap a child who was whining about something or other. The whining did not bother Jane. It was only a little child after all. What disturbed was the father’s un-loving action, sure to resonate as the meaning of Christmas in that poor child’s heart.
Beyond that, there was the rudeness of the store clerks accompanying the lack of items Jane was looking for. Store officials kept urging Jane to go on line, though that rather seemed to defeat the purpose of having a store. No wonder retailers were in the toilet!
Leaving, Jane saw hundreds of shoppers race past the bell-ringing Salvation Army volunteer, with nary a donation in sight.
It all served as further evidence of the generally dismal state of human relations that Jane saw all about her. “Peace on earth, goodwill toward men,” she harrumphed to her fellow flight attendant back on the plane. “Scrooge had it right the first time. People act as if it really is a humbug!”
Of course, other than Jane’s brush with yuletide dementia, her life was pretty much in the doldrums anyway. The bills were piling up, and her stewardess’s salary was barely adequate to keep up. The car was going, the landlord seemed unwilling or unable to make necessary repairs, a problem in these winter months when the furnace was what was on the fritz, and with the credit card companies charging such exorbitant interest rates, Jane felt like the proverbial hamster running on a wheel. If not for the fact that Jane had to smile as part of her job requirement all day long, she would just as soon have kicked the passengers in the shins. That is why Jim’s selfless act struck a deep chord, and painted such a warm glow on Jane’s face. At least somewhere in the world there was good will toward men and women.
While Jane was having these thoughts, I knew exactly what I had to do. So I put down Mr. Dickens, not something I had often done before, and pulled out my pad and pen. I like to write, as a hobby, so I am in the habit of carrying a pad around. Story ideas crop up in the strangest of places, and I like to scribble them down as soon as they pop up, lest I forget. I began to write furiously, the words pouring forth.
When finished, I did not have an envelope, so I just folded the paper neatly in thirds and decided to wait until the end of the flight. It turned out I would not have to wait that long. I resumed reading my novel. Scrooge and the Spirit were reliving Ol’ Fezziwig’s Marvelous Christmas Ball. Between my note writing and Dickens’s prose, I hardly noticed the overweight passengers hemming me in on either side of the middle seat. Both felt constrained to spread their legs in my direction and to coopt the arm rests. Fortunately I work out and am not particularly chunky, so I could manage a modicum of comfort.
The captain informed us we were cruising at 35,000 feet. I am never sure why they bother. It’s not like I will be so insulted if they only manage to reach 26,000 feet that I will get out and hitch a ride elsewhere. Shortly after the announcement, I was still with Scrooge and the Ghost of Christmas Past, when there was another slight commotion in the aisle. What to my wondering eyes should appear (the second time this trip) than the extraordinarily lovely stewardess Jane.
Beaming at me she said, “I thought it only right that you get a complimentary drink. If you had remained in first class, you would be entitled to some wine. I guessed white. I hope that’s all right?”
“That’s perfect. I prefer white.”
She was still smiling but suddenly it lost some of its luster, replaced by, was it a sad look? “It must be your lucky day,” she continued, though her countenance suggested anything but good fortune. “The woman you were sitting next to,” she leaned over and whispered conspiratorially, “You know, Brittany Richards, apparently has taken a shine to you. She asked me to deliver this note to you.” And she handed me a folded paper. What was this with all the notes, fourth grade?
“Oh!” I said, breaking free of the spell Jane cast over me. “I have a note too…for you!”
A puzzled frown as she accepted it. She then returned to her front cabin duties.
Curious, I unfolded the note from the beautiful movie star. I now remembered seeing her on billboards in Times Square modeling some fragrance or other.
Her note read: “Dear Jim, I am sorry if I seemed abrupt to you earlier. I will be in Florida for several days doing interviews on the local talk and news outlets for an upcoming film release and would very much enjoy getting to know you better. Say, a late night dinner when we land? I know some intimate places where we will not be disturbed.” She signed it, “Looking forward to a fun time, Brittany.”
Sighing, I folded and put the letter in my valise, and took out my pad to write another note. This one too was easy to write.
“Dear Brittany, no need to apologize. I suspect you get your share of creeps hitting on you all the time. Please understand that was not my intention, rather I was simply trying to be friendly. In any event, thank you so much for the kind invitation. However I must decline. My heart belongs to another.” And I signed it.
While I was reading the beautiful actress’s note, Jane took advantage of a brief respite before serving dinner to read mine. What I had written was this.
“Dear Jane, I am probably breaking some FAA regulation by writing this, but I can tell you have a good heart and I would very much like to ask you out on a date when we land. Perhaps drinks or dessert this evening, or dinner tomorrow if you are available, or worst case, some convenient time back in the New York area. I have never asked a woman out like this, but I don’t want to put you in an awkward position while you are on duty this flight, so this note seems the most feasible alternative. I have no baggage stowed, so I will wait in the lounge area when we disembark for your answer. Please—it’s important. Jim”
After a decent interval passed and I could not see any sign of Jane, I walked up to the curtain separating first class with my note for Brittany Richards. I leaned in and caught Jane’s eye. She came over and whispered, “It’s all right. You’re released.”
“What? Released from what?” I honestly had no clue what she was referring to.
Jane explained. “You wrote your note asking me out before you knew of Ms. Richards’s interest. I understand you not wanting to pass up a chance like that.”
“Oh!” but I said, “That’s why I came up here. To give this note for Brittany telling her I can’t accompany her because I had another commitment. That is to you.”
“You’re sweet, but you don’t have to be so chivalrous.”
“I’m not. I really, REALLY want to spend time with you. Please. It’s important.”
Jane brightened right away, a look of mild surprise on her face. “Uh, I’ve got to go now, but yes, I’ll see you in the boarding area after we land.”
My grin could have lit the way for the pilots to fly by, as did hers.
The rest of the flight passed uneventfully, always a good thing when flying at 35,000 feet. I also managed to get to Scrooge’s redemption, also a good thing. Under the theory that things happen in threes, I closed my eyes shortly before landing, hoping my time with Jane would also prove to be a good thing.
When we landed, I was one of the last to depart, having been replaced so far back in the jumbo aircraft. As per usual, I thanked the flight attendants upon exiting. Jane was nowhere in sight.
At the boarding/deplaning area, I waited while the rest of the passengers disembarked. Then the pilots and crew, and the stewards and stewardesses. It seemed like forever, but could only have been a few more minutes when Jane appeared with her rolling luggage. She gave a wide smile, glanced around to be sure no one was looking and said, “Meet me at the taxi stand in ten minutes.” And she was off.
At the taxi line she reappeared. “Sorry,” she said, “I had to check in with the office.”
“I hope I didn’t make things inconvenient for you.”
“No,” she giggled. “Flight attendants are free to date whomever we please, though it is probably a best practice not to be overt about it when it comes to a passenger on your flight.”
“I’m honored you made an exception to your general rule.”
Again I was rewarded with a dazzling smile.
I had been to Disney World a number of times, but was not overly familiar with the Orlando scene. So I asked Jane for recommendations.
“Where are you staying?” she asked. I told her. It was not far from Disney.
Her brow wrinkled in surprise. “What a coincidence! That’s where the airline’s put us. At least overnight. I’m scheduled to do the Orlando-to-Newark return tomorrow at 5 pm.”
Now it was my turn to be surprised. “Talk about serendipity. That’s the flight I’m on. I have an am meeting tomorrow, and then back home.” Pausing, I added, “Do you believe in fate?”
“I’m not sure,” she again smiled, “but it could be a good omen.”
Given our mutual destination, Jane suggested we check in and meet at the hotel bar. She said it was a pretty good one, “at least as far as hotel watering holes go.” We shared the brief, 20-minute cab ride to the hotel, chitchatting about nothing in particular. Where in the New York metro area we lived, the inconvenience of wearing winter clothes for the departure only to be greeted by 75 degree heat in the Sunshine State, and so forth. She did laugh at a few of my quips intended to be humorous, so the ice was breaking nicely. I did feel there was some reserve on Jane’s part, but that was to be expected. I mean, she hardly knew me, and the entire thing had to be one of the stranger hook-ups.
At the hotel we checked in separately, Jane asked for a few minutes to change out of her “monkey suit”. Ten minutes later we were seated at a small semi-circular booth and had placed drink orders. Jane had a white wine and I went for the local microbrew.
When the drinks came, I offered a toast, “To absent loved ones, and new beginnings.” We clinked and sipped our respective beverages.
Before Jane could say anything I noted the garlands festooning the hotel lobby and said, “Don’t you just love this time of year?”
She shrugged and said, “I don’t really get into all the hoopla. I mean, Christmas is great for kids, but when I got older, I put away my childish things.”
I grinned and remarked that was part of a line out of St. Paul, though not in the context of relinquishing anything having to do with Christmas or the Lord for that matter.
Intrigued, for I could not imagine anyone not totally absorbed in Christmas, I asked if she didn’t feel some spark of wonder during the yule season.
Jane took another sip as she reflected. “No. No, I can honestly say I don’t. I mean it’s nice to see the bright lights and decorations, but that’s not what it’s supposed to be about, is it? And whatever minimal pleasure twinkling lights give you, it’s way more than offset by the nuts clogging the streets and stores.” She paused before saying, “Let me ask you a question. You seem to be a reasonable guy. A solid businessman type. Do you get all mushy over Christmas?”
“I used to. Still enjoy it immensely. But I haven’t been able to really feel it. You know, deep inside me, for…well, for a while now, at least the last six years. I keep trying to get the full spirit back. Each year I try different things to sort of jump start my way into the season. I have something special planned this year, back home, at one of the area hospitals.” Before Jane could pursue this I said, “Could I ask you a question?”
Jane giggled. “You just did.”
“Okay, how about another…I mean a third?”
Now her giggle turned into a hearty laugh, and she indicated that I go ahead. I swallowed, feeling a definite attraction at the way her face lit up when she laughed. I felt like I could watch her all night and never get tired. I did manage to ask my question.
“I don’t mean this to sound trite, and understand I am very happy that you agreed to see me after our flight but…well, I don’t know any other way to say this, but how is it that a wonderful person like you is available?”
She looked down momentarily, stared into her glass. Still staring at the glass she spoke very quietly. “I was married. For about two years. It didn’t take.”
“What happened?” I asked tentatively.
“He, uh, he found someone else. Younger. Actually, I found them, together in bed.”
I reached over and squeezed her hand. “He must be the biggest jerk on the planet.” Now her eyes found mine and she returned the squeeze. I continued. “I would always treat you as the most regal of royalty!”
Jane smiled. “You don’t really know me. But thank you.”
It was my turn to grin. “I know you…better than you realize.”
She made a wry face and I said, “Tell me more about you.”
She opened up about her life, in abbreviated form and I soaked it in. After a while, when our drinks had been replenished, Jane commented, “I’m really enjoying this. You seem genuine. Genuinely interested in me. Most guys only have two things on their minds. Themselves, and sex.”
“I can understand why guys would act like that around you. You are so stunning. But I agree, men are such slime.”
Jane laughed. “Present company excepted.”
I raised my mug in agreement. “I’m not like other guys.”
Her smile turned to a small frown. “You’re not gay, are you? Not that I’m against that.”
“Not at all,” I replied. “I just meant this,” I indicated our surroundings, “is not about trying to have brief fling with you. It’s about building a future with you.”
Jane’s smile returned.
“Wow!” I gushed. “When you smile, you are easily the most beautiful woman I have ever seen!”
Jane smiled and looked aside. “I’m not that pretty. Not in the Brittany Richards category.”
“Actually, you are so much prettier. If you’d been alive during the Renaissance, artists would have been lined up for miles to get the chance to paint your portrait. You could be a Madonna or something.” I looked around quickly and added, “Unfortunately there’s no Madonna and Child painting amid all the Christmas decorations here, so I can’t show you a comparison.”
Jane laughed and said that was all right. She’d accept the compliment anyway. “Besides,” she continued, “I can’t see myself as a Madonna…or any sort of religious figure.”
“Why not?” I was genuinely puzzled.
“Well, I’m not all that religious anymore. I mean, I was when I was young, but it sort of slipped away.”
“Happens to a lot of people,” I responded. “What happened?”
“Life,” was all she said.
“You know, religion is not just about rites and formalized prayers. It’s also about purity of heart. And I can tell what Dickens said about David Copperfield is true of you as well, that you have a good heart.”
Jane shook her head, a little sadly. “I’ve become pretty jaded, cynical.”
I again noted that I perceived much goodness within her.
I could tell she did not want to pursue this. Partially to deflect the conversation, Jane said it was her turn to ask about my past. “What’s your story? You divorced too?”
Now I knew my eyes grew sad. “No.” I spoke very quietly. “Karen, she was my wife, died six years ago. Cancer. We had three wonderful years together, plus the year we met and dated, and then…she was gone.”
Jane took my hand. “I’m so sorry.”
I managed a wan smile. “It wasn’t your fault. I guess it’s just part of the circle of life.”
Jane then asked if that was why Christmas had become somewhat diminished for me.
I nodded. “But I keep trying,” I said. “Even at half strength, it’s still the most wonderful time of the year, as they sing.” I smiled. Looking again at the decorations all around us I remarked how it was a shame that the holiday had become so secularized. “Why, there aren’t even any angels anywhere in this lobby. I mean representations of angels.”
Jane smiled. “You like angels?”
“Of course. They’re here to help us.”
“You mean, you really believe in angels?”
“Of course,” I said again. “We all have our very own guardian angel.”
Jane made a dismissive face. “Mine must have taken a decade off.”
“No. You just have to be open to the message.” I didn’t have to be Einstein to see I was not getting through. I tried another tack. “Jane, hasn’t something strange happened to you, something you could not explain, but was aware of?”
She looked at me a long time, deep in thought. “I’ve heard of such things, but…”
“But nothing. Unexplained happenings occur all the time.”
Jane said it was when her mother died. Before that, her mom had always called her at day’s end, 9 pm on the dot, to be sure Jane was well. “When Mom died, each night for two weeks, at 9 on the dot every night the phone rang. There was no one there. I just chalked it up to coincidence.”
“Maybe. Or maybe it was your mother letting you know she was all right.”
“Gosh!” Her eyes widened. “You really think so?”
“I don’t know for sure, but I do believe events happen all around us that cannot be explained and are signs from beyond.”
So as not to keep things too heavy, I asked Jane to tell me about her mother, and her father as well. That led to a prolonged and happy conversation on both our parts about growing up. Life in simpler times. With people who loved unreservedly. It was a fun conversation and I was having a great time. My sense was Jane was enjoying it as well.
Just then the waitress stopped by with the check. “I’m sorry, but we’re closing up.” I looked around and we were the last two in the place. When we left and walked through the lobby to the elevator banks my hand slipped into hers and she did not resist. Nodding at the huge tree in the lobby, I remarked on how magnificent it was. Jane just offered a mild sigh. “I would very much like to see you again,” I said. “I have a meeting in the morning and then we fly back. How about the day after, back in New York. Maybe dinner and a play? Is there anything you’ve wanted to see…that is, assuming you agree to go out again and you’re free?”
She gave my hand a squeeze. “I’d like that,” she smiled. We exchanged contact information. I asked what floor she was staying on and told her I was kind of old fashioned and would be more comfortable seeing her to her room. Jane’s eyes squinted ever so slightly. I quickly held up my hands. “Nothing more than that. Just to see you safely home, well, to your room.” She smiled again and we got on the elevator. Inside Jane said, “You know I did enjoy tonight and would like to see more of you. But this isn’t a Hallmark movie. It’s not going to start snowing on us at the end, and I’m not going to go dancing all around saying I’m full of Christmas spirit.”
I just smiled, perhaps enigmatically. At her door I thanked Jane and told her I’d see her on the return flight late tomorrow afternoon. I was rewarded with that dazzling smile and she leaned up and kissed my cheek.
Next morning I was up early, surely well before Jane had to be. Otherwise I would have suggested breakfast. The meeting went well. Exceptionally well, though I wondered what was so urgent it could not have waited until after the holidays. It’s not like we were trying to find the cure for cancer.
I went back to the hotel and figured I’d pack and head to the airport early. Definitely had to be back in New York for that Christmas Eve function I had mentioned to Jane. Unfortunately as soon as I entered my room, I saw the red message light blinking on the phone. I figured it was a recorded message from the hotel relaying info on my bill for checkout. Was I ever wrong!
“Due to the storm hitting the Northeast, all flights to New York have been cancelled. We apologize for any inconvenience.”
Inconvenience? This was a disaster. I had an obligation…and hey! The weatherman had not predicted untoward weather. Par for the course where weather forecasts were concerned. I turned on the television to the Weather Channel and, sure enough, the anchors were waxing frantic about this latest Stormageddon. Fifteen inches expected to blanket Manhattan.
I tried to call my contact in Manhattan regarding the strong likelihood I might not make it to the event. The call went to voicemail, so I left a message, along with abject apologies, and said I would try again later. You don’t back out on a commitment with just a voicemail.
I had been looking forward to the event, and truth be told was a little despondent. “What else is there to look forward to?” I asked myself, when it suddenly came to me. I was looking forward to that next date with Jane. And if all flights were cancelled…then Jane was stranded here in Orlando as well…and we might have that date sooner than anticipated.
I went to Jane’s floor and gently knocked on her door. When she answered, I said, “Since we are going to be here for another day at least, I wanted to ask you out on that date. In person, instead of over the phone. Like I said, I am kind of old fashioned about these things.”
Jane smiled. “I like that.” Then she asked, “When would you like to go? And where?”
“How about right now? We have free time all of a sudden. As to where, how about Disney World? The Magic Kingdom?”
“I’ve never been, but you want to go to an amusement park? I mean, we’re not kids.”
“I’m not a Disney nut, but the Magic Kingdom is more than just an amusement park for kids. It’s sort of…”
“Magical?” she said impishly.
“Well yeah. And I’ve never been there Christmas time, but I bet it’s wonderfully decked out.”
“Oh joy,” she deadpanned. “Like I told you, I’m not a Christmas person, but what the heck. If it’s even half as neat as you say, it should be fun.”
We grabbed an Uber and 15 minutes later were at the gates to “The Happiest Place on Earth.” I took Jane by the hand and speed walked to the Pirates of the Caribbean, always one of my favorite rides. Along the way I pointed out all the Christmas decorations. Disney was somewhat old fashioned as well. Everything was denoted as “Merry Christmas”, including “Mickey’s Very Merry Christmas Party”, and not some bland PC-directed mention of a secularized holiday.
By the time we got off Thunder Mountain, Jane laughed and said, “Okay! I see it! It is much more than an amusement park. Thank you, Jim. I’m having a great time.”
“Me too. But as much as I enjoy Disney World, this time it’s the company.”
Jane smiled, then leaned up on tiptoes and kissed me, which I returned with equal ardor.
We spent the rest of the afternoon frolicking, as grown up kids, on rides and attractions. As luck would have it, I was able to wrangle reservations for dinner in Cinderella’s Castle, where the food was actually pretty good, several major cuts above the fast-food entrees elsewhere in the park. Though how that came about was a story in itself.
We stopped by Cinderella’s Castle, which aside from being the central ornamentation of the theme park also doubles as a restaurant and apartments upstairs. Bookings are usually months in advance, so I knew it was a slim chance that there would be an opening for dinner today. From the “You’ve got to be kidding” look the hostess gave me, I was right.
Of course it didn’t mean all that much to Jane, never having been there, but I knew it would be a special treat and as noted, the food was many cuts above that served elsewhere in the park. There was only one other angle to play. In Liberty Square we stopped by one of the guest services rooms sprinkled throughout the Magic Kingdom. There were only two people on line before us, so it was a short wait. I hoped if I pled my case with earnest sufficiency, the young lady manning the services desk might be able to do something for us. I had heard of guest relations providing unexpected boons to Disney guests.
When it was my turn, I explained how this was Jane’s first time at Disney, and our first date, and how we were sidelined because of the blizzard back home. The young gal was sympathetic, but said there was nothing she could do. “They are so booked up you wouldn’t believe!” She did offer to make us reservations elsewhere, but that was beside the point. I thanked her anyway and wished her a “Merry Christmas!”
As we turned to leave, the young woman said, “I really wish I could do something. This is the season for doing good, after all.”
Jane smiled. “You mean, like giving up your first class seat for an old lady?” and she pointed at me.
The young lady’s eyes widened and she turned white. Now she pointed her finger—at me! “You!” she exclaimed. “You’re the nice man who gave my grandmother a seat on the flight from New York.”
“It was nothing,” I mumbled, a little embarrassed to be so heralded.
“No, it was something special! You have no idea how much it meant to Grammy. And to me! Why, you must be the nicest person in the world.”
I’m not sure, but I felt like I was blushing. Jane was grinning, enjoying my discomfiture, and pleased that the good deed had been noted.
The young lady turned back to her computer screen and her fingers started flying. “We’re not supposed to do this, because technically the dining room is scheduled to close, but would a late seating be all right?”
We agreed, she processed it and with multiple additional thanks for the kindness shown to her grandmother, she sent us on our way with a hearty “Merry Christmas!”
Outside, I asked Jane, “Still don’t believe in angels?”
She laughed and said, “It’s just karma.”
“Karma comes from the angels.”
We went on to go on other rides and attractions until dinner time. Once it arrived, we dutifully paid our respects to Cinderella, and then were shown to our tables. Jane remarked that it was indeed a lovely venue, and that she had never eaten in a castle before.
Over the quiet dinner Jane said, “Back on the plane, when you asked me out, you said it was ‘important’. What did you mean?”
“Did I?” I tried to deflect.
“Uh-huh. Actually you said it twice. Tell me why.”
“It’s kind of hard to explain.”
“We have time.” Jane was insistent, in a nice way, but insistent nonetheless. I wasn’t going to be able to avoid the topic. I took Jane’s hands in both of mine. Gulping, I asked her, “Do you believe in love at first sight?”
“No. That only happens in fairy tales.”
“That’s what I used to think. Until the first time I saw Karen. It hit me with such force, I knew I had to be with this woman forever. And when she died, well, I never thought I’d go out with another woman ever again. Until that moment I looked at you when you escorted me to my seat on the plane. I had that exact same feeling, like we are meant to be together.”
Jane exhaled. “Wow! That’s really something. I mean, we hardly know each other. I like you, but…”
I held up my hand. “I know it sounds weird. And I don’t want to scare you off. But this is real. And I know you better than you think.”
She said, “Because you find me attractive?”
“Because like I said before, I can tell you have a good heart. And yes, part of it is that you are incredibly beautiful.”
Jane shook her head. “I’m not sure I’m ready to commit. You seem nice and all, but it’s only been a day, and after the disaster that was my first marriage…”
“Karen said much the same thing after our first date. About the commitment thing I mean, not the first marriage part. All I’m asking is that you give it, give me, a chance. I do believe it is fate.”
Jane blew out some air. “Jim, I’m just afraid I may be too scarred inside to ever commit again.”
“Fair enough. If I can’t find a way to your heart, then I don’t deserve your love. But…I know you feel something too. You want to keep going out.”
She smiled. “Are you asking me or telling me?”
“Look,” Jane patted at a stray lock of hair. “You are a real nice guy, unlike anyone I’ve met, and I am attracted enough to want to pursue this. But no promises as to ‘happily ever after’.” She made quote marks. She went on. “It might be we’re two broken people who cannot fix each other.”
I smiled. “Or maybe we’re two broken people who can be stronger as one.” I raised a glass. “To the journey.”
She smiled at that and clinked glasses.
Afterward we watched the Main Street Electrical Parade, then the fireworks. Jane nestled into me. I was glad I had not scared her off. The fireworks attracted the usual mob scene, though it was well behaved. Immediately after, we saw a child, probably four or five years old, crying. I picked up the young boy who wailed, “I can’t find my Mommy!” He had started to run, frantically searching for the lost parent, and had fallen, skinning his knee. That added to his torment.
“Don’t worry,” I cooed soothingly. “We’ll find Mom right away. Hey look! You broke the sidewalk!” I indicated the spot he had fallen, where there was a tiny crack. The child giggled. I gave him a mild tummy tickle and he giggled again. I told Jane we had to go to the security station. No sooner did I say that, than a frazzled-looking woman cried out, “Timmy! I’ve been worried sick! What happened to you?”
The boy brightened as soon as he saw his mother. He told her sheepishly, “I broke the sidewalk,” and he laughed. Mother and child reunited, Jane and I turned to go, when the mother called after us. “God bless you!” she said.
As we left, walking down Main Street with the crowd of departing tourists, it started to snow.
“OhmyGod!” Jane exclaimed. “Snow in Florida!”
I laughed. “Not quite.” I pointed to the roof of the Main Street building façade, where snow machines were shooting fake snow into the air. “But it still feels good. Kind of takes my mind off my troubles.”
Jane looked at me. “What’s wrong?”
I told her it looked like I would not be able to keep that holiday commitment in New York. I had just gotten a new text, as had Jane, that air travel was being cancelled yet another day. We’d be stuck until Christmas Eve here in Florida.
“Under the misery loves company theory, there’s probably someone in New York now who can’t get back here to their home either,” Jane commented.
We were at the monorail entrance when I brightened, whirled Jane around and kissed her. “You’re a genius!”
“I guess you’re not kidding about that love at first sight thing,” she laughed.
Just off the monorail entrance, we saw a small commotion. Someone, who was dressed in Main Street USA garb but was likely security, was trying to hustle a person away. The man was middle-aged, rather unkempt, poorly dressed, and wore a sign that said, “Out of work---please help!”
Clearly, Disney may have started it all with a mouse, but it had little desire to allow human riff-raff in. I stepped in and asked what the problem was. The security man said that the park did not allow panhandling.
“Seems like he wasn’t doing that at all. All he did was stand here and wear a sign.”
“There is no room at Disney for that,” he snarled.
“You mean, like there was no room in the inn?”
He opened his mouth, but nothing came out. What was there to say?
I said, “It’s Christmas. Have a heart. This gentleman (I used the word purposefully) has not caused any commotion. A small crowd was gathering, and people were thrusting bills of all sorts at the poor fellow. A few were calling out to the guard, “Let the poor guy be! It’s Christmas!”
The guard pulled at his collar. He was clearly nervous. “Uh, uh, as long as he does not openly solicit…”
“Thank you,” I told the security man. “Merry Christmas!”
The poor man also blessed us, and I too gave him a bill. He had tears in his eyes. “I lost my job. This will let me get something for my wife and child for Christmas! Thank you!” And he fled, lost in the crowd in just moments.
Jane linked arms with mine and gave a squeeze. “Okay! I’m officially impressed!”
“You really are a nice person!”
“Takes one to know one,” I quipped and Jane seemed taken aback, then pleased by the remark.
The rest of the trip back to the hotel was uneventful, and it was late when we got back. I saw Jane to her room, we shared a warm kiss, and I went to my room.
Much as I wished I could spend more time with Jane, I knew it was late and I was anxious about the wonderful idea Jane had unwittingly given me. It was one that I was able to put into practice when I got back to the room and despite the lateness of the hour, I made a few calls in private.
Having successfully made my arrangements, or more properly my re-arrangements, I was feeling pretty good. It was late, but I was still pretty wide awake. I reflected on God’s goodness. He had brought Jane into my life, though I knew and understood she was entering into this relationship with some trepidation. The Good Lord had made it possible for me to enjoy another wonderful day, this time at Disney. Showing that He does indeed move in mysterious ways, through Jane’s innocent remark, He had indicated the path by which I could yet redeem my Christmas obligation, despite being weather-stranded over a thousand miles from home.
Yes, I felt great! If not for the late hour, I would have called Jane’s room and suggested a nightcap. Or despite her lack of enthusiasm for all things Christmas, I might have enlisted her in a ride to observe holiday decorations throughout the city and neighborhoods of Orlando and environs. The fact of the matter was it was late however, too late for any self-respecting person to call someone he purported to be serious about.
I thought to read that other novel I had brought, An Angel’s Noel, but somehow as much as I loved curling up with a good book, reading seemed disproportionate to the immense well-being I felt. I had not exercised that day, so I figured this might be a good time to get in some good stomach crunches. With the added benefit that while working out, some great idea as to what to do next might float into my head.
I threw off my shirt. Since this was supposed to be a short trip, I did not have a lot of extra clothes, and could not afford to smell up what I did have. I stripped down to my gym shorts, took the pillow from the bed for my head and got down on the floor to do my crunches. I was just about at the fifty mark when there was a rap on my door. What the heck? At this hour? Then I thought maybe it was Jane and I starting smiling like a giddy schoolboy. I jumped up, still holding the pillow and slung the towel I had around my neck so I would not be too scantily clad.
When I opened the door I was, as the British say, gobsmacked! It was Brittany Richards! Before I could say or do anything, in my shock, she breezed into the room, shutting the door after her. She must be some actress, because she certainly made a grand entrance.
Sine she had passed so close to me, I could tell she had been drinking. But that was not the major thing that grabbed my attention. Rather, it was her dress, or lack thereof. Brittany wore the heavy white terry robe the hotel provided all guests and, from the provocative way it was partially undone, I could tell that underneath Brittany was either wearing nothing at all, or some next-to-nothing undergarment or lingerie. My attention also divined that yes, she was an impossibly attractive, desirable woman.
Brittany said…more like purred…she was either a very, very good actress, or very sincere, “I’m not used to being turned down by men.” She made a look that I definitely found alluring. She added, “So instead of turning me down a second time, why don’t we get to know each other much, much better.” She reached for the tie on the robe.
I averted my gaze, closed my eyes and held up a hand, palm out. “Stop! Please! Look, I’m sure you’re a nice person, but like I told you, my heart belongs to another.” Realizing it was foolish to keep averting my eyes, I now looked directly into her eyes. There was a sadness there that made me feel bad for her. Not so bad though that I would have been unfaithful to Jane.
Brittany was able to turn her momentary sad look to something quite different, again something arousing. “Well she’s not here, so we should enjoy ourselves and no one will know.”
I shook my head. “I will know. And she is here.”
The actress made a show of looking about. “You’re lying. There’s no one here.”
“Jane is staying at the hotel, along with the rest of the flight crew.”
“The flight crew! You mean, you girlfriend is just a stewardess? Are you nuts?”
“Maybe, but not for the reasons you suggest. I have a commitment to her heart.”
As Brittany at last understood my resolve and gave it up, she reached for the door. I also had gone for the handle and as I did my towel fell onto the floor. I must have been some sight. Still sweaty from my workout, half naked but for a skimpy pair of gym shorts, and still holding the pillow in my hands.
In any event, Brittany reached the door handle first. As she opened it she said, “You are a pretty terrific guy. Your lady friend is very lucky.”
She opened the door, stepped into the hall and turned back. “Thank you,” she purred. “It was fun.”
She turned to the elevators, as she caught a glimpse of, and to my horror I stood facing, Jane! She must have been as awake as I was and was coming to visit. I dimly perceived the elevator door shutting with Brittany inside. That wasn’t what mattered. It was the look on Jane’s face. She had heard and seen Brittany in her rather revealing robe, and took in my disheveled, near naked, pillow toting appearance. Jane’s features went through a rapid transformation. From shock, to grief, to white hot anger, all in the matter of seconds.
She stormed down the hall, practically running to the elevator.
“Jane!” I called out, heading into the hall after her. “It’s not what you think! Please listen to me!”
“Here I though you were a genuinely good person, not like the other creeps! But you’re worse! You hypocrite!”
“No! Jane!” but the doors had shut, and someone called from deep inside their room, “Keep it quiet out there!”
I raced back to my room, donned clothes as quickly as I could, patted down my hair, and practically ran to Jane’s room. I’m lucky security did not come in response to my pounding on her door and imploring her to let me in.
Before either angry guests, security personnel or the cops came, I stopped and went back to my room. I tried calling her on both cell phone and room-to-room. Jane wasn’t answering. As much as I was miserable over what she must think of me, the strongest emotion surging through me was sorrow. I was as profoundly sorry as I had ever been for the pure agony I was sure Jane was feeling now. Here I was hoping to restore some Christmas cheer—and more—to this fragile person and inadvertently I could not have screwed things up worse.
I was desperate to find some way to give surcease to Jane’s torment. With nothing better in mind, I resorted to how this had started out in the first place. I wrote a very long, detailed note explaining everything. When it was done, I placed it in a hotel envelope and slipped it under Jane’s door. Little good it did. I later learned she had torn it to pieces upon contact. Jane never saw what I had written.
I began to think if she thought so little of me to not even give me a chance to explain, then maybe Jane was not the right person for me. And maybe my premonition of love at first sight had been off. Those thoughts did not last, however. Because I knew what was in my heart, I knew she had been scarred in a relationship, and I knew how this looked, so I was absolutely miserable.
I remember the story of Henry IV camping out in the snow for days in medieval times, seeking the pope’s absolution, and thought of similarly spending the night in front of Jane’s door so that when she greeted the morning, I’d be there to explain. Three problems with that however. First, I had a feeling that would definitely be frowned upon by hotel management and would lead to my expulsion and/or arrest. Second, I doubted Jane would even listen to me, and her ensuing shouting match could only make an already abominable situation worse. Third, my revised Christmas obligation required I be out of the hotel early in the morning. As much as I might like to, I could not shuck my responsibilities. Too many people were counting on me. Sadly, this had now become one holiday venture that would not put me in the Christmas spirit. I felt worse than ever, like my life was over. Almost as low as when Karen passed. It was going to be the worst Christmas ever.
I was so depressed, I couldn’t sleep at all now. Just sat in bed awaiting the morning, wondering how it had all gone to hell in a handbasket.
When dawn’s first light beckoned, I showered, dressed, and said a prayer, that I be up to the task at hand…and that in some way Jane find solace and allow a chance for me to see her again.
I grabbed my things and went to the front desk, then asked the concierge to hail a taxi for me, and also asked for directions to my intended destination. I was not all that familiar with Orlando, having never ventured much past Disney World. Old habits die hard, even in times of severe emotional distress. I never trusted cabbies to get the directions right, either out of true ignorance, or a way to gin up the fare.
In short order, I plastered a smile on my face. Despite my breaking heart, I had to put up a brave front for the outside world.
What happened next I was only able to piece together from accounts after-the-fact. Jane had not slept that night at all either, alternately crying and hating. When she was at last able to leave her room in some semblance of normalcy, she headed to the lobby for an early checkout. She was not due at the airport until much later in the day, but she decided she’d rather get as far away from the hotel and Orlando as possible. With luck, once at the airport, she might be able to trade off for an earlier flight. Failing that, she’d at least be in a work environment and better able to keep her roiling emotions in check.
Just before checking out, the person in line right in front of her was the person Jane least wanted to see. Actually the second least likely person she wanted to see this day. Brittany Richards was also checking out, her Florida obligations (hawking her new movie on several of the prominent local talk show outlets) long since completed and the weather up north sufficiently abated so that she could now fly home.
Jane resolved to keep that stiff upper lip, another Britishism, and ignore the movie star. However when Brittany saw her, she came right up to Jane and said, “I have had three marriages, a series of relationships and a ton of one-night stands, but I’ve never been able to find a guy who radiates genuine goodness. You are so lucky. Take care of that fellow of yours, or I’ll come knocking,” she smiled.
Jane couldn’t believe her ears. There was a pillar that she slumped against, almost as if she had been physically struck.
Brittany’s eyes widened with concern. “Are you all right?”
Jane recovered, slightly. “Ye…yes. I thought you and Jim…that you and he…you know, hooked up last night.”
Brittany laughed. “I wish. That’s why I went to his room. I have to tell you, I have never had a guy refuse me, until last night. That’s some guy you have. He has it in a big way for you. A little advice from someone who has been down the altar three times, don’t let him go!” And with a jaunty wave, the movie star glided out of Jane’s life.
“I am such an idiot!” Jane muttered. She ran to her room, since she had not checked out. She was like a person possessed as she overturned the trash container and began sorting the pieces of the note Jim had slid under her door. There were so many pieces, and Jane was never good at jigsaw puzzles anyway. “This is hopeless!” she cried out.
Leaving the waste behind, metaphorically as well as literally, she flew back down to reception. “Checking out!” she practically shouted, and then asked the clerk if Jim had checked out yet.
Peering into his computer screen for what seemed hours to Jane but was actually seconds, he said Jim had in fact left the building. Jane asked the clerk if he had any idea where Jim might have gone this early. She knew it was not likely he’d go to Orlando International this far in advance of boarding time.
The hotel clerk sheepishly explained he could not recall all of the large hotel’s guests. Jane described Jim and as she did, she could detect the light bulb going on in the agent’s face.
“Yes, I think I remember him,” the clerk said. It was all Jane could do not to leap over the counter and throttle the information out of the young man. After an agonizing moment of looking skyward in contemplation, the clerk said, “I remember your friend went over to the concierge. Perhaps they can tell you where he went. I do hope he is all right. He seemed distraught, to be in some distress.” Jane could not recall feeling more horrible than she did at that moment.
She grabbed her carry-on and ran to the concierge without taking her receipt from the clerk at reception. She tried to calm herself, but realized she sounded excitable in talking to the concierge.
He did recall Jim. “That’s an easy one to remember. He did not look at all well. And he had me hail him a cab to the hospital, in a hurry!”
“Ohmygod!” Jane felt slightly flush herself. What had happened to Jim? And she was to blame for this good man’s sudden illness. Jane had drifted from her Catholic roots years ago, but for the first time in years she prayed. That nothing serious befall Jim, and that she be able to see him to make amends…before it was too late. She asked the nice man at the concierge desk if he knew which hospital Jim went to.
Actually I do. Your friend had asked for a specific hospital. The Arnold Palmer Hospital, on West Miller Street in Orlando.”
Jane practically threw a five dollar bill at him and ran out where cabs were gathering, now that the morning hours were advancing. Jumping into the first one, she excitedly gave the destination and asked the cabbie to “Hurry!” Her demeanor suggested to the driver that this was no time to make conversation.
It was about a 20-minute agonizing drive. Once there, Jane jumped out and sprinted into the lobby. At the reception desk she blurted out that she was looking for someone who had been recently admitted and gave Jim’s name. The staff person on duty looked at her log and frowned. She did not see the name.
“Jim Ryan!” Jane cried out impatiently.
The staffer seemed momentarily puzzled. Then she snapped her fingers. “Oh!” she brightened. “That Jim! I couldn’t remember his last name. Yes, he should be in intensive care right about now.”
The woman’s cheery disposition seemed so incongruous regarding a loved one being in intensive care, but Jane didn’t have the time to lecture this woman on her bedside manner. Instead she hurried to the elevator and hit the button for the ninth floor.
There, she asked the first nurse she saw if Jim was in fact in intensive care and if she could see him.
The nurse looked Jane over carefully. Seeing someone who was a bit disheveled and a little out of breath, but not posing any evident threat, the nurse said, “No, Jim has been out of the intensive care unit for quite some time. There is a family recovery room we’re using today. I just passed there a little while ago and saw him there.” She indicated the direction and Jane headed off, making a conscious decision to calm herself, lest the hospital authorities have her removed for creating a disturbance in this place where quiet was the norm.
Jane was not as cautious as she imagined, and she fairly barreled into the room. She was brought up short. There were a cluster of older people around the perimeter of the large room, likely parents or relatives of the children Jane saw gathered in the center. They were gathered around a man, whose back was to her, but Jane saw that he was wearing a Santa costume. There was a nun next to Jane, so Jane asked the good sister if she knew where Jim was.
“Shh!” the sister whispered intently, placing her finger lengthwise across her lips. Jane clammed up. The nun whispered, “This is important for the children. Just give me a moment.”
Jane nodded. She had no choice anyway. She watched as Santa called out, “Pierre.” A little boy, clad in hospital gown, approached as Santa reached into his bag. He pulled out a racing car with flashing lights and siren and said, “I see on my list that you’ve asked for the coolest racing car around. Here it is!” And Santa handed it to the little boy. The child’s eyes widened, and a number of the other children made “Ooh!” sounds, and then Pierre hugged Santa, who held him for precious seconds.
Santa called out another child, a girl this time, who apparently had asked for a Barbie doll, and was similarly thrilled by her Christmas Eve visit with Santa.
Jane noticed other children already had their gifts and had taken their places by their parents’ sides. A number of the adults had tears in their eyes. And though Jane might be mistaken, looks of love were directed to the center of the room each time Santa called out another child. On the far side of the room was a young girl, perhaps seven years old, who locked eyes with Jane and kept staring. The little girl did not have a present yet. Jane was mentally distracted, and took in the scene, rather than upsetting the flow by demanding answers about Jim.
Santa went through the remaining small number of children. The only one left was the little girl, who still kept stealing glances at Jane. Jane tried not to stare back, but she was compelled to peek at her admirer, if that’s what she was, from time to time.
When it was over, every child had been given presents, and precious time with Saint Nicholas. There was a happy hum as every child excitedly shared his or her toy and news about Santa Claus with their respective relatives. The lone remaining child without a toy was the little blonde girl on the far side of the room.
Santa made a show of consulting his list. “I have one more. Sally!” he called out in true, jovial Santa fashion. The little girl, almost trembling, slowly approached Santa. Intrigued, Jane inched closer to see what was going on.
When Sally was an arms’ length away, Santa said, “Sally, you’re the only one missing from my list. The only one who did not ask for anything. Is there something I can give you?”
The girl looked at her shoes and nodded sheepishly. Santa spread his arms wide and Sally gingerly accepted his embrace. “What would you like?” Santa asked. The girl whispered something in Santa’s ear, then looked directly at Jane and pointed her finger right at Jane. Jane was surprised, to say the least. She looked behind her, to see who or what the little girl could have been pointing to.
Santa rose, taking Sally by the hand and together they walked toward Jane. Jane’s eyes were fixed on the little girl’s. She heard Santa say, “Little Sally only wants one thing for Christmas. You,” he explained, but Jane did not understand.
He released the little girl’s hand and Sally sheepishly approached Jane. She spoke so quietly, only Jane, Santa and the nun could hear. “I don’t have anyone,” the little girl quietly said. “My parents died when I was two. I don’t even know what my mother looked like. But you look just like I imagine her… Would you hug me?”
Jane could not speak for the lump in her throat. She nodded yes and held her arms wide open. Sally flew into them, and Jane hugged her as tightly as she had ever held anyone. Sally returned the hug, just as fiercely. For the child’s sake, Jane tried to remain composed, but her shoulders heaved with suppressed sobs. And try as she might, tears leaked out through Jane’s tightly shut eyes.
The two were like that for quite some time. So much so that the nun quietly ushered the children and guests back to their rooms. For many it was treatment time. When the sister soundlessly returned, only a pensive Santa, and the still embracing Jane and Sally remained.
After a while the sister calmly told Sally it was time to go. Jane and Sally reluctantly let go of each other. Jane suddenly leaned in and whispered something to Sally, whose smile grew so wide it lit up the hearts of all three adults still in the room.
When sister and the little patient left, Jane still seated held her head in her hands, composing herself. When she looked up, she looked into Santa’s eyes for the first time. “It’s you!” she said, recognizing me.
Pulling off my beard I said sadly, “I was afraid you were going to run out on me.”
Tears returned as Jane said, “No! Never!”
I said, “I never expected to see you here.”
Jane wiped at a tear and said, I thought you were…I came to see you. To see if you would forgive me! It may not have been love at first sight, but I do not want to lose you…or leave you…ever!”
We both hugged, as fiercely as Jane and Sally had just moments ago. When we pulled apart, Jane was still wiping at her eyes. “Between you and that precious little girl, whatever coldness was inside me melted all away. I feel so much love for you right now…and more. For the first time in like forever, I feel like doing Christmas things…with you!”
We hugged again and kissed, tenderly and deeply. “You’re not mad?” Jane asked.
I wiped at my own tear. “Never. Love does not anger.”
Jane smiled. “Is that also from Saint Paul?”
“I’m not sure. I just kind of made it up.” And we both smiled. I then said, “For the first time in years, I feel fully Christmassy too. Thank you!” Another warm embrace followed.
Jane then told me she had something important to ask me. I looked at her quizzically. She pulled my head down to hers and whispered in my ear. I nodded in enthusiastic agreement.
In short order, the nun returned. “That was so wonderful of you both.” Looking at me, she thanked me for filling in.
I explained to Jane that I was supposed to do this same thing at a children’s hospital in New York, but because of the weather… As luck would have it, the volunteer who was to be “Santa” at the Arnold Palmer Hospital for Children with Cancer was likewise sidelined in New York due to the storm. So me and my counterpart switched sides. Jane had her arm around me and was all smiles.
She told the sister she had something she wanted to ask. Looking at me, who nodded, Jane then said to the nun, “I…we…would like to adopt Sally. We’ll be very good parents and…”
The sister looked stricken and she held up her hand for Jane to stop. “Oh, my child, but you can’t,” she spoke quietly.
“But why?” Jane retorted. “We have the means, and we can provide references, and…”
The nun cut her off. “The adoption process takes time. Even if we expedite things, it will still take at least seven months.”
“That’s all right!” Jane exclaimed. “We’re wiling to wait, and do whatever we can…” Again the sister interrupted.
Her tone was so low as to be barely detectable. “The cancer is very advanced in Sally. There is nothing we can do. She won’t be here in seven months. I’m sorry.”
She turned to leave, after giving Jane’s arm an affectionate squeeze.
Jane was crestfallen. “How…how about a miracle?”
Before taking her leave, for she had rounds, the sister said that she had been praying for that for quite some time. “That’s all we have left,” she said as her own eyes misted, “but we cannot count on it.”
She left. Jane slumped back into the chair. She put her face in her hands and sobbed deeply. I remained by her side, gently stroking her back. Many minutes passed.
When at last Jane’s tears were exhausted and she looked up, I asked if she was all right.
She smiled, though through still watery eyes and said, “Yes, but it’s funny. I’m sad and happy at the same time. Does that make me crazy?”
“No. It makes you human. I feel the same way. Thrilled to be with you and devastated over that precious little girl.”
We further composed ourselves and left the hospital for the return trip to Newark Liberty. Just outside the hospital foyer, we were amazed to see snow falling lightly. Flurries. Jane said, “This is impossible! Maybe I was wrong and it is a Hallmark movie after all.”
“No,” I answered. Looking up I indicated a workman who was cleaning and some of the powdery soap had gotten caught in a sudden swirl of wind.
Jane said she felt like hugging me anyway, and we did. Before breaking the embrace she said there was something she wanted to ask me. I nodded of course, for her to go on.
Jane looked back up at the hospital window to the floor where we had just been. “Jim, I would like to do something special for Sally. Why don’t we try to adopt her anyway and in the meantime do whatever we can for her? I mean, I travel this route pretty regularly and can visit often.” She looked at me hopefully.
My smile was broad. “It just goes to show you are as heartfelt a person as I perceived at first sight. Of course! Of course we’ll do that. I can take time off here and there and schedule in some business trips to boot to visit Sally as well.”
So it was decided. I barely remember the taxi ride back to the airport, or the flight itself. My thoughts were filled with images of Sally and Jane and a happily ever after. It was as if I hardly needed airpower to escape the confines of the earth. On the flight, after much reflecting on all that had transpired, and on all I felt for the two new women in my life, I did reach into my satchel for a book. My hand brushed against Dickens’s story. Tiny Tim may have closed that tale with a sincere “God bless us, everyone,” but this story had a different ending. It was I who was truly blessed, and it was I who finally had, in the most profound sense of the word, as full a Christmas as could ever have been wished.
Christmas Eve has arrived yet again, as I gaze at the lovely woman I have been fortunate to share my life with. It has been almost 30 years that Jane and I did get married. We have three children, a son and two daughters, all grown up now. Grandchild number one is on the way.
Before Jane gave birth to any of the three, we did fulfill our commitment to Sally. We visited as often as possible, probably moreso. We did apply for adoption, and miracles do happen, we were successful. In large part because Sally defied the odds and the so-called experts. She did pass from us, but we enjoyed four wonderful years together. At long last, Sally had a family; Jane and I had a special place forever in our hearts.
When Jane did conceive, we considered naming one girl, then the other after Sally, but decided it would diminish her memory. We savored every moment with that wonderful child, and still visit her grave and donate to children’s cancer treatment charities. Yes, there was sorrow in losing her, but Sally enriched us in ways we never could have imagined.
I look at Jane as she adjusts an ornament on our tree that has come askew. She returns my gaze, both of us realizing that two broken people and one broken child made a family whole. It also paved the way for the children to follow. I have come to treasure that look of Jane’s, and know that on every Christmas Eve, we relive the most momentous Christmas of our lives. It all came down to a child wanting to be held. Isn’t that what we all want? To be cared for by another. Isn’t that why Jesus came down? To care for all of us, and to hold us.
After all, there were no prettily wrapped toys and presents that first Christmas. Jesus came to give the greatest gift of all—Himself. In a sense, that is what Sally, Jane and I shared. The greatest gift we could give, greater than anything material, we gave the gift of each other. It is a gift that kept on giving, that Christmas Eve and every one still to come.
Lincoln spoke of the better angels of our nature. And so this Christmas, I pray that you look to your loved ones, and to that angel inside you, and give the most meaningful gift of all, the gift of yourself.