Sunday, April 7, 2013
Eve of Compassion
The compassion of a child is finely tuned; right and wrong, fair and square appear in stark contrasts. Kids can be cruel to each other for sure, but they also display great clarity when something isn't as it should be; isn't fair. I wrote a story a while ago based on the insight of a child. We would all do well to keep such an innocent view of how things should be.
It had not been a very snowy Christmas. I wasn't yet a teenager. The snow that had been so clean and white when it fell, was turned over, run down, and muddied. The whole world, under the dirty slush, seemed shop-worn and tired.
The houses on our block were a diverse cast of characters. Next door a retired couple's immaculately trimmed landscaping culminated in a gurgling fountain centered perfectly in their backyard. There were other houses with nice yards, but those tidy porches and neat lawns suffered with contractor trucks and kids' bikes parked in their drives. There was a little old lady across the street whose house was nice but only occasionally looked after by her far flung family. Two large Catholic families meant lots of kids for us to play with. At one end of the block was a nicely kept stone mansion with a Dairy Queen just beyond it next door. Into the next block at the opposite end was the Dawson Mansion. The once palatial manse of a local car manufacturer, it had been split into several apartments and was run down in all the predictable ways.
We were preparing for the Christmas Eve service at church. It was a midnight mass, but most of the sermon was the singing of Christmas hymns. The pastor let people shout out requests by the hymnal numbers; a popular service by a popular pastor. We'd had our Christmas Eve fondue supper; a family tradition. After cleaning up and dressing for the slightly less formal church event, I was milling around the house waiting for everyone else to get ready when I heard the fire truck's siren. Such a terrible thought – a fire on Christmas Eve.
The siren persisted and it soon seemed I could hear sirens from several directions. The blaring racket told of a large fire. Perhaps a number of departments had had to respond. I started to imagine the tragedy. A weight caught in my throat as I swallowed dryly. I could almost taste the smoke.
Mom found me in the sun porch staring out at the drab night through the expanse of windows; listening to the approaching sirens. As she put her arm on my shoulder, we hardly dared speak of the thoughts racing in each our heads. The painful lump, more in my chest than in my throat, would have made it impossible to speak anyhow. We just stood silently and stared out into the street.
Lights came roaring around the corner. A firetruck careened noisily off the Main Street. The weight of our empathy grew heavier as we imagined someone we knew having a fire. The firetruck stopped in front of the one house most out of character on the street. A poorer family lived in a decent house made ramshackle by comparison. Their lawn was more dirt than grass and there was obviously no money for such frivolity as sprucing up the porch or painting the siding. We tried not to squint into the darkness for smoke or fire.
Just then, Santa Claus leapt off the back of the firetruck, jogged across the muddy lawn with a great sack on his back and banged on the door. Dumbstruck, our sorrow had evaporated. We were stupid with relief; embarrassed as joy swelled in our hearts. We'd been had.
The front door opened slowly and the mother of the house swooned with her own joy and relief. Santa must have asked to see the kids. There was a young boy and a younger girl and a couple teenagers. As they each came to the door, Santa dug through his sack for a present. Mom and I watched, dumbfounded, as the human spirit shined – brighter than the piercing lights of the firetruck idling in the street. Someone had wrapped presents and coded them by gender and age range. Santa was visiting families all over town. Families that had known there would be no joy on Christmas were finding some anyway. As the firetruck blared passed our house, all the fireman, and especially the one dressed up as Santa, were smiling from ear to ear. I guffawed, choking back a sob as a chuckle. Our incredible emotional journey felt like a spin on the Tilt-A-Whirl.
Later, as people shouted out hymnal page numbers in the candle lit sanctuary, I basked in the spirit of the season. It wasn't about getting stuff, it wasn't even about giving stuff, it was about spreading joy and goodwill – to everyone.