December was especially bleak; the weather was cold and dark, reflecting my feelings. I usually welcomed this time of year, savoring every minute of the holiday season, but this year it was different. Financial worries weighed heavy on my spirits, and my husband David worked grueling hours to make ends meet. There was always too much to do and too little time. Too many needs and too little money. Moreover, I had struggled with post-partum depression since the birth of my fourth child a few months before, and it made Christmastime especially tough. It seemed every glad carol and glittering ornament mocked my despair.
Thankfully, my children seemed unfazed by my less-than-jolly attitude. They carefully penned their letters to Santa and made red and green paper decorations for our spindly Christmas tree. I didn't want to spoil the holidays for them, yet I felt entirely justified in feeling sorry for myself.
Day after dreary day blurred together until suddenly it was Sunday, December 24. I was alone with the children, as David worked yet another Christmas Eve at the hospital. An empty sadness filled my heart as I dressed and readied my family for church, attending more out of habit and obligation than desire.
If I had expected some renewal from the service, it wasn't to be, and I couldn't wait for it to be over. Being in the presence of so many happy people was almost more than I could bear.
After herding the kids into the car, I charged homeward, anxious to finish the day's preparations. In my haste, I accidentally passed our usual turn-off. As we detoured down the unfamiliar street, I noticed an old man up ahead. He walked with a pronounced limp, and he struggled to carry a heavy grocery sack. Suddenly, inspiration overcame discretion--and going against caution and my better judgment--I pulled over.
"Hello," I called through the open passenger's side window. "Can we give you a lift somewhere?"
The stranger hesitated before answering, taking a long look at my kid-packed station wagon. "Sure," he said carefully.
After he settled into the backseat, I asked him where he would like to go.
"I don't know," he replied quietly. Before I could reply, my children had invited the shabby stranger to our house for dinner.
"I suppose you could come over until you figure something else out..." I muttered.
As we drove, I introduced myself and my children. Our passenger introduced himself simply as "Richard."
As it turned out, Richard truly was a stranger--just passing through town on his way to nowhere in particular. He lived wherever nightfall found him. All that he owned he carried in an overstuffed shopping bag.
Once home, my children had no trouble warming up to our visitor, but getting Richard to open up was like cracking a vault rusted shut by years of disuse. Yet, they persevered. They gathered around, asking him question after question, prodding and prying until his history and its neglected cache were slowly revealed to us.
We discovered that Richard had served in two wars, worked on the railroad, and hitchhiked across North America. He had lost his sweetheart and young son many years ago in the same accident that left him crippled. Afterward, he bounced around from job to job, and ended up homeless and fighting an addiction to alcohol.
"What if we hadn't given Richard a ride?"
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And yet...my children saw none of this. They gathered around him, asking question after question. They listened eagerly and treated him with the familiarity of a long-lost relation. Where I had seen a pitiful stranger, my children saw a kindly old man. They saw in Richard a fellow human being who could love and be loved. They saw a friend.
When dinner was ready, Richard ate like he hadn't had a meal in days. I pretended not to notice when he tucked an extra piece of bread in his coat pocket. Afterward, I invited him to rest in the big recliner; he was sound asleep before the dishes were cleared. While he slept, I undertook the business of finding Richard a place to stay for the night. But who could I reach on Christmas Eve? Who would be available at this hour? As I had feared, the calls to each charity and agency were met with an answering machine or a terse "We're full."
When there seemed nothing else to do--save turn him out on the street--Richard became our guest for the night. Richard accepted the invitation and thanked us with the graciousness of a refined gentleman. He thanked me for the home-cooked meal, the pleasant company, and for the best sleep he'd had in years. Then he said good-bye to each child. It was a tender scene as they parted with their newfound friend.
Later, as I lay in my warm, comfortable bed, I contemplated Richard and his misfortunes. I was humbled as I recalled how that very morning I had been so pessimistic and ungrateful for my own abundant life.
My introspection was interrupted by quiet footsteps as my 6-year-old son appeared at the foot of my bed. "Mom, are you awake?"
"Yes, Jeffrey," I whispered.
"What if we hadn't given Richard a ride?" He asked pensively.
As a single shaft of moonlight parted the darkness of the room, illuminating my son's guileless face, I was filled with emotion. Then a lonely old man would have spent Christmas Eve cold and hungry, I thought, my eyes brimming with tears. And I said, "I guess we might never have known what a wonderful person he is." As I pulled my dear son close, the two of us shared a moment of eloquent silence, and I offered a voiceless prayer, Thank you, God, for sending us Richard.
When Christmas morning came, the kids were almost as excited to see Richard again as they were to open their presents. They begged and they pestered until I agreed to wake him. But, to our dismay and disappointment, Richard was gone. The room was left so neat, it almost looked as if no one had even stayed there. We never saw Richard again.
My family remembers that Christmas fondly. Even though Richard wasn't physically with us, he wasn't forgotten. Because of Richard, our Christmas was full of blessing and thanksgiving. And because of Richard, I found the hope and happiness I was so desperately missing. The spirit and joy of the holidays was never stronger than the year we opened our hearts and our home to a stranger.