A Reflection on a Christmas Past
Here’s a story I put on paper with last year’s Christmas letter to friends. I hope it’s an encouragement to you as we celebrate our Savior’s birth.
The right lane was clear. I should have stayed there. The left lane gathered a firm but growing layer of packing snow, the kind that’s perfect for making snowballs or snowmen but treacherous for a highway surface coating. The three of us sojourned to Ohio to celebrate Christmas with Pam’s parents and siblings – me, in the driver’s seat, Pam, next to me, and Daniel, our two-month old, snuggled safely in his car seat behind me. He slept. Pam fretted. I battled the elements by squinting through the blizzard and urging the wipers to win their battle against the ever-growing snowflakes.
I’ve heard there are no two snowflakes alike. How absurd! How could anyone know such a thing? They all looked the same to me that night. In fact, I couldn’t use the term “flakes” because that’s a word for something small. At that point in time, they clumped together in golf-ball sized grenades on my windshield. No matter how drastically I reduced our speed, the snow-clumps kept overwhelming the wipers, Pam’s foot kept slamming the imaginary brake pedal on her side of the car, and I kept fighting back the temptation to curse – the snow, the road, the timid driver ahead of me, and the fact that we still thought it a good idea to travel for Christmas rather than stay at home.
That’s a lot going on in one’s mind while supposedly concentrating on the road. Perhaps that’s why I thought it safe to pass the slowpoke in front of me by entering the left hand lane, accelerating to pass him, and then reenter the right lane where I could safely continue the final 30 miles to Grandma’s house. I convinced myself that Currier and Ives would approve.
But the slickness of the left hand lane’s snow, combined with some odd road design (and the irrefutable laws of gravity), redirected our Chevy Citation into a spin that may have made three full 360s before bringing the car to a stop some 50 yards off the road in what felt like a Grand Canyon sized ditch.
It all transpired so quickly. The move to the left lane went fine; the acceleration even better. But the return to the right hand lane…ah, that was my undoing. The front wheels went to the right lane just fine. The rear wheels preferred staying in the left. And thus started the first of several spins (clockwise, to help you with your visualization). Once you start spinning, try that technique of “turning into the skid” that they teach you in drivers’ ed class, realize that the spin usually wins that battle, start to look at trees in front of you instead of the rear lights of that slow-driving car you now long for nostalgically, it doesn’t matter how many 360s you turn. You just want to stop…on solid ground…without hitting anything harder than those snowflakes. Whether snowflakes are all the same or all unique makes no difference at that moment. Thankfully, they’re all soft.
We finally did stop and now looked up a small mountain to the road we had just left. Pam and I attempted a brief confirmation that we were both alive – I guess we did so without words. I don’t remember. And then we both rushed to crane our necks to see how the baby had survived in the back seat. Pam was ready to simultaneously unbuckle her seatbelt and leap over her seat to save his life if need be. But he slept just as soundly as he had been doing for the past hour. The skid, the spins, and the descent into our ditch had no effect on his nap. Pam and I both exhaled for the first time since my move from the arid dessert of the right lane to the slippery avalanche of the left lane.
Try to imagine a period of history in the distant, distant past. Not quite so far as the age without electricity – just short of that – the age before cell phones. That was our setting for the predicament of sitting where we did, wondering what came next. Was I to walk through a blizzard to the nearest town to ask for help? Did I ever buy a three-pack of those flares the Boy Scouts used to sell? One of those flares could come in handy about now, although I had no idea how you light one or make it stay lit in a snow bank.
On the road ahead, a car stopped and its driver bounded down the steep bank of snow toward our car. Based on his speed, I now realized we looked like an emergency. He may have anticipated seeing bloody bodies sprawled all over the interior of a demolished car. I lowered my window as he approached, just in time to hear his breathless, “Are you O.K.?” “Yes,” I assured him. Now it was his turn to exhale.
Somewhere between my desire to ask for a miracle (“Could we just trade cars?”) and the guilt of not wanting to inconvenience this kind man (“Thanks for stopping. We’ll be O.K.”), I asked him if he would call the police, if he’d be willing to stop at the next town up the road. He had a much better plan.
“I think we can push you out of this mess. Why don’t you help me push and have your wife steer the car as we get you back on that road.”
I didn’t take time to think. If I had, I would have either laughed or called him crazy. That’s pushing a car up a mountain! It’s a good thing I didn’t think. Because before I knew it, Pam was gently pressing on the gas pedal as Superman and I got behind the car and pushed. It all seems surreal to me know, almost three decades later. The car moved seemingly effortlessly and without even one stop to catch our breath, re-grip our hands on the bumper, or reestablish our footing on the snow-covered ground, we pushed that Chevy Citation faster than I had been driving it. In what seemed like less time than it took to get us into this mess, that car now sat on the shoulder of the road, ready to resume our trip – which would remain 100% in the right hand lane, I assure you.
I turned to thank our savior, shake his hand, and with just a fleeting moment’s thought – consider giving him some money for his help. But he was back in his car, waving at me through his foggy windshield and, if I read his lips correctly, wishing me a Merry Christmas.
I’ve received many Christmas presents in my life. No two are alike. I still use some of them, always feeling a sense of joy and gratitude for the repeated reminder of someone’s generosity. Other gifts are long gone but not forgotten. The smile they induce lingers even though their physical presence has slipped away. Some gifts are both gone and forgotten. That’s the nature of some gifts. I’ve forgotten some gifts that I shouldn’t have. That’s the nature of my memory. The gift of that push out of the snow those many years ago fit into that last category (gone and forgotten) – until just recently. I’d like to relocate it into my memory’s never-gone-and-never-forgotten slot.
Acts of grace, by their very nature, can be forgotten or taken for granted. It is worth the effort to keep them in the forefront of our minds and at center stage of our souls. Celebrating Christmas can help.