For as long as I can remember, Christmas has been a blessed, sacred, family time. As a child, and a sickly one at that, I remember sitting on the couch looking at the family Christmas tree. Along with my four siblings we threw icicles on the tree. (“One at a time! Hang one at a time!) The big, multi-colored light bulbs. Packages wrapped so beautifully.
The star on top of the tree lit with a big, white bulb. The Christmas Tree Star offering a shining path to a future filled with hope and promise. To a child there is such comfort, such joy in those nights tucked in safely at home, falling asleep on the couch, the lights from the tree providing warmth and security.
As adults, we embrace those cherished memories. We hope to pass those memories on to our beloved children. With the Christmas tree being such a strong symbol from my childhood, I wanted my children to experience that wonder, that hope for the future as I did. And so, we started the tradition of driving out to East Texas to a Christmas Tree Farm and sawing down our own tree.
Well, the first year, we learned a valuable lesson. A tree growing in the wild looks very different than when it is standing up in your living room. That first tree, we struggled to get it standing up. In part, because it looked like a big green, Rice Krispy square! Martha, the mother of our children, liked fat trees. This one was a green square.
So, the first night, we heard this crash, walked into the living room and saw the tree had fallen over. Thankfully, no ornaments had been placed on it.
The next day, as the tree was again leaning precariously, I called my dad. He came over, we got some baling wire, (everything in Texas can be fixed with duct tape and baling wire) put a couple of eyebolts into the wall and secured that tree to the wall! And so, that became an annual necessity.
Another point to remember … wild trees are filled with water. They weigh more than the raggedy trees at Lowe’s or Home Depot. Make sure the tree base is secure!
Our Christmas tree outings grew as we added families, their children and friends. At its height, we had two full sized busses going out to East Texas. Moms and Dads made merry by swilling Bloody Mary’s and Harvey Wallbangers, our noses aglow and filled with liquid courage were let loose with bow saws on unsuspecting trees.
And yet, the trees were magnificent. New ornaments either made by the kids, bought for the kids, or exchanged with loved ones were an incredible source of happiness and brought such bling to the tree. Years of collecting ornaments. And all was right with the world.
Well, life happens, families move away, divorces take their toll and Christmas tree farms become a memory. And yet, you still hold on to the precious ornaments. Memories of happier times, of loving times. And Christmas tree farms become a thing of the past, left for other families to experience and enjoy.
Now we still had a Christmas tree every year. But, they were the raggedy ones from Lowe’s and Home Depot. However, each year you continue to tell those stories of years past going to tree farms, finding that perfect tree and having it be the light of joy, the light of love in your home. The stories become more grand each year as you run across new friends, friends with younger children, friends who want to experience “the magic.”
You have a Significant Other who, after hearing your stories for a few years, finally says … “Enough! I have not been. I want to go to a farm.” Your friends tell you how excited their children are to experience that magic. And so …
Sunday, November 28, 2021 you find yourself returning to a Christmas Tree farm. You search briefly and find … the Tree. A big tree. A very big tree.
And new lessons are about to be learned.
I now believe that maybe wild trees have a certain “life force” within them. They do not want to be taken out of the ground! So at home, after getting help with the base, straightening the tree, I stood it up … or so I thought. I had barely moved when the tree reached out, began to tip over and fell directly on me! Well, no harm no foul. Or so I thought.
So, I tried to stand it up once again. Majestically it rose and stilled. You step back … and it once again fell. Again, on you.
Now, I am a man. Which means I can be dumb and determined at the same time. But, this time I call my son and ask him to come over and help with this tree from hell. He does, we put it so it is sturdy in the base. And it is majestic! 9 ½ feet of aromatic, natural, Christmas tree greatness.
I let the tree drink up water for a day and then, put on the lights. The tree is as sturdy as the Rock of Gibraltar! 1300 lights illuminating the tree. (Hint, you always put the lights on the inside of the tree so it shines from the inside out and illuminates the ornaments from behind.)
Now to carefully unwrap your precious memories, the ornaments. You find the perfect place on the tree. Reminders of past love. Reminders of precious lives having been taken. You smile as you look at the ornaments your children made at a very early age. Crayons on paper, a baby’s hand print. You remember those years when you and your daughter decorated the tree together. An incredible bonding experience. And whereas all may not be right with the world, the memories of love sustain you. And then …
Sunday, December 5, 2021. At 2:15 p.m., you are going to Dallas Love Field airport to pick up a struggling angel who is going to regain her life at ERC Dallas. You have spoken with her a number of times and are happy that you get to help her in a very small way on her journey. So, you pick up around the house, sweeping floors, cleaning bathrooms. When you are in the great room with your back to the Christmas tree, you hear a loud CRASH!
That crash is the sound of glass breaking. Behind you. And … you know, you just know. You turn around and see that once again, the Christmas tree has fallen. You did not hear the sound of the tree itself. Instead you heard the crashing, the destruction of your precious memories, the ornaments. You are overcome with anguish, with anger, with dread at the shattering of your memories.
All rationality has left. Your pain is poured out in front of you in plain sight. For you to see. And then hot, uncontrolled, irrational rage grips you.
You scream at your Creator, you cry out admitting you have made many mistakes in your life, you have committed many sins, but how much longer must you remain in God’s doghouse? You yell that you have tried to pay your debt by helping others, by trying to save lives. You have paid for your sins with the dearest blood possible. And you ask God how much more does he demand from you. Tears flow.
When you come back into the room, you see your saint of a partner, sweeping up the broken shards.
You see the tree still lying on the floor. Pain still has you in its grip. And through it all, you are reminded that you have to regain some semblance of sanity since the airport awaits.
You drag the “Tree From Hell” outside. Water is soaked up from the floor. Shards of glass are swept up. You go outside, take “Satan’s Shrub,” stand it up and tie it to the arbor. You try not to look too closely at which ornaments are broken.
The house quickly is put in relative order. And so to the airport you go. Upon arriving, you show up at baggage claim, your angel recognizes you and comes directly to you (and your partner.)
From the very first second, there is an ease, a familiarity. She again tells you how she and her family found you. She expresses her sorrow for my daughter being taken. But right from the start, you see anxiety, you see “real” fear in her eyes. So instead of going to the hotel, you all agree to go back to your house. On the way home, you tell her in a light hearted way about the fall of Satan’s Shrub. She laughs and says, that’s ok.
Once home, she unpacks a few items, knowing that she will be going to the hotel that night and then checking into the treatment center the next morning. She goes outside and spends some time talking to her family and then comes back into the house.
She then spends the next 90 minutes telling her story, talking about her struggles and eating disorder. It had not dawned on me until just now, but during those 90 minutes, not one time did I think of Satan’s Shrub.
An alarm goes off on her phone and she simply says, “That is a reminder to her that it is time to eat.” So, we go to a Tex-Mex restaurant. Much to my happiness, the medical director of the treatment center which will be saving her life has become a dear friend, lives nearby and agrees to take time away from her family to meet us at the restaurant. Now imagine, you are going into treatment, again, you are frightened, in an unfamiliar city, and the person overseeing the treatment center agrees to meet you in an informal setting.
The conversation at the restaurant was insightful, hopeful. Fears were discussed, expectations were talked about. And in those eyes which had only reflected anxiety and fear, you could start to see the vestiges of … hope. And again, during that time, not one time did I think of Satan’s Shrub.
Upon our return to the house, we asked if she wanted to stay at our house instead of a cold, sterile hotel. You could sense the relief wash over her as she accepted our offer with gratitude. And so, she and I stayed up until midnight, talking, laughing, a few tears flowing.
The next day, I took her to the treatment center and helped her admission process. I got to participate in the admission group session. And yes, the fear and anxiety were still in her eyes. But, she was in a place where the eating disorder demon could at last be exorcised. And I looked at her with such hope, with such respect, with such admiration.
Upon returning home, I looked at Satan’s Shrub outside and the ornaments which were left. I looked at the ornaments, again and again. And then it dawned on me. The ornaments which were shattered and which were now gone were the more expensive, pretty, glass ornaments purchased in years past. Christopher Radko creations. Bright, delicate ornaments.
However, the ornaments which survived the fall of Satan’s Shrub were the least expensive ones, the free ones. And most importantly, the ornaments made by my children when they were oh so young! The ornaments made by the creativity and passion of day care workers. Photos of my dear children on these small pieces of paper with a hook at the top. Memories had not been destroyed. In fact, in looking at what ornaments survived, greater memories came flooding back. Memories of a baby’s laughter. Of the innocence of my children. Of love.
And it is only now that I am beginning to understand the incredible gift that was given to me this year. A renewed understanding of that which is so incredibly important to the heart and soul. A renewed understanding of love which is branded on your heart by your children. It is not found in shiny, expensive ornaments. That understanding had been locked away. It needed to come out.
But, it took the fall of Satan’s Shrub. It took the anxiety and fear in the eyes of a young person in such pain and her still clinging to the narrowest of threads which promised a future of hope and love. It took those incredibly precious events happening at the right time, in the right place to shatter false beliefs as to “that which is important and beautiful” to bring a light of understanding to this old heart.
And so, Satan’s Shrub did not belong outside. Satan’s Shrub taught me an important, albeit painful lesson. A valuable lesson. Satan’s Shrub gave me a gift of renewed insight. That struggling angel gave e the gift of hope, of compassion, of remembering what is important. Satan’s Shrub could not remain outside. So, back inside it came. The least I could do was to bring it back into the family and let it serve its true purpose.
Satan’s Shrub no longer exists. It never did. Instead, I have a Christmas tree. As it always has been and was meant to be. As it was in my childhood. As it is today.
And perhaps, it is the best tree I have ever had.