The morning’s flurry was just starting to melt from the bench top when he arrived. The bus stop sat on the edge of a small park in the center of town where the wind blew across the open space freely. Fortunately, the sun was out and the world felt bright.
The man removed his heavy overcoat, no longer needed after his brisk walk, and brushed the powder off the seat with his gloved hands. He then settled onto the bench for his short wait.
As he crossed his legs he could see the buildup of white snow on the bottom of his shoes. He shook the loose snow from his worn black loafers, recalling the way it crunched under his footsteps as he walked. It always reminded him of his childhood, when he would tromp through the knee high fields of white in his conquests of glory to win the next neighborhood snowball fight.
He had been racing through the back streets to make it to the stop on time, all the while carrying under his arm a single package. He had taken great care while wrapping the plain brown box, making sure the creases were perfect and the tape securely held the green, red, and silver wrapping paper in place.
Inside, secured between several balls of crumpled up newspaper, lay the very last present of its kind.
He had searched for weeks. He had visited five different stores before finally finding one that had it. He wasn’t sure if it was the exact one, but he felt it was going to be close enough.
He knew it would be the perfect gift. He had heard her talk about it for years. She had been given one like it when she was a little girl, which she had kept until it seemed to disappear a few years before she first went to the home.
In their visits he gathered how meaningful it had been to her. He could faintly recall seeing it on a shelf in her dining room when he was a child. Most children didn’t pay much attention to that sort of thing, however, the way the star seemed to shine over that little manger stuck with him.
Now, in the twilight of her well lived life, all he wanted to do was show this final act of appreciation to the woman who had practically raised him.
In the midst of that memory, from the corner of his eye he saw a flash.
He heard the engine roar and saw the figure dart into the street as if it were happening in slow motion. He didn’t know where the child had come from, but somehow he knew danger was imminent.
Before he knew it, the man jolted to his feet and shot out to grab the little boy whose sled was still sliding across the icy road.
He had just managed to grab the red coat and begin pulling the child back towards the safety of the sidewalk when the grinding of brakes began to echo across the roadway.
With a burst of energy beyond his own, he yanked the child backwards and somehow tossed him into the piled snow at the street’s edge.
He fought for footing to begin his own retreat, but the ice of the road gave no resistance. He clawed at the thin layer covering the road as he began to slowly edge his way back.
The truck driver tried swerving to his left but the road gave little assistance in his efforts. The truck slid ever closer to the man whose scrambling legs slowly disappeared out of view.
As if by magic, the truck just missed the man who had so selflessly put himself in harms way.
The commotion came and went as everyone was checked and all were found well.
Shaken, but uninjured, the boy began dragging his sled home, as the driver continued on with his deliveries, and the man returned to his seat on the bench.
The wrapped present, momentarily forgotten, had fallen off the bench and landed upside down in the snow below. The man picked it up, inspected it, then dusted it off.
There was a slight tear in the wrapping paper at one corner, but considering the incident that had just unfolded the man was unconcerned.
The man gently shook the box, checking if it had somehow broken in the fall. He heard no sounds that would indicate broken pieces, so with a sigh he returned the present to the seat next to him.
He realized he had not thought to check himself for any damage to his clothes from the incident. He gave himself a once over, checking his jacket, pants, and gloves.
There were a few new scratched on his shoes, and he could see what appeared to be a worn spot on his left knee, but with a long breath the man sent a silent prayer heavenward as he realized he was ok.
As the man sat there, regaining his breath and feeling his nerves slowly calm, he saw a woman approaching from his right.
He had seen her before, on other occasions when he was waiting at this bus stop. She seemed to always be wearing the same clothing, which did not include a heavier coat for weather such as this.
The man had not been around long enough to know, but word was that she had lost her family a dozen years before in a tragic accident. At first she had been well cared for by friends and neighbors, but over time she became known simply as the lonely old lady that wandered the streets without ever speaking a word.
She had a home, but she never seemed to be there.
Today, what stuck out more than anything was the way she was shivering in the cold.
The man knew she would not last long on a day as cold as this. As she drew nearer he could see her hands were trembling as she fought to pull the light jacket she did have even tighter around her neck.
How could this be? Winters in this city were miserably cold as it was. Why had this woman, Mrs. Wilkins he believed, not been given a better coat than this?
Instinctively the man rose to his feet, and grabbing the heavy trench coat from the back of the bench beside him, he began approaching the old woman.
“I see you have no coat for the cold. Would you please take mine?” he asked her.
She looked up and into the eyes of the man. A smile began to creep to the corner of her mouth.
“I have this sports coat I’m wearing, and I’m plenty warm. It would be my pleasure if you would please take this one.” the man said as he stretched out his arm with the heavy coat dangling from his fingertips.
He then stepped towards the woman and in a single movement draped the coat around her shoulders.
She looked up again, and the man saw a single tear come to the woman’s eye.
“It would make my Christmas if you would take this coat as my gift to you.”
The woman reached her hands out and took the man’s hand into her own. He felt the icy chill of cold as her freezing hands wrapped themselves around his, and gently squeezed.
“Thank you.” the old woman whispered.
“You’re welcome.” said the man. “Merry Christmas!”
With the brief exchange over, the woman continued her slow walk down the street. As he watched her walk away, the man suddenly felt a slight sense of embarrassment as he realized there was a slight tear on the tail of the coat he had not noticed before.
Knowing the woman would not care at all about the small imperfection, the man returned to his seat on the bench.
He checked his wristwatch, wondering how much longer the bus would be. He saw the glass face of his watch had somehow become cracked, likely a casualty of the sledding incident. He thought about when he might have time to take it to a shop to be repaired, and through the damaged glass calculated at least another twelve to fifteen minute wait.
The man was so distracted in his thoughts that he didn’t see the older man approaching the bench until he sat down beside him.
The man looked up and recognized Mr. Palmer from his church. The man recalled how he hadn’t been to church in some time, so a sense of embarrassment swept over him.
It wasn’t that he didn’t want to go, he just hadn’t felt the same desire since his wife had left him earlier that year, taking their two daughters with her.
His drinking had been the real cause, but that wasn’t something he wanted to admit to the good church going people of his congregation. Instead, he found it easier to pretend he was no longer there.
Even though he had finally found the strength to stop drinking, and had been sober for nearly eight months, he still felt ashamed. He had known Mr. Palmer well since moving to the small town. He was always such a friendly and happy man.
Mr. Palmer had once mentioned how he had two granddaughters in similar age to the man’s own girls, so he enjoyed seeing them as they brought him memories of the grandchildren he never had the chance to see.
Still feeling ashamed, the man knew he couldn’t ignore this once time friend. Finally the man asked…
“Mr. Palmer, how are you this Christmas?”
The question went unanswered for what felt like several minutes.
“Mr. Palmer, it’s me, Mike Hansen… from church… do you remember me?”
Again, the question seemed to go unanswered until finally Mr. Palmer turned his head and looked Mike in the eyes.
“Yes Mike, I remember you. It has been a long time since I’ve seen you though. Likely since before Becky left I suppose?”
Mike knew it to be true. He had withdrawn from everyone he knew well before his wife had left him. The alcohol, the job troubles, all of it… seemed to be too much for him to manage, so instead he faded.
“Yes Mr. Palmer, that’s correct. I have not been the best neighbor I suppose.”
Silence rang between the men for a moment before anyone spoke.
“My Nancy is leaving me now too Mike. The cancer is taking her away. The doctor says these are likely her last few weeks.”
The pain in his voice, the lost look on his face, Mike knew Mr. Palmer was deeply in sorrow.
Mike didn’t know what to say. He had liked Nancy Palmer very much. She had often brought plates of cookies to their home, just because.
“I’m so sorry to hear that Mr. Palmer.”
Another moment or two of silence entered the conversation, ever increasing the weight of the next words.
“I haven’t even been able to get her anything for Christmas Mike. I’ve been by her side every day. I just haven’t thought about it. Now I’m headed to see her again, and on Christmas Eve, with no present for my sweet Nancy.”
Mike could feel the pain radiating from Mr. Palmer. He could sense the tears that were barely hiding behind the worn and fragile eyelids of this man who so evidently was barely holding it all together.
In that moment, Mike saw the present sitting on the bench between them.
“Mr. Palmer… would you take this present here to your Nancy? It’s not much, but perhaps Mrs. Palmer would like it. It’s a beautiful glass plate depicting the manger scene from that first Christmas night. I’m sure she would like it.”
Mr. Palmer looked up at Mike, then down at the present on the bench.
“I can’t possibly take a present you bought for someone else Mike.” Mr. Palmer said hoarsely in the cold morning air.
“Oh no, it would be alright Mr. Palmer. You take this one to Nancy, and I’ll just find something else. Please, I have time.”
Mike knew he was lying. He knew he likely had little more time than Mr. Palmer before his own grandmother would pass away. He had bought her the plate with great effort, but he knew she was not expecting anything. In fact, in her comatose state she was not expecting anything at all. The present was more about him than it was for her.
“I don’t know Mike, that seems like asking a whole lot.”
“Please Mr. Palmer, and you’re not asking. I’m offering. Don’t worry about it. Take it. Give it to your sweet wife. It would make me very happy.”
The sincere smile on Mike’s face must have done the trick, because Mr. Palmer reached out and picked up the present. He held it between his worn hands and began to shake as tears rolled from his eyes. He smiled a bright smile and choked back a few more tears.
“Thank you Mike. That would be really nice for her.”
The two men sat silently, tears exchanged without words for another minute.
Just then, the bus pulled up and Mr. Palmer stood. Mike did not.
“Weren’t you waiting for the bus Mike?” asked Mr. Palmer.
“I was, but I’ve forgotten something so I’ll take the next one. You and Mrs. Palmer have a merry Christmas Mr. Palmer.” Mike said with a smile on his face.
“You too Mike… you too.”
Mr. Palmer ambled onto the bus, and after a pause, the bus doors closed and it pulled away.
As the smoke from the bus exhaust cleared, Mike found himself still sitting on the bench.
What was he going to do now? He had no gift.
This morning had not gone anything like he had planned. He was unsure of what to do next, so he leaned forward, rested his elbows on his knees, placed his head into his hands, and began to cry.
“Mister?” came a soft voice in front of Mike.
Looking up, Mike wiped his red, teary eyes and refocused until he could see a little girl standing in front of him.
“Mister, are you ok?” asked the little girl.
She had to be no older than nine or ten, about the same age as his youngest daughter.
“Are you ok Mister?”
Finding his voice again, Mike softly answered ‘Yes, I’m ok. It’s just been a difficult morning.”
The girl slowly stepped closer and looked Mike in his red, glassy eyes.
“Mister… are you Jesus?”
Mike didn’t know what to say. He wasn’t even sure he had heard the question right.
The girl asked again…
“Are you Jesus? I saw what you did today. You saved Tommy Martin from that truck. Then I saw you give your coat to Mrs. Wilkins, and now you just gave a present to that old man.”
Mike sat stunned by the girl’s statement and question. Had she really seen everything?
“My mom and dad taught me that Jesus gave the greatest gift to everyone. They say he saves everyone’s lives. He helps people who are sad, he lifts up people who are hurt, and he helps people feel happy again.”
“You saved Tommy’s life… you helped Mrs. Wilkins who always looks so sad… and you gave that gift to the old man and made him smile. That sounds like what Jesus would do.”
Mike sat stunned for a few seconds before finding his voice again.
“No, I’m not Jesus.”
The girl looked at Mike. She examined his face with her eyes. She slowly reached out her hand and wiped a tear from Mike’s cheek then smiled.
“If you’re not Jesus, you seem an awful lot like him. Maybe you’re one of his helpers.”
It wasn’t a question, more of a statement.
Mike didn’t know what to say. He looked at the little girl, and deep inside he felt a warm feeling telling him that she believed exactly what she was saying.
“Yeah, that’s it… I’m one of his helpers.” Mike finally replied.
“I knew it!” the girl smiled.
“Will you please tell Jesus Merry Christmas from Sara?”
Mike saw a sparkle in the girl’s eyes as she waited for his answer.
“Of course I will Sara.” Mike said.
“Thank you! And merry Christmas to you too!”
“And to you Sara!” Mike said through his own big smile.
With that, the girl turned and walked back to her friends who were playing in the park behind the bench.
Mike sat there pondering on the moment. His mind then began replaying the events of the morning. No, it had not gone as he expected, but it had been a very special morning nonetheless.
With a sense of renewed energy, Mike stood from the bench and jogged across the street to a little market where he knew he could find some flowers. Perhaps it wasn’t the exact gift he had intended to give that day, but he realized that he had given far more than he ever expected.
He felt a sense of hope and peace he had not known in a long time. Something felt different, and he knew he did not want to stop finding ways to keep that feeling inside of him.
He stepped out of the little shop and into the brisk morning air, just in time to catch the next bus.