This Changed My LifeIt was nearly two years ago that I was been sent to pick up my uncle and bring him home for Christmas dinner. He lives across town and his car was in the shop. When I arrived he was working on an oil portrait of a friend.
He is a professional artist and lives alone. He is not an old man; he was 52 at that time, worked out and neither drank nor smoked. He seemed to be in top physical condition. I used to walk with him three days a week as he strolled through his neighborhood.
This area of our town is totally different from where I live. Its streets are lined with massive and obviously ancient trees. Pecans are to be found on the sidewalks in the fall of the year and they were a bonus to me as I would stop to gather them then rush to catch up again. My uncle called them little gifts from the tree spirits.
In the cool of autumn and winter the odor of wood smoke flavored the air so richly that I could taste it on my tongue. People sat in their front yards and they spoke to us as we passed. His neighborhood is like a big family. Mine is like an armed camp, with sullen neighbors who do not speak other than to tell you to keep off their grass.
My uncle’s life changing experience would come to change mine, and make me a better person than I had been.I sat that day and watched as he soaked his brushes and began to clean up his work area in the small studio he maintained in his back yard. Since I was a child that studio had been a magic place to me. The odor of linseed oil comingled with the damar varnish evokes vivid memories of a bygone time.
The smell is of happy times, of sitting in my favorite uncle’s cozy studio on a bitterly cold day, the gas stove roaring and him working feverishly over some passage in the painting sitting on his massive paint stained oak wood easel. I would savor the hot cocoa, its chocolate flavor strong on my tongue. He made it, he said, for the two of us, though he never touched it. He would sometimes play Christmas music throughout the holiday season and those carols still evoke a memory of that time and place.
My uncle’s home seemed enchanted, his neighborhood a kingdom and my uncle the wizard who made the magic happen.He turned off the lights that Christmas day and held the door open for me to depart first. I stepped out onto the grass, still green even in December and turned back toward my uncle. He was lying on his face, his body sprawled awkwardly across the threshold though I did not hear a sound.
I thought he must have tripped as he was coming out, but he did not move. As I tried to roll him over his eyes opened and he tried to sit up. I put my hand on his chest to signify I wanted him to stay down for a moment. It was an intimate act.
I had never touched him like that. I could feel the contour of his chest. It embarrassing in an odd way I cannot really explain. He was disoriented, but my uncle is not the sort of man who takes orders.
He tried to stand, without success and I realized he would not be happy until he either stood or made his own decision that he could not. I pulled and tugged and with the two of us doing our best, he made it to his feet. His hand went to his chest and he winced as I looked into his eyes. He was in pain.
He knew then. I knew. I told him my cell phone was in my car so we should get him to a chair and let me go call 911. He overruled me.
He said we could get to the hospital quicker in my car and turned and started walking toward the side gate leading to the front yard, his gait unsteady.With a great deal of effort we got him into the front seat, I locked his seat belt and we drove at the fastest safe speed I could manage. It was not that far but every minute seemed like an eternity. My uncle began to sweat and leaned his head back in the seat.
I began to regret our decision. I was afraid I was going to arrive at the emergency room with my uncle dead.In hindsight I realize now that I should have called 911 for instructions as I drove, and at least have had them alert the hospital. After what seemed like forever we pulled in to the hospital, and I stopped at the doors to the emergency room.
I ran in and called for help. Nurses seemed to appear from nowhere and had my uncle in a wheel chair and into the back area of the clinic for treatment with no wasted motion or time. I watched them lift him onto a gurney and I watched as they began an IV. I got close enough to him to pat his hand and tell him I was there.
He did not respond. His face was gray and his eyes were closed.For the first time I looked around at my surroundings. The room was sterile and smelled of alcohol and some odor I couldn’t place… perhaps it was Lysol.
I recall that room today, its lights bright and the metal areas all stainless steel, gleaming in that light. They told me to I should go to the waiting room and they would keep me advised as to his condition. I went first and moved my car to a parking space on the lot across the narrow street from the emergency room driveway. Then I called my parents and returned to the waiting room.
I found a seat near the window looking out on the ambulance bay. It had become a far different Christmas from what I had envisioned when the day began.I thought of the nurses who worked on Christmas day, the doctors working at that moment to save the life of my uncle. I thought of the entire staff.
Those who cooked the food in the cafeteria, those who drew blood, those who analyzed it, looking for the enzymes in my uncle’s blood that would tell the doctors if there had been damage and give a clue as to the extent of it. Had my uncle not been here I would have never given it a second thought to these people. But in a larger sense the entire city, in fact the entire nation, does not close any emergency services. We still need doctors and nurses.
We need technicians. We need policemen, even on Christmas. These people give of their time and take that time from their own family to serve the public good. I thought of what would have happened had we arrived at the emergency room and found a locked door and a sign saying it was closed for the holiday.
I sat there in silence, speaking to no one. I am not sure if the carols had been playing softly all along and I had failed to notice or if they just came on, but I heard them then. A low a cappella version of Hark, the Herald Angels Sing filled the room. I thought of the carols I heard in my uncle’s studio on days leading up to the holidays.
I was lost in my own thoughts when my parents arrived. Our Christmas, like those of so many others, was spent in worry and waiting. But this would never had occurred to me had my uncle not been stricken. We prayed for his life.
My uncle lived. He is not as healthy was he was; he is not as strong and he is not as happy, but he lives. I am not the same person either, though in ways different from my uncle. I have changed my attitude toward holidays and public service, toward charity and toward the meaning of ‘good will toward men’.
I have come to understand, for the first time what the real meaning of Christmas is. I have explained it to my uncle. He tells me we have both had a change of heart. It has nothing to do with presents and carols.
It has nothing to do with Santa and reindeer. It has only to do with good will toward men. Those who truly represent the spirit of Christmas have always understood this. I had to be hit over the head with it.
But I understand it now. It has to do with the biblical admonition of President John Kennedy on the celebration of his inauguration, “With a good conscience our only sure reward… knowing that here on earth God’s work must truly be our own” (Kennedy 33-34).;;;;;;;;;;;;;;Works CitedKennedy, J. (1961) in Sounding the Trumpet: The Making of John F.
Kennedy’s Inaugural Address (2005) Tofel, R. (Ed.) Chicago:Ivan R. Dee, Publisher