Noiselessly, the door opened a few inches and a young, freckle-faced nurse peeked in.
Speaking to my teenage son, who was propped up on pillows in bed, she asked cheerfully, “Are you up for a visit from one of Santa’s elves?”
He paused. I could see the doubt on his face. After all, he’s long past the age when a visit from Santa’s elves would light up his eyes.
But it’s Christmas Eve, he’s sick, feeling glum, and still in the hospital. Besides, the nurse seems so eager to spread Christmas cheer.
He shrugged and half-smiled. “Sure, why not.”
A second later, the nurse opened the door widely and announced, “Santa’s elves!”
I expected a jolly man in a red suit or middle-aged hospital volunteers in Santa hats.
But with a soft shuffle, a little boy appeared in the doorway. About five years old and four feet tall, he was dressed in Sunday best–a striped button-down shirt, nice pants and dress shoes.
Eyes wide and serious, he held a gift in outstretched arms, approached the bed, and earnestly lisped, “Merry Chrithmith!”
It was impossible not to smile. The boy’s sincere gesture, so simple, toppled the walls pain had built around my son’s heart.
In one poignant moment, my son’s face visibly softened. Touched, he spoke gently as he reached forward to receive the gift from the younger boy. “Thank you. Thank you so much.”
The nurse spoke up. “Tyler was a patient here last Christmas. He knows what it’s like to be in the hospital, instead of home, at Christmas. So he and his family brought popcorn and a movie for each of our pediatric patients to enjoy tonight. Merry Christmas!”
Only then did we notice the rest of the family crowding the doorway: two older brothers, about 10 and 12, a sweet-looking mom, and a dad carrying a Santa-sized black bag. It was filled with Christmas gift bags of popcorn, DVDs, and assorted candies—enough for every patient on the floor, their families, and probably the nurses too.
Their kindness warmed the room. We chatted a moment. The mom and dad’s faces shared wordlessly their own gratitude–remembering their trials one year ago–and their tender concern for our ordeal. We thanked them again and, then, with a rustle of bags and murmurs of “Merry Christmas,” they disappeared through the doorway, on to the next room.
But the happy glow remained.
It’s New Year’s Day, and we’re home now. My son’s on the mend, but the unexpected kindness of this family replays over and over in my mind’s eye–a personal video, a new Christmas classic. And it’s on in the background as I take stock of the year past and make resolutions for the year ahead.
On the threshold of the New Year, one Huffington Post writer scoffed at the idea that anybody ever keeps altruistic New Year’s resolutions—or does much good of any sort for selfless motives. Her advice: “[B]e selfish when you consider volunteer opportunities.” By selecting the ones that offer the most selfish benefits, she predicts, “you’ll end up acting selfless.”
“Acting” selfless is the goal? Only selfishness can motivate us to do good?
What a shame she’s never met people like Tyler’s family. I’m willing to bet there weren’t any selfish inducements to come out in the bitter cold on Christmas Eve, as a family, to cheer up children they didn’t know—children who didn’t expect to see anyone that night. Tyler’s family could have stayed home, cozy and snug, and we’d never have known. They might have congratulated themselves for their good intentions, bemoaned the cold night, and continued their own Christmas festivities.
But they didn’t. Instead, they spent hours preparing gifts, then dressing the kids nicely, bundling them against the cold, and declining invitations for Christmas Eve parties or last-minute shopping. They had no audience to applaud them, not even a cheery group of fellow volunteers to turn it into a “service project” with delegated tasks of shopping or filling gift bags, topped off by refreshments for all when the good deed was done.
Nope, just a family, sincerely doing good. Their pain, anxiety, and prayers—remembered a year later—were transformed into the gift of kindness and compassion towards strangers.
And that’s a lesson to inspire my resolutions for this year.
How many small, meaningful gifts of time do I fail to give because selfish distractions drown out the Spirit’s quiet prompts? How many simple impulses towards kindness are overridden by practical objections? And how many daily opportunities to do good drown in the well of good intentions?
Next year, at least, I hope I can say, “Fewer than before.”
To you, Tyler, and your family, thanks!
And to everyone, have a very happy New Year…!
(c) 2011 Mary Rice Hasson
Read more of Mary’s columns at Catholic News Agency.