It seemed like it always set in around Christmas, the depression. I hate feeling sorry for myself. It’s been a good life. I had nearly 49 years with my soulmate, and our beautiful, smart children now have children of their own. I understand that they are busy. They all came last week to celebrate Christmas early with me, and Regina begged me to come spend the weekend with her, but I told her I’d had my Christmas and just wanted to stay home and watch television with my neighbor Natalia. This was a lie, because Natalia was with her grandchildren, but I didn’t want to be a burden. Christmas was just another day. I hadn’t even put up a tree.
I still drove sometimes, though my son Rodney hated when I did. He said he’d go to the store anytime I needed him to, and he only lived a couple of blocks away from the new house I’d downsized to, when the stairs became unmanageable, but this evening I knew they were going to his mother-in-law’s for dinner and I didn’t want to bother him when all i wanted was a can of tomato juice. So I ventured to the little market on the corner.
I shopped and was putting my groceries in the car when I saw something that made me stop short. A homeless man sat on the sidewalk beside the laundromat, huddled near one of the vents. I didn’t see many homeless people in this neighborhood, and my heart went out to him. I had been blessed in my lifetime and I lived comfortably. This poor fellow looked like he had nothing. On impulse, I grabbed a thick blanket that I always kept in the backseat and carried it over to him, along with $100 I had taken from my purse.
“Merry Christmas, young man,” I said, and he looked at me in surprise. He was even younger than I thought, maybe as young as my oldest grandson, Neil. I didn’t see his shriveled arm until he shifted, and it tugged at my heart even more.
“God bless you, Ma’am,” he said, and looked like he was about to cry.
“He has,” I assured him as I lay the blanket beside him and tucked the money in his jacket pocket.
There was something in his eyes, the same loneliness I felt, and I did something else impulsive, something that would’ve horrified my children. I said, “It’s Christmas Eve. Would you like to come back to my house? You can have a hot shower, a hot meal and a warm place to sleep.”
He looked at me in amazement. “Ma’am, that is too kind. But why would you invite a stranger to your home?”
“We are all human, son.”
I’ll admit, I was a little scared as I drove us home. The news was full of terrible stories of what the human race had become, but I figured if it was my time to go, then it was just my time.
I gave the stranger some of John’s old clothes. They would be big on him, but it was all I had. While he showered, I made us a pot of soup and a plate of grilled cheese. He ate three bowlfuls and proclaimed it the best he’d ever had. Our conversation was easy. I talked of John and our children. I didn’t realize until later that he’d said little.
“If you could change one thing,” he asked. “What would it be?”
“Oh, dear,” I said, getting up to refill his glass of tea. “I wouldn’t change a thing. I’d just love to do it all over again.” I laughed and said, “Well, maybe I’d take that cigarette out of John’s mouth the first time I saw him smoking.”
“Sweet lady, may this night bring you everything your heart desires.”
When I turned around, he was gone.
The way the new house was laid out, it was impossible that he’d passed by me without me hearing him. But I walked through the house. He was completely and utterly gone. Something drew my attention, however. My family Bible lay open on the coffee table. The first passage that drew my eye was Hebrews 13:2 “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.”
I felt strangely at peace, and I was thinking of John. How I’d loved that man. So, I did something else my children wouldn’t like. I went up to the attic. I took care not to fall. It would be a disastrous time to break a hip, but I wanted to be among my memories.
Christmas was always John’s favorite holiday. Every year since the first year we’d dated, he’d bought or made us a new ornament. The first one in 1968, ornaments celebrating our marriage, our children, trips we’d taken”…I cherished each one. As I drew out the last box, though, I didn’t recognize the ornaments inside. I withdrew one, a beautiful pearl colored glass ball.
As I gazed at it, I heard John say my name, as clear as anything. “Anna.”
Startled, I dropped it and it shattered on the hardwood floor.
The attic disappeared in a fog.
I was at the train station. I remembered this place. It was where I’d waited the day John came home from Vietnam.
I looked down at my shoes, at my hands. I was young again. Could that mean–
“Anna!” I heard his deep voice boom. “Come here, girl.”
And there he was. The love of my life, still alive, still smiling at me. I threw myself in his arms.
“Careful!” he said, laughing and dropping the cigarette he held. “Give me a kiss.”
“Only if you promise you’ll quit smoking,” I said, and ground it out with my heel.
He laughed. “I promise. For you, I promise anything.”
“Thank you,” I whispered, and John thought I meant it for him.