Around the Woodstove: Christmas meaning we can all believe in
I had just finished the last day of work before Christmas vacation. A neon thermometer sign blinked "-12." It had been of those Decembers when I needed to keep a shop light on under the hood all night, to keep the battery warm, so our Impala woul...
I had just finished the last day of work before Christmas vacation. A neon thermometer sign blinked "-12."
It had been of those Decembers when I needed to keep a shop light on under the hood all night, to keep the battery warm, so our Impala would start in the morning.
A ghostly glow emanated from the snow on sidewalks and parkways. On my way to the hospital, I passed a house where miniature lights twinkled festively.
A week earlier, my younger brother Kenneth -- we call him Net -- was hit by a drunk driver while walking along the shoulder of the road. The impact catapulted him to the other lane where a motorist coming the opposite direction also drove over him.
That he was alive was a marvel. But multiple injuries still threatened his life, as he lay in pain, lapsing in and out of consciousness.
At the ICU, my brother's wife, numb and exhausted, said the doctors would have to amputate one of Net's legs. Surgeons had worked hours to reattach and repair both limbs crushed under the wheels. But it was to no avail.
My brother was 25. Half a foot taller than me -- all legs -- a sprawling athlete who didn't have to jump to block my layups. The previous week, he stopped by to see my son, his godchild, and he stayed to replace the light fixture in our dining room, hopping up onto a chair.
They would operate tonight or tomorrow, depending on when his fever stabilizes, so I left.
Outside, the air felt like burning steel on my face. As I started to drive away, I imagined my brother's body on the frozen asphalt, trembling, bleeding before anyone came to him. I tried to blink the picture out of my head, but couldn't shake dark feelings of fear and loneliness.
Then I saw a figure standing at the corner.
It was a woman bundled in a dark fur coat. She was wearing light-colored, fleecy boots. Her hand was upraised. There was no taxi around, no traffic at all. So, I pulled alongside and invited her into the car. No one should be out on such a night.
She had on perfume.
After I asked where I could drop her off, she said nothing, at first. She turned slightly -- her coat musty under the perfume -- then stared straight ahead.
Finally, she said any corner past the bridge would do since the police didn't usually roust her there. And then I realized how dumb I had been. She was working on this frigid night. I didn't realize. I said I was sorry for wasting her time.
"Hey, just to warm up is good, you know?" she said.
She shivered dramatically, and laughed. An easy gesture.
And then I told her where I'd been. Everything. The horrific accident. How my brother's godson had just learned to say uncle. The flat terror in his wife's voice.
I asked her, this stranger, how this happens to one family and not to another.
She leaned way forward, determined that I see her words. "You watch," she said. "Cutting off the poisoned leg so the rest of him can heal; he'll be good. He's got to. You'll see."
I looked at her. She had green lipstick. Her right front tooth was chipped. She was beautiful. I never saw her again to tell her she was right. My brother battled and clawed his way to recovery, lifting us with him. Years later, he would once again shoot baskets, this time with his own son, Matthew.
That night replays in my memory every December. No, it wasn't a Christmas miracle, foretold by an unlikely, angelic stranger. Rather, it was good doctors, modern medicine, and my brother's will all at work.
Yet someone not even knowing your name, in one bleak moment, shares pain and hope, because of the same human force coursing through us all.
Some may call it good will. Others, a common soul.
But there is no denomination to this unifying spirit. It's the one sure phenomenon that we can all agree is worth celebrating at Christmas.
David McGrath of Hayward is the author of "The Territory," a just-released collection of stories and essays. He told Net's story this month on WBEZ Chicago Public Radio.