When I was four years old, an angel left me my very own Christmas tree.
I lay on a soft twin bed, tucked in the corner of a wood-paneled room. The room was sparsely furnished and dark, with a glimmer of light shining under the door. I had never been here prior to this Christmas Eve. The surprising tree stood to my left. Behind it, and me, a window looked out on a white snowy Boston day.
The tree was my height, a four-year-old girl height. If I could have spread my arms out to the sides, I might have touched it from end to end. But I couldn’t, because my arms were roped to my torso by tight, freshly healing scars. The little tree smelled like fresh air, forest, and pine. Its heady scent was a long way from the disinfectant and rubbing alcohol that now dominated my world. Ironically the scent echoed the same smell as that last day in New Hampshire, the air full of cedar trees. In fact, this Christmas tree smelled just like that day of vacation, that day which ended in explosion, fire, and horror. (See Flashback Girl for more.)
My family was somewhere, somewhere in the unfamiliar apartment. I couldn’t hear them; I didn’t know where. However, I was used to being alone now. I had spent the last four months without them in the hospital. My dad showed up on weekends, gamely pushing me in my hospital go-cart around the corridors. If my mother came, I have no memory of her. (To be clear, I am told that she came, and I am sure that she did. But I have not a single memory of my mother beside me.)
My brother Marc came to visit at least once. Prior to the fire, I had followed him everywhere like a puppy in love. Whatever he wanted to play, I would play. Whatever he said was true, was true. I was like a tiny disciple. Little Marc, 9 years old, made the trip up to Boston to see me and our mother. I don’t remember him being there. I am told that when he came to see me, I turned my face away and would not speak to him. I would not speak to him, my brother, my everything, even once during his visit.
That may be when my father realized that I was not well.
I don’t know when my parents began the campaign to take me out of the hospital for that one Christmas night. My cousin tells me that my parents worked hard to get me out. The next night, I went right back to the sterile hospital ward for another month or so. But I had this one night out, one special Christmas eve with my very own Christmas tree, away from the white capped nurses, and the screaming burned children.
The owner of this apartment, Judy, was a friend of my cousin. I don’t remember a single thing about her, but I’m told she visited me regularly in the hospital. I know that she vacated her own apartment for the holiday, so that my family could stay there. I do not know for sure, but I am confident that it was her idea to put that tiny tree in my room. (My parents would never think of that). That tree came from Judy, whom I don’t even remember, who did all this so a little girl could have one peaceful Christmas morning.
Some people are so kind. Their hearts seem to burst with generosity, warming the very air around them. Some people’s smiles calm us. Some people center us just by entering the room. You know those people, right? How many of them are there? Where do they come from?
I once had a discussion with a minister friend of mine about whether God existed. I was not raised religiously; my parents were atheists. Unlike them, I have always been spiritually inclined (perhaps naively, perhaps wisely). So, I said to my minister friend, “I don’t believe in God per se. But I do believe that people can be very kind, and that people have mysteriously lifted me up, often at the exact time that I needed. So, I believe in the powerful force of human kindness.”
He replied (and I never forgot this), “How do you know that those people weren’t sent by God to help you?”
I don’t know.
This story, this Christmas morning in Boston, this is the first Christmas I can remember. That little tree is my very first Christmas memory. This bleak fact makes me weep. I wish my first Christmas memory were in my own home, surrounded by my family, cozy and warm, not alone, peering at a tree in a strange dark room.
But notice the other side of the story. Someone gave me her bed for the holiday. Someone set up a tiny, sweet-smelling tree, just for me. Someone vacated her apartment on a holiday and loaned it to my traumatized family.
Is that God? Are the extraordinary people, who do powerfully kind acts, sent by God? Perhaps I need to update my personal image of God. To me, God looks like the painting on the Sistine chapel, white bearded, white skinned, masculine. That image does not accommodate this energetic swirl of people, magically appearing when a suffering person needs help.
Nor does this narrative explain all the times when no one shows up at all.
Here is what I think now. There is magic. There are forces we don’t understand. There is grace. There are moments of abandonment and despair when nobody shows up. And there are moments of grace and light when someone does. That someone may not be who you expect. But a neighbor might leave flowers at your doorstep. A doctor turns out to be unexpectedly kind. A friend arrives to help mop your flooded basement. People pop up out of nowhere, ready to help. So maybe my minister friend was right.
So, I ask you, my reader friend, to notice the people who struggle around you. If you have the strength and the energy, show up. Make a phone call, pay a bill, or just listen. Witness someone’s pain with warmth and care. Help if you can.
Hallelujah for the angels.
Lise Deguire's multiple award-winning memoir, Flashback Girl: Lessons on Resilience from a Burn Survivor, is available for purchase on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Newtown Book Shop and The Commonplace Reader.