Before posting this third and final installment of the Christmas story, it occurred to me that it might seem a little dark and jaded to you. It was written some years back and, at the time, reflected the glass through which I viewed the holiday. As a child, it was all fairly simple - a deep study of the Sears or Montgomery Ward catalog, pointing to the TV commercials and hoping for as many packages as possible.
Time and experience make the holiday for most more of a giving than taking experience, I suppose, and it's certainly more fun for me to give than get. In fairness, I should point out that I follow the 'one for you, two for me' maxim, so I still get plenty, and I have had complaints that I'm tough to shop for (lame), which actually means the shopper isn't particularly creative. It really is the thought that counts ...
Now, what many of us wish for is not so much a thing as it is an idea, perhaps a goal, maybe even someone. Of course, those things can't be bought, only acquired through a currency more valuable than money and, in the end, that's what the whole damn thing is really about, yes?
I hope you all have a happy, warm and loving Christmas.
“So, this is the last stop, pal. You having fun yet?” Santa purred as we were once again airborne. “Thanks, Santee, for bringing me back to that time with my father and brother,” I said. “You’re welcome,” Santa said. “It’s important to recall more good things than bad, don’t you think?” “I guess so,” I responded. “My father was the glue that held everybody together. When he went, a fair amount of me went with him.” We were quiet for a time and I found myself growing angry until I finally burst out, “Why the hell are you doing this Dickens thing anyway?! I keep Christmas in my heart and all that. Whaddy’a gonna’ do now? Point a bony finger at my tombstone? Well, I’ll save you the trouble, I’m being cremated!” Santa laughed long and hard. “Now THAT’s what I like about you! You find a joke in everything.” I smiled inwardly, then brightly. “Keep fighting, right?” Santa said. We both laughed.
When we settled to the ground I saw we were next to an excavation pit, surrounded by scaffold and fencing. It looked familiar and as I slowly tuned my body around, a most familiar site stood out. Before I could speak, Santa read my mind. “Just look about twenty yards to your left.” “For what?” I said. “Just watch. Patience really never has been your strong suit, has it?” “For some things, Santee. For some things,” I mumbled.
I saw a group of uniformed men climbing from the pit, carrying what looked like a long sack of potatoes. My eyes were able to make out a few of the men, faces drawn and tearful. As my eyes looked downward, a few fire helmets made themselves obvious, red and yellow with familiar gold numbers embossed on the front. “Do you know what this is?” Santa said. “I think I do,” I answered. Silently, I watched the procession from the depths. “Who are these men?” I asked, knowing full well what they were, just not who. “The fellow in the front holding the tip of the bag is Battalion Chief Joe Pfeifer, of Engine Company 33 in Manhattan,” Santa said. At that moment, Santa’s face morphed into that of Joe Pfeifer. I gaped as he continued. “We carried him through a field of twisted steel and metal and then up that dirt hill. When we found him, it was over five months after the attack.” “Found who?” I asked. Pfeifer was silent for a moment, and then looked at me straight into the eyes, a wry smile on his face. “My little brother, Kevin.” “I’m sorry,” I stammered. “Kevin was one of the first firefighters at the World Trade Center after that jet hit the north tower,” Joe said. “I was setting up an operations base in the area when I met up with Kevin. He shouted over the racket, Jesus, it was loud, that he was going inside to lead our guys out the only open passage. He got most of them, too.” After what seemed an eternity I grabbed Joe by both shoulders. “Thank you,” I said. “Thank all of you.” What was Joe Pfeifer’s face slowly transformed itself back into that of Santa. The warmest smile I have ever seen spread across his face as he said to me, simply, calmly, “You’re welcome. After all, it’s Christmas.”
We found ourselves at the funeral, in St. Margaret Roman Catholic Church. I heard Joe say in his eulogy that as he rode the ambulance with his brother's body, "I remembered all the good times we had together. And that feeling of horror passed to a feeling of peace." When mayor Bloomberg stood to speak, he mentioned the paper snowflakes and snowmen taped to the windows above the church by students at St. Margaret School. "The children are why Kevin was here. We all live because Kevin and the 11,000 people that he worked with go into danger to protect the rest of us." Turning to Kevin's parents, Helen and Bill, the mayor said, "Thank you for giving us Kevin. We exist because of him."
“The NYFD lost 343 men that day, son,” Santa intoned. “Ten from company 33. Another of those fellows, John Tierney, had his send off yesterday in Staten Island.” A long pause as I drew my sleeve across my eyes and shivered in what was now a very cold air. “Let’s go, pally,” Santa said. “I think you’re getting the idea.”
The next thing I knew we were by a campfire in a place I knew well. Indian Lake in the Adirondacks. “Coffee?” Santa said. “Why are we here?” I asked. “It’s morning. Actually about 10 a.m. if you must know. You want it black this time?” “Uh-huh,” I said. The old man poured the coffee, handed me my cup and sat beside me. Putting his hand gently on my knee he said, “I brought you here because you love this place. Because in this quiet, with this blanket of snow and faint sounds of deer and perhaps a bear or two, you’ll understand and internalize what I’m about to tell you.” “OK,” I replied.
“You’ve been told all your life that Christmas is about giving and I’ve told you the last few hours that it’s really about giving up. Sometimes it’s about giving up money, or possessions, or once in a while your life like Kevin Pfeifer did that day in 2001 and Somebody else did a couple of thousand years ago.” Santa stared at me intently. “You came to me last night to tell me that you believe in me and what I stand for. I’m telling you now that what will keep the spirit of Christmas alive in you and others is that you believe it’s worth it to give up some and sometimes all of yourself for somebody else.” As I looked off into the nest of pines and, as the good nuns used to tell us, examined my own mind, Santa continued. “This story that you’re writing about this experience"- I interrupted him. “I’m not writing any story!” I said. “You will,” he replied. “You can’t help yourself.” “If you say so," I said. “I do say so," he retorted. “And I’ll tell you something else. One more thing that will make it all worthwhile for you and others. Your reward for what you do will be paltry. You’ll be thought a romantic. A fool who lets his emotions rule his life. People you care for deeply will take you for granted and use you as they see fit.You will give in huge disproportion to what you receive and you will have to regularly fight the urge to be bitter. Don’t do it, don’t give in to it. What I mean to say is that there is a payoff for the single minded romantic notion that the good guys win. Like your father used to tell you, nice guys don’t finish first, but they don’t finish last either. You’re doing fine.” “Thanks, Santee,” I said. “Do we have time to maybe jump to another favorite place, like St. Croix?” “Nope,” he answered. “Time to go.”
Just like that, I was back in Macy’s, next to the toaster ovens. As I started out onto 34th a swizzle stick fell from my pocket. I bent to pick it up and as I raised my head I saw Santa, or a fellow who looked remarkably like him, standing before me, smiling benevolently. He bent down and cocked his head to my ear. “By the way," he whispered to me, “I haven’t forgotten what’s been on your Christmas list for years.” I smiled. “Don’t despair, it is always possible.”