Estimated reading time: 4 minutes
“Oh, how terrible!” she exclaims.
It’s a cold, holiday afternoon outside, and the church’s heater is struggling to keep up. Both of us are preparing the pastor’s PowerPoint slides in the choir loft, and I can’t find a balance with the temperature in the church. I take off my hoodie as the sweat runs down my forehead.
“Yea, both of my friends left me for dead,” I reply, punctuating how I was shipwrecked in this town. “Each of them callously threw me away in a single weekend.”
“So where are you staying now?”
“Well, I met someone at the restaurant who was looking for a roommate. It isn’t much, but I can afford it. At least it’s warm.”
“Amen to that,” she replies. “How did you find this church?”
“Well, the owner of the restaurant…”
“Jack,” she responds, her eyes lighting up.
“…yea, Jack; he mentioned he goes to this church. I was just hoping to…you know, make some friends and serve somewhere. I figure God has me here for a reason, even if it isn’t for the two people I came here for!” Suddenly shivering, I put my hoodie back on.
“It’s hard, though,” I continue. “Everybody I know is thousands of miles away. I don’t know a soul here. The holidays are kind of getting me down.”
“So you don’t have anywhere to go for Christmas?” she asks slowly.
I shake my head gloomily. “Dammit,” I mutter as I take my hoodie off again. I quickly apologize for my language. “Sorry; I can’t seem to get comfortable.”
“Where did you get the hoodie?” she asks. “I’m sure they don’t sell those in California!”
“Salvation Army,” I say, smiling weakly. “I’m glad they had some heavy winter clothes, but they didn’t have anything for a cold church.”
We finish the project over the next hour as the hoodie goes on and off a few more times. She stops me as I get up to leave.
“You know, me and my husband get together with our friends once a year at our house,” she says. “I know it’s not the same as being with family, but would you like to come?” I accept her invitation, grateful for a break from my loneliness.
The night of the party, I see that it’s a family get-together, not a group of friends. I’m the only person not related to everybody else.
“Hey, it’s okay,” she says after introductions are made and I begin to withdraw, feeling like the shy kid at camp. “I admit, I fibbed a bit: I knew you wouldn’t come if you knew it was family. But you aren’t the first non-family member to be invited to our yearly get-together.” She takes a hold of my hand, patting it gently in a grandmotherly sort of way as she leads me into the room. “It’ll be okay,” she says with a gentle smile. “I promise.”
The event holds true to her promise. Every family member treats me like a guest of honor. They share their stories and jokes in such a way that I am always included. The matriarch of the family takes me on a tour of her arts and crafts, regaling me with numerous tales regarding each piece. I share in every appetizer and dessert laid before us. They make sure I am included in every holiday game. And at dinner, I’m given the seat of honor.
For one, single evening, I have a family again. For one, single evening, I am home.
As the evening draws late, I am reminded of my own family and my emotions become too burdensome to bear. With heartfelt thanks to the entire family, I take my leave of the gala and make my way to the foyer. She calls my name, catching me before I head out into the night. In her hands is a wrapped box.
“Stop,” she says, cutting short my protests. “I just happened to see it yesterday and knew it was my job to get it for you, because you need it so much.”
I unwrap the box to reveal a long-sleeved shirt.
As I speechlessly pick up the shirt, I can feel the weight, a weight never found in similar apparel sold in the Sun Belt. With her encouragement, I put it on, feeling the high-thread count embracing my torso like a baby’s swaddling. I choke back my tears, unable to say a word for such a thoughtful gift.
“You’re welcome,” she says, kissing my cheek. “We’ll see you next Sunday. Merry Christmas.”
I walk out the door and go to my car. As I sit down, I contrast the last few months of cold cruelty with my feelings at this moment. “I am warm,” I say out loud, to nobody in particular. The tears begin to flood down my cheeks; it’s been a long time since I could say this. It takes me a few moments before I can see clearly enough to drive.
I never did see her again. I missed her the following Sunday, purely out of circumstance. I left a week later, scraping together some money while responding to a family emergency back in California. I don’t remember her name. Yet, to this day, whenever I am faced with the cold cruelty of an unfeeling world, I recall that precious gift.
Warmth. And it’s enough.