Monday night was Christmas Eve. I wanted to write that night, but I was overwhelmed, exhausted, and emotional. If I were F. Scott Fitzgerald, I probably would have had a bottle of gin and used my inner angst to compose a brilliant and yet widely under-appreciated (at least in its time) novel. Alas, F. Scott I am not. So instead, I helped unload the car, removing a plethora of freshly-unwrapped Christmas gifts, and finally collapsed around midnight. During the course of this week, though, I’ve not been able to shake the image I wanted to write about on Christmas Eve. After having taken most of the month of December off from writing this blog, I at last have something I want to write.
We spent Christmas Eve at my in-law’s home this year. For five months each year, they live in a loft in LoDo (lower downtown, for the uninitiated), a few blocks from everything amazing that Denver has to offer. Their place is the quintessential loft space, open, airy, filled with great light and exposed concrete. They have managed to make it feel cozy with warm wood furniture, textiles, and art. There’s nothing cold or industrial about their home. We love celebrating the holidays there, standing out on the deck with its 6th floor views and taking in the downtown atmosphere at Christmas. Monday night was especially festive because it was snowing. Denver has a white Christmas approximately 11% of the time (yes…I checked), so to be wrapped in the magic of a Christmas snow Monday night was fantastic. We had everything. A yummy dinner of Swiss raclette, the comfort of a loving family, good conversation and wine, every single gift any of us had asked for, and snow.
When we’d finished unwrapping and were preparing to make room in our cheese-filled bellies for dessert, Steve and I decided it might be a good idea to make a preemptive trip to our car with some of our newly acquired treasures. When the boys were young and the sheer number of toys they received seemed immeasurable, we would take several trips to load up our loot. Old habits die hard, I guess, because even as the boys’ gifts have dwindled in number while increasing in cost, we still feel the need to take down a load. That is what we were doing this snowy Christmas Eve when we were confronted with yet another reason for gratitude.
As Steve, Luke, and I walked out onto a snowy 15th Street, heavily laden with a giant duffel bag stuffed with clothes and several bags filled with large Lego sets, we noticed that between us and our car there was a homeless gentleman sitting on a bench. The snow was coming down hard now, and he was hunkered under a Colorado Rockies umbrella. Next to him on the bench in a clear plastic trash bag were his belongings, the sum total of his life’s possessions. I’m certain he wasn’t enjoying the Christmas snow the same way I was. My eyes welled up. I tried to keep it together. Steve and I exchanged a look. I could tell he felt the same way I did…heartbroken and somewhat guilty. We hastily loaded our things into the car and headed back into the dry building feeling unfairly fortunate.
On the way up in the elevator, I knew Steve and I were thinking the same thing. On the way out, in possession of our wallets, this time when we saw the man we would gift him the way we had been gifted. After all, we had everything already. We could certainly spare some of our Christmas cash for someone who not only had no one to celebrate with but who was spending his holiday in soaking clothes on a metal bench on a cold, wet night.
Twenty minutes later when we left the loft full of homemade apple crisp, we found he had moved on. He was no longer on the bench just ten feet from our car. We looked around for him, thinking we might have missed him by only a minute or two, but he was gone, hopefully to a dryer, more sheltered spot somewhere. The City of Denver, after all, has its “unauthorized camping” ban to enforce and there are no exceptions…even on Christmas, even if you’re not camping so much as living outside involuntarily.
I spent a lot of time this week thinking about that man under the Colorado Rockies umbrella. For the first couple days, I felt sad that he hadn’t been there when we emerged. I wondered if receiving a $100 bill on Christmas Eve would have felt like a small Christmas miracle to him. I was certain that it would have made me feel better to give it to him. Because he wasn’t there, though, I’ve come to consider that perhaps he gave me a gift with his disappearance — the opportunity to be uncomfortable with my status as a Have and not a Have Not. Seeing him on the bench downtown in the snow reminded me how arbitrarily, unreasonably lucky we are in this house. It gave Steve and I an excuse to talk with our kids about the homeless and about gratitude. As a result, I’ve been looking at things a bit differently after Christmas for the first time in years. Instead of noting what I didn’t receive, instead of thinking about what I can buy with my gift cards, I’ve been focused on how much more I have than what I need. That’s one hell of a gift.