Just Believe: A Christmas Story
©2008 Susan Noyes Anderson
All Rights Reserved
Kate wandered through her house aimlessly, as if she were looking for something but couldn’t quite remember what it was. Her family was out of town, and she was trying to get the house ready for their return. The Christmas boxes were still out, and most of the decorations were hung, placed or discarded, but the effect on her flagging spirits was not what she’d hoped. I’m about as festive as the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come at the graveyard, she thought wryly, cheered for a moment more by the fact that she’d attempted a small joke than by its actual humor. The brief uplift evaporated as she noted the irony in her choice of subject matter. Since the diagnosis, her efforts to be funny were not only flat but funereal. She tried to think positive thoughts, but she couldn’t hold on to them. Even her sense of self felt slippery. At times, her spirit seemed disembodied. Other times she was so aware of her body that every nerve ending appeared to be screaming for relief. Either way, it bothered her that she wasn’t “together” enough to meet her expectations of how someone facing chemotherapy should behave. The painful surgery was over now, and everything was in God’s hands.
So why can’t I just let go and trust Him? Kate wondered. She didn’t even feel the Christmas spirit, which was kind of like saying that Martha Stewart didn’t give a hoot about Thanksgiving. Kate had always been the queen of all things Christmas, and she liked it that way. Why was she allowing this eminently beatable threat to steal her joy?
What you need is a good talking-to, Kate scolded herself. Or maybe she just needed to forget about herself and go to work. The doctor had said self-care was important, but since finding out about the cancer, she’d been focusing on herself with an intensity that was exhausting. What she really needed was a respite. With a rush of gratitude for something purposeful to do, Katie anticipated for the umpteenth time the annual Christmas program at the Senior Center that night. It had never failed to fill her heart and soul with the spirit of the season, and that’s what she was yearning for, more than anything. Surely remembering the Savior would remind her that He could be trusted, no matter what the future held. Silently…and not for the first time…she prayed for that blessing.
The afternoon passed slowly, with Kate breaking out the Christmas tunes in a conscious effort to cultivate the hopeful mood she was missing. When Amy Grant didn’t do the trick, she turned to Bing Crosby, then finally settled for the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. But even that inspiration felt hollow. And Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer wasn’t exactly happening either, not on Kate’s radar screen, at least. Maybe wrapping a few Christmas presents would help…or making a batch of her crunchy English toffee for the neighbors.
A couple of hours later, Kate turned off the CD player with relief, cleared up the kitchen, and went to get dressed for the evening. I’ll wear the Santa Claus sweater, she decided out loud…the beaded one…with the “reindeer crossing” earrings. The kids always get a kick out of those, and so do the grandmas and grandpas they’re singing to. Besides, if I wear something fun, maybe I’ll actually have some. Fun, that is. Geez. Now I’m talking to myself.
With a final impulse to walk instead of drive, Kate opened the door and headed down her snow-dusted street. It was almost eerie. Not a thing looked different than it had any other year. The lights twinkled just as brightly; the Christmas trees still stood proudly in the windows, and the air was again fragrant with that unique combination of wood smoke and pine that always spelled Christmas. Lifting her chin and taking several deep breaths in succession, she waited for the desired effect. Moments later, her lips curved in a soft, grateful smile as the familiar smell, so welcome, carried a bit of Christmas magic to her troubled heart. How tranquil the evening is, she reflected, praying once again for the peace and acceptance she was seeking. What was that old saying? “God’s in His heaven. All’s right with the world.” Kate wanted to believe that. She needed to believe, and she needed to help her family believe. Somehow, she would find a way.
Arriving at her destination, Kate almost tripped over a little boy intent on going through and not around her as he chased a playmate across the icy ground. “Sorry Mrs. O!” he yelled as an afterthought. Again, Kate was encouraged by a slight but perceptible lift in her spirits. This feisty friend of her own boy’s never failed to amuse and annoy her, usually in equal parts. Tonight he had managed to break through the shell of her worry, and she thanked him silently.
Entering the building, Kate was immediately greeted by several of her elderly friends. How kind and thoughtful they had been since her diagnosis. Almost every one of them had reached out to her in one way or another. One special lady even made her a service coupon book, full of such treasures as hugs and listening ears and shoulders to cry on. Of course, Kate didn’t plan to impose on any of them. The poor dears had enough of their own problems to worry about, but she did appreciate the thought, all the same.
As the prelude music began playing, the audience tittered with excitement. Kate, on the other hand, felt uncharacteristically anxious and hovered at the back of the room. “Hey, Katie!” called one of the other volunteers. A quick glance revealed several of her friends gesturing to a seat they had obviously saved for her. Wanting to avoid their well-meaning questions and sympathy, she smiled brightly and pointed to the camera she’d almost forgotten to bring. Taking a few pictures would give her a little distance. And if she decided to leave, she wouldn’t be stumbling over knees and purses on her way out.
It had always been a no-frills event, but the All-District Elementary Children’s Choir performance was a mainstay of Kate’s Christmas season. The songs of children always touched her heart, and these hand-picked voices were nothing short of angelic. A sudden thrill of unexpected anticipation made Katie realize how much she’d been counting on this concert to help her find Christmas again. Somehow, her spirit believed the sweet and simple joy of the children would have power to restore her own. Their youthful voices would put Christmas back in its place for Kate, and she would put Christmas back in place for her family. She wasn’t the only one frightened by cancer. Not by a long shot.
The program began, appropriately, with Angels We Have Heard on High. Kate felt like she was listening to angels as the chorus rose and fell and rose again in heavenly praises of the Savior. Her heart was singing with them, in all their unencumbered innocence, and hope seemed to rise up with the music and hover just beyond her grasp.
Kate’s face was still glowing as the children moved on to the first verse of Silent Night, her favorite carol. Beautiful memories filled her mind as a kaleidoscope of images raced through her head: Herself, as a child, hanging bits of tinsel on the tree one strand at a time because that’s how Mother liked it. Being seated in the car next to a brand new baby brother and gazing with wonder at the shining lights of the city, reflected in his dark eyes. Her own children, their eager faces glowing with delight on Christmas morning. Two small, chubby hands clutching a misshapen gift, thrusting it at her with a hopeful smile. Her not-so-mechanical husband, brow wrinkled with concentration as he labored to assemble a bicycle that just had to be under the tree in the morning. Sweet memories of mother, father, brother, husband, children…all of the people she loved most…people who needed her…who didn’t want her to leave. Kate stifled an involuntary sob and thudded back to reality. She didn’t want to leave them, either. She didn’t want to sleep, in heavenly peace or otherwise. She didn’t want to sleep at all. She wanted to live and breathe and be there for the people who loved her. She wanted to keep raising her children until they were old and settled and didn’t need her any more…at least, not so desperately.
Suddenly it was all more than she could bear. The emotion she’d been holding in for weeks was about to explode, and she didn’t want an audience. Desperately struggling to control her feelings, she rose silently and exited the auditorium through the first door she could open. It was the library, a room she often visited and a favorite gathering place for her seniors. Closing the door gently behind her, she scanned the darkened room quickly. To her surprise, an elderly woman was seated in a wheelchair in the far corner.
“What are you doing in here, all by your lonesome?” Kate asked gently, willing herself to stay strong a little longer.
“Well, my dear, I’m hiding,” was the gentle but firm answer. “You see, I’ve been very ill, and I’m not supposed to be here…but I thought it wouldn’t hurt to come down for just a minute and listen to the children.”
She must be the new patient from Holy Cross, Kate mused. What did they say she was recovering from? Some kind of heart surgery, wasn’t it? Oh, dear. Should she tell one of the sisters? Looking the old lady over carefully, she noted that her color was good and that she seemed alert and comfortable. Newly respectful of being a patient, Kate was reluctant to interfere with the woman’s wishes. Maybe the poor dear really did need to hear the children; Kate could certainly understand that, though it hadn’t worked for her. Not this time, anyway.
No. She would not tell; instead she’d sit with the lovely, white-haired woman until the music ended. Then she would walk her quickly back to her room. It wouldn’t hurt anything, and no one would be the wiser.
With the decision made, she sat down in front of the old lady, who was watching her carefully. Looking at Kate somewhat shyly, she queried, “May I ask your name, dear?”
“Of course. I should have told you sooner. It’s Kate.”
“Oh, that’s a lovely name,” said her new friend. “Are you ever called Catherine?”
“I sure am,” was Kate’s answer. “By my mother. And what shall I call you?”
“Lucy,” she said with a smile. “There. Now we’re acquainted.”
For a while they were silent, listening to the muted sound of the choir. Kate was having a hard time keeping her composure, though she tried to hide it. Against all expectations, the only thing the beautiful songs brought to her mind was loss…lost time, lost opportunities, lost loved ones…
“Isn’t it sweet to hear the children singing?” Lucy murmured. “Puts me in mind of the angels singing on that very first Christmas. Glory to God in the highest, and on earth, peace, good will toward men.”
The last of Kate’s resolve crumbled as she realized that she wasn’t going to find Christmas this year, not even in the happy voices of children. She had thought she would surely find it there, where it had always been, but she was wrong. There was no peace on earth for her, not much good will toward men either. Just fear and running away from it.
Completely defenseless, she burst into tears. Lucy reached over and patted her shoulder kindly. “What is it, dear? I could tell you were troubled. Can I help?”
“Oh, Lucy. No one can help me. I’ve got cancer…breast cancer…and it’s the aggressive kind. I wanted to have a wonderful Christmas with my family before I start the chemo, but it’s all wrong this year. I can’t feel it…not the tree or the lights or the baking or even the children’s choir, singing like angels. I don’t want to shop for gifts or light candles or drink eggnog or even mull cider. I haven’t made one batch of gingerbread, not one. Every time I start to feel the Christmas spirit, all I can think of is that this might be one of my last. I think of all the things I might be losing before I’m ready to let go…my husband…my children…my life. I think of dying. And I just feel empty and afraid and hopeless, so hopeless. Kate paused for a ragged breath, and a new gush of tears flooded her eyes.
“I can’t find my hope, Lucy. And I can’t find Christmas, either. I just can’t find it.”
“Catherine, child…Christmas and hope are one and the same. You just have to know where to look for them.”
“But where,” Kate whispered. “Where do I look?”
“Up, my dear. You look up. And then you look inside, and believe. Believe what you already know, and if that’s too hard right now, then just try to believe. Remember the man who wanted his son healed but doubted his faith? ‘Lord, I believe,’ he said, ‘help thou my unbelief.’ And what happened? The child was healed. His father believed with everything he had, and the Savior did the rest.”
“I’ve tried, Lucy. I’ve tried so hard. But I just can’t feel it. How can I believe when I can’t even feel?”
“I’m an old lady, Catherine. I’ve lived a long time, and I’ve learned one thing. Faith is a choice, not a feeling. The feeling comes later. It does."
“I want to believe,” Kate whispered. “I want to believe more than anything in the world that things are going to be okay. I need to know that, no matter what happens to me, the people I love will be all right.”
“Oh, my dear, you already do know. I can see that, right now, in your eyes. You just need to be still and let yourself remember. Christ wasn’t born only to lift us up when we die (although that is a beautiful thing); He was born to lift us up while we live. And He gave us the perfect example by lifting those around him every day that He lived––by healing them, feeding them, loving and comforting them, giving them rest. And sometimes, Catherine, in His humility, He even let the people He helped return the favor.”
Lucy looked deeply into the younger woman’s eyes before continuing: “Christ was born into this world to do all of these things, and then to seal his service by giving His very life to save the ones He loved…you, me, and all of God’s children…from sin. His life was lost in the service of others, but He found the greatest joy imaginable, resurrection for all and eternal life for each and every one who would believe…and follow. Because of Him, miracles happen. Miracles, Catherine. I’ve seen them. Even His birth was a miracle. And that’s where the Hope is––in remembering Him, in believing, in ministering to others––just like you’re doing here at St. Andrews, just like you do at home with your family. And sometimes, in being humble enough to let others serve you, because that brings Hope, too. Trust me, child. Where Hope is, Christmas can never be far behind.”
Impulsively, Kate reached out to hug the elderly patient who had suddenly become her mentor. It wasn’t new information, but her heart must have heard it in a new way because something resonated. Somehow, Lucy’s spirit touched her, or maybe she was just ready to listen. Whatever it was, she offered a quick prayer of thanks and, realizing the concert had ended during their conversation, wheeled Lucy back to her room. A fond farewell was said, and Kate resolved to visit her new friend regularly.
The walk home was a peaceful one, but Lucy’s words kept playing in Kate’s head. She looked around her with new eyes, still searching for the miracle that was Christmas. Arriving at her doorstep, she smiled at the sign she had hung there every December for years. “This house believes.” Strange how old words could suddenly take on new meaning.
Impulsively, she hurried to her scriptures and opened them wide. One phrase almost leaped out at her: “He who findeth his life shall lose it; and he who loseth his life for my sake shall find it.” Reflecting for several moments, Kate squared her shoulders. Maybe she would lose her physical life to cancer. She couldn’t control that. She could, however, make sure that her spiritual life was lost––and found again––in serving others as Christ did. As she lifted their spirits, her own spirit would be lifted too. And one day, because He was willing to lose His life for ours, every spirit ever born into this earth would be lifted forever. “Oh grave, where is thy victory?” she thought. “Oh death, where is thy sting?”
Suddenly Kate’s mind and heart opened wide as Hope rushed in, accompanied by generous amounts of comfort, joy, and good tidings. In other words, Lucy was right. Christmas wasn’t far behind. “For unto you is born this day, in the City of David, a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.” A birth……A Savior. Christmas. And the gifts it brought need never be lost. Life was hers for the keeping, eternal life, and Kate would lay bare her very soul to receive it. With trembling hands, she turned to Luke and began to read:
And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that all the world should be taxed. And all went to be taxed, every one into his own city. And Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judea, unto the city of David, which is called Bethlehem (because he was of the house and lineage of David:) To be taxed with Mary his espoused wife, being great with child. And so it was, that, while they were there, the days were accomplished that she should be delivered. And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn. And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid. And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger. And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.
Thank you, Lucy, she breathed. Thank you for helping me find Christmas.
The next day dawned crisp and cool. Kate couldn’t wait to get back to the Center and tell Lucy what she had learned. Her heart was filled with gratitude to a friend who had understood and calmed her fears, despite having serious health problems of her own. Kate couldn’t wait to find out what she could do to help Lucy…and to invite her home for Christmas Eve dinner. Maybe they would even take her with them to the Christmas program at Church, if she felt up to it.
When she arrived at the Center, Kate walked right up and asked Brenda at the front desk to call Lucy and tell her she had a visitor.
“Lucy?” Brenda asked.
“Yes,” explained Kate, “the new one…with the heart problem.”
“But…that’s not Lucy, Kate. That’s Amanda. We don’t have a Lucy.”
“Sure you do,” said Kate. “I just met her last night…at the Christmas program…I even took her up to the third floor. Here. Let me see that list.” Looking first through the A’s, then the B’s and C’s and all the way down to Z, Kate carefully checked the list for her friend. But no Lucy.
Sensing her friend’s consternation, Brenda smiled reassuringly. “Don’t fret, Katie. I’ll sort this out and get back to you.”
Inexpressibly saddened, Kate wandered over to the auditorium, reliving her feelings from the night before and wishing she could tell Lucy her good news. She had barely met her, but the sense of loss was palpable as she realized she didn’t have a clue where to find her. The whole thing was puzzling. Had the records been mismanaged? Who would have brought her to the event, and why had she been left in the library, all alone? Preoccupied, wanting an answer, Kate walked to the back of the auditorium and entered the room in question. She almost felt that if she could just go back to the place they had met, she would be able to find her again, but no such luck. The library was empty, and a cloud was cast over the whole day as she realized she might not get a chance to talk to Lucy again. She hoped something hadn’t happened to her…another heart attack, or worse. Kate glanced at the wheel chair, still in the corner where she’d returned it last night after dropping off its precious cargo. She went over and sat down opposite it, trying to recapture the moments with Lucy. What was it her new friend had said? “Lord I believe. Help thou my unbelief.”
Just then, Kate’s eye was caught by a flash of light reflecting off the seat of the wheel chair. Shielding her eyes against the glare of the morning sun, she reached down and picked up what appeared to be a small coin. “Odd,” she noted, but then her breath caught as she took a closer look at what was apparently a silver or pewter token. The center was cut out, in the shape of an angel, and underneath that angel was one word, carefully etched. “Believe.”
A heightened awareness stirred Kate’s thoughts. Lucy was nowhere to be found. Not one soul besides Kate even seemed to know about her. Could it be?
Clasping her trembling hands to her chest, Kate remembered a scripture that had comforted her that morning: “For I will go before your face. I will be on your right hand and on your left, and my Spirit shall be in your hearts, and mine angels round about you, to bear you up.”
An angel? Lucy?? Suddenly, Kate had her answer, an answer she could feel in every fiber of her being. Christmas miracles did happen…and not just at Christmas.
Dazed, Kate walked out into the auditorium, where all of the seniors were gathered for breakfast. She looked around at the dear old faces, really looked at them, for the first time in weeks––those who were praying for her and those who had offered to care for her in so many different ways. It was then that Kate realized they were all angels, the human variety, every single one of them. Lucy had moved on, but there would always be others to bear her up, as long as she didn’t clip their wings.
In the next two weeks, Kate performed a few miracles of her own, transmitting her newfound hope to the rest of her family. Christmas Eve found a brand new stocking hanging in a place of honor from the fireplace mantle. The stocking was made of red velvet and had a beautiful picture on it––an angel––embroidered by Kate with great love and a sense of peace she hadn’t expected to feel again until the chemotherapy was over. The name on the stocking was “Lucy,” and it was filled to the brim…not with apples, oranges, candy canes, and toiletries…but with acts of service both great and small, given and received by Kate and her family members. According to Kate’s instructions, each kind act and deed, whether offered or received, had been painstakingly recorded on a piece of paper and placed in the stocking when no one was looking, as a gift to the Savior. What better way to honor Lucy…and the One who had sent her?
Following a beautiful Christmas Eve dinner, the time for their family program was at hand. After singing The First Noel––sounding very much like angels, of course––they bowed their heads in a prayer of love and thanksgiving. The entire family was going through the hardest of hard times, but they knew they were being watched over. They also knew Who was doing the watching, and they were doing everything possible to return the favor. As Kate took down the beautiful velvet stocking and read each gift of service aloud, her family members were, in effect, wishing the Savior a happy birthday. In the hearts of every child and both parents, this favorite of all holidays had taken on deeper levels of meaning. Losing themselves in service, they had found Him. Finding Him, they had found Christmas…and Hope…and the will to Believe miracles did and do happen. Would happen.
Later, as Kate turned out the lamp and climbed into bed, a glint of moonlight caught her eye, drawing her attention to the small silver token that sat on her nightstand. For the briefest of moments, it glowed brightly. “Merry Christmas, Lucy,” Kate whispered. “Hope you liked your stocking.”
“And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people” (Luke 2:10).
Many thanks to you, readers and friends, for taking the time to enrich my life by being an irreplaceable part of whatever magic it is that continues to make this little blog feel like home to me. I want you to know that I strongly believe the principles of this story to be true, a belief that has brought comfort to me all the days of my life. My wish is for each one of you to be blessed with peace, joy, and hope in the coming year.
PS. If you haven't already done so, I hope you will take a moment to read
my poem dedicated to the children of Newtown, CT and their families.
PS. If you haven't already done so, I hope you will take a moment to read
my poem dedicated to the children of Newtown, CT and their families.