Time for Hope
Hanging on the wall of my living room is a wooden clock. It is not an elaborate timepiece but a rather simple one, fashioned from an odd-shaped piece of wood. It has Roman numerals and delicate gold hands, and it is without a crystal or covering. This clock has dutifully tried to keep our family on schedule for the last dozen years. At Christmastime, however, the clock serves as more than a timepiece. Its perpetual, steady ticking summons to mind recollections of important lessons learned at Christmas thirteen years ago.
It was December 1978. My husband and I had just moved into a new home with our infant daughter. As the holidays approached, I was eagerly anticipating the Christmas celebrations, and I busied myself with the usual preparations.
The gaiety of the holiday season was marred, however, by my brother’s failing health. Alan was four and a half years older than I and had never been blessed with good health. Because of his lifelong health problems, he’d never married and was living with Mom and Dad. During that autumn, his condition had deteriorated, and Alan had spent a couple of months in and out of the hospital. We were encouraged by a spurt of energy he enjoyed early in December. He felt well enough to shop for gifts, attend his Sunday meetings, and go to a ward Christmas party. He had enough energy to visit the barber and have his shaggy hair trimmed, much to the delight of my mother.
Then, the week before Christmas, Alan had to be rehospitalized. The doctors summoned us to his bedside on December 20 and warned of his imminent death. I arrived at the hospital ahead of the other family members and entered his room alone. A small stream of sunlight shone between the curtains and danced across the darkened room. I straightened his bed covers and pulled a chair next to the bed.
Taking his fragile hand in mine, I held it close. The atmosphere was solemn, and even the skipping sunbeams could not chase away death’s shadow. I spoke to him. I wasn’t sure if Alan could hear or understand, but I was determined to speak to him anyway. As I whispered of my love, I prayed in my heart that somehow our spirits would be able to communicate. When a faint smile drew across his lips and he gently squeezed my hand, I thanked God for an answer to my prayer. I stroked his blond hair and softly kissed his forehead, savoring the moment, somehow knowing that it was our last.
Alan died in the early morning hours of December 21. The next day was filled with funeral and burial plans. We scheduled his funeral for December 23. As other families gathered for their holiday parties, our family gathered to bury my brother.
At the funeral, our family greeted friends and relatives, seeking solace in one another’s presence. I was standing next to my younger sister when someone commented that it was such a tragic time of year for a death. I took great comfort in my sister’s reply: “No, this is a beautiful time of year, reminding us that without our Savior’s birth, we would have no hope of ever seeing or being with Alan again.”
Christmas morning was bittersweet as our family gathered at my parents’ home. We nestled about the Christmas tree and exchanged gifts. We cried and laughed as we unwrapped our presents. Soon there were only a few gifts under the tree. My sister crawled beneath the tree boughs to read the tags. She whispered, “They’re from Alan.”
Weeks earlier, Alan must have selected and wrapped our gifts, placing them beneath the tree to wait for Christmas morning. The room was hushed, and I glanced around through tear-filled eyes. My sister placed a large, oddly shaped present in my lap. Tears splashed on the brightly colored wrapping paper as I slowly opened the gift. My heart was overflowing as I gazed down at the beautiful wooden clock. It seemed to be Alan’s way of reminding me that although his stay on earth was over, I still had time—time to love, time to serve, and time to learn. Yet the clock was also a beautiful reminder that our existence isn’t just for time, it is for eternity. The clock reminds me that I can be with Alan again someday.
The Angel on the Ammo Can
Each year I feel the Christmas spirit in our home as we get out the decorations. The nativity scene is put in its usual place, and the stockings are hung above the fireplace. The reindeer and elves are put on the stair rail. And always, when we place the Christmas angel in her traditional spot, my mind wanders to a place halfway around the world.
It’s 22 December 1970. I am in the jungle near the village of Song Be, South Vietnam. We can hear the resupply choppers coming. We prepare the landing zone and wait to receive supplies: food, water, ammunition, and, most important, letters and packages from home.
I make sure the men under my command have received their rations and have all their mail and packages. Then I take some time to read my own letters. My mind wanders, and many things trouble me as I read the letters—some of them mailed over four weeks ago. I’ve been in Vietnam for 335 days, most of them spent in the field. I feel hardened and frustrated with life. Here it is—three days before Christmas—and the one thing I’m thinking of is that I have only twenty-nine days left until I’m on my way home. I hope my last missions will go well, that I’ll be able to leave my responsibilities and my men well, and that my replacement will be the best one they could receive.
There are no thoughts of Christmas or of my Savior’s birth until I open the package with the beautiful white angel inside. She’s about twelve inches tall, dressed in white clothes, with golden hair. I put her on top of an overturned ammunition can and begin to read the letter from my dear mother.
In her own words she tells me the story of the birth of our Savior and bears a quiet, sweet testimony. I feel myself being lifted spiritually. My mother told me this story over and over when I was a child, but never did I feel the Spirit of Christ so close before.
I glance up from the letter and notice some of my men looking at the white angel. I wind her up and no one says a word as “Silent Night” fills the air and the Christmas angel brings special emotions out in each one of us. Some tears are shed and feelings exchanged as the Spirit of Christ touches each one of us.
Later, as I pack and prepare to move out, I wrap the angel carefully and place her in my rucksack. I think of home, family, and loved ones, but most of all I think of Jesus and all that he has done for me.
Our Home Evening Manger
One particular Christmas stands out clearer in my mind than any other. We didn’t have much money that year, and Mom and Dad were having one of their “meetings.” When they needed to discuss something important, they always went into their bedroom and locked the door. My seven brothers and sisters and I waited outside the door. We thought the meeting would never end. Finally the door opened.
“We have a surprise this year instead of a Christmas tree,” Mom began.
What, no Christmas tree? I thought. What would my friends think? Mom was speaking again.
“We’ll put it together for family home evening,” she concluded.
What could it be? The next few days were filled with anticipation and suspense. But finally, the time set aside for home evening arrived.
Dad came home from work with straw in the back of the car. We sang and prayed, and then it began. Dad got some wood from the backyard and brought it to the front porch. What is he doing with those old, well-seasoned boards? I wondered. Dad started pounding in the nails and asking for this or that. One of us would scurry off and bring it to him. Magic filled the air, and we all felt the spirit of Christmas as we worked together.
Then it was finished. It looked like—a manger.
“Get the straw,” Dad directed. A coarse blanket of straw was strewn over the manger, and then Mom told my younger sister to run and get her favorite doll. It was not long before a scraggly, often-hugged doll with bald patches appeared. Dad put the manger in the corner where the tree usually stood while Mom helped us dress the doll in swaddling clothes. The star was hung above the wooden structure, and a gold garland was carefully arranged around the edges. My little sister added the final touch when, holding her doll as if it truly were the Christ child, she laid it reverently in the manger.
We must have sung some songs after that. I don’t remember. But I do remember the love, the pure love of Christ, that entered our home that night and stayed throughout the time the manger stood. Christmas was sparse that year, but it didn’t seem to matter much, because our hearts were full.
Carols of Caring
It was Christmas Eve, and my father insisted that we all go Christmas caroling. Singing wasn’t the problem. Singing had always been one of our family’s favorite pastimes. The problem was that it was Christmas Eve—a time to be with family and friends. Who would really want to listen to our family of carolers on such an important night?
First, we headed to the home of a girlhood chum of my mother’s. She was a sister who had never married. She greeted us warmly and invited us inside her home. We visited briefly and sang a few carols; then we were on our way.
Well, I thought, she is such a happy, bubbly person that she probably doesn’t even mind being alone.
Next we went to the home of a neighbor who is not a member of the Church. We were again greeted with open arms. She ushered us into her small living room, where she had been spending the evening alone.
The next stop was at the home of some distant relatives of ours. I thought, They won’t be alone. This is really going to be embarrassing.
Again, we were greeted and invited into the home. The wife was working, and the husband, who suffered from ill health, was home alone.
By this time I was feeling humble. Those few stops had opened my eyes. I had never been alone on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day.
We went to five different homes that night. At each home it was the same—a person all alone. And it did seem that as we left each home, the occupant’s eyes shone a little brighter and his or her heart seemed lighter. Maybe it was my eyes and my heart that had been lightened.
From that time on, Christmas caroling has been a significant Christmas tradition. We’ve gone many times throughout the years. Last Christmas was one of those times when I was on the receiving end. A group of neighborhood carolers came to our home. They must really care about us, I thought as they left. Once again, my heart had been lightened and my eyes brightened by a brief Christmas caroling call.