Tim Ryan listened to the wind howling through the empty city streets. Night was rapidly approaching, the night of December 24. In other years the day of the 24th itself and most especially the day to follow would have been joyful days for Tim Ryan. But not this year. No, most definitely anything but joyful. Upstairs in the back bedroom on the third floor of the house that he was just leaving, Maggie was dying.
“Only hours,” the young doctor had said. “Your wife has a very short time to live, Mr. Ryan.” He seemed to take a smug satisfaction in being able to so casually measure off the time of life remaining to another human being.
That had been this morning. The hours had dragged by slowly since then. The pale sunlight of December had brought little warmth to Timothy Edward Ryan, caught in the middle of his 67th year.
Long ago, and it seemed to be a part of that other world in which he and Maggie had been born, little Tim would have taken comfort from what the priests would have offered him. He had been faithful in his church, and when he married Maggie, the ceremony had been performed by Father Kelly. He hadn’t considered any other alternative.
Forty-eight years had gone by since that day. In those 48 years, Christmastime had been special to the Ryans. Their house had been filled with the laughter of six children and the children’s friends. Twenty years ago the first grandchild had seen Christmas at the Ryan’s.
Now December 24 or 25, and it didn’t really matter which, was about to become a day etched in pain and sorrow in the mind of Tim Ryan. There was a part of him up there, a part of him that was slowly, painfully slipping away. He wanted to cry, but no tears would come.
As he began to move away from the front steps, moving in some direction, any direction to be away from this place, he took a companion with him. The companion was Bitterness, and he had been with Tim for some time now.
Bitterness laughed at long-held beliefs. “See, Tim? It all must end this way. This is the end of the laughter. That was temporary; this is not.”
At 4:30 he pulled on his scarf and followed with his heavy parka. He told the nurse that he would be back, that he needed to get out and get some air. Really Tim wanted to go and embrace the cold and the coming darkness, for without Maggie, would there be anything left but cold and darkness in his life?
The sunlight had faded rapidly away and become the dark of night. Tim walked aimlessly through the streets of his adopted city, about to be alone for the first time. “I must make a plan,” he thought. “I must see to the future. There is hope—”
The word hope stuck in his throat. His companion, Bitterness, told him that to believe in hope at this point was a cruel joke on himself. Why, it was like believing that angels would come and lift their voices to the heavens! Both hope and angels were things of the past, Bitterness told him.
Bitterness became quiet as Tim turned his mind to thoughts of past years. When he was just a boy, he had left Ireland with his two older brothers and a younger sister to come to America. They landed in New York and then moved to Baltimore to join an uncle.
The streets of Baltimore hadn’t been paved with gold. They had had to work long hours in their uncle’s store. Slowly the hours began to pay off, and the sweat and toil became the mortgage price of prosperity. Ever so slowly, poverty released its strong icy fingers from around the immigrants.
When he was 17, Tim Ryan had let his brother Michael talk him into going to a parish dance. “Come along, Timmy. It’s time that you began to think about the ladies. And what better place to meet them than at the parish house?”
Tim went with Michael, shyly, unwillingly at first. He stood off on the sidelines, watching the others dance and hating them for their social graces and himself for his shyness. Then Maggie appeared and the climate changed.
She was short, no taller than his five foot three inches, with long black hair. She smiled often, and once, when he looked enough in her direction, she smiled at him. He could feel the color rising in his cheeks.
He summoned up the courage to go over and introduce himself. She asked him with that ever-present smile if he always blushed so brightly. “No,” he said, “it only happens when I talk with a beautiful young lady. And by the way, may I have the next dance?” She said yes.
Tim Ryan walked Maggie Rourke home that night after the dance. They saw each other often in the next year. Then, one night, on the anniversary of that dance in the parish house, he asked her another question. She answered yes to this one too, and they made arrangements with Father Kelly to perform the ceremony.
The old man that Tim Ryan had become shook himself to break the train of thought. He had walked so far as to arrive in the department store district. The big stores were closed now, their displays of Christmas merchandise garish in the neon sun.
“I will walk a little further,” Tim thought. “Just a few more minutes here in the cold and I will be ready to return and face what I know I cannot avoid.” He headed slowly up the hill into the wind, with its blasts tearing at his face and jacket.
“One more house, Brother Henderson?” That was Jan Andrews’s question.
Gregory Henderson looked at his group. He had come into the city with a dozen of the kids from his Sunday School class to visit some of the older members of the ward and sing Christmas carols. They had seen all of the families on their list with the exception of the Billings, and it was getting late and the kids were getting cold.
“Face it, Henderson,” he thought, “you’d like to go home too. You have a family to be with on Christmas Eve and a wife who would like some help in decorating the Christmas tree.” Another part of him spoke up quickly, though, and put things into perspective.
“Yes, we’re going to see the Billings. They live on Clayton Avenue. It shouldn’t take too long to get there. I think we’ll sing three songs, like we’ve been doing, and then head for home.”
As the kids piled into his car and Dave Maxfield’s van, he could see on their faces that one last visit would be about enough. He hoped that the project had touched some of them. They needed to start learning a little about service.
His car moved on through the dark Baltimore streets in silence. Inside were the most active kids in the ward, the doers and movers. Jan Andrews, Tony Morgan, Bob Smith, Carol Miller—his wife called them the angels. They had been the biggest helps to him so far.
After several minutes’ ride, Greg saw the turn-off for Clayton Avenue. He swung the big Dodge into the narrow street and continued down the two blocks to the Billings’ house. The young people piled out again, ready to conclude the project, thinking thoughts of home and the next morning.
Jan called the group together outside the house: “Let’s start off with ‘I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day,’ then go to ‘Joy to the World,’ and close with ‘Silent Night.’ The Billings are both pretty sick and haven’t been able to get out to church for a long time. They’ll appreciate this a lot.”
Tim Ryan turned the corner onto Clayton Avenue. He was only a few blocks from home, but he might as well have been a thousand miles away. His thoughts had led him downward into a valley of despair. His normal energetic step had become the shuffle of a man worn down by age.
Then he heard the voices. Like the clear, pure sound of a tinkling chandelier, the voices cut through the cold night air, reaching his ear with cheerfulness. They brought his mind back to what day would fall tomorrow.
Tim stopped to listen more closely, despite the still-insistent voice of Bitterness inside. He wanted to hear what they were singing and find out who they were. How could they be happy on a night like this when he was about to lose the most important thing in his life? Didn’t they have any feelings?
The words, carried to him on the back of the wind, began to enter his mind. Subtly at first, and then more quickly, a light that had been burning low within Tim Ryan began to flare up once again. The flame began to thaw the ice that had been forming inside and outside.
Once upon a time, when Michael had asked him what about Maggie had first attracted him, he had said that she had the laughter of an angel. Laughter fell clear and pure from her lips. Hearing her laugh made him feel that he had been able to set a foot into heaven.
Now, this group of young people, singing to an unseen audience in the house across the street, were touching him in that same way. They were like angels with their clear voices, simple and pure in the message which they presented.
“Oh, Lord,” he thought, “I cannot turn the tide of what must come. But I can learn to hear the bells again and look past tragedies. I must go home quickly, quickly.” Tim had intended to stay and talk with them when they finished. Instead, the urgency of the moment directed him homeward.
In the back of his mind, Greg Henderson wondered if the old man standing across the street was enjoying the singing. The thought faded just as rapidly as it had come, and Greg turned his mind back to the music.
It was late, almost midnight. Tim sat by the bed, holding Maggie’s hand. It was an act that he had performed often in 48 years. Tonight it took on special meaning.
“My dear, you would have loved it. They were like angels with their clear voices. I doubt that I have ever heard the songs of Christmas sung so beautifully or received such enjoyment out of the sacred music.”
She said nothing for a long time. Then she looked up at him with a smile, one like the smile that he had first seen so many years ago.
“Tim, you’re happier tonight than I’ve seen you at any time since I … since I’ve been ill. That makes me happy.”
Maggie lapsed into silence again.
The clock stretched forth both its hands to 12. Christmas would have already dawned over the desert where it had first been celebrated so many years ago.
“Yes, dear. What is it?”
“Tim, I think I’ll sleep now. I feel so in need of rest. Will you hold my hand while I sleep?” She closed her eyes. Some of the worry and pain that had written itself across her face in the last year began to fade.
The little man with the shock of wind-blown white hair looked down at his Maggie. Great soft tears, tears like the drops of a gentle spring rain awakening the earth, began to well up in his eyes. The tears were sweet, though. He had heard the angels sing, and he was beginning to understand.
Somewhere out in the suburbs, Greg Henderson rolled over in bed. He had just finished assembling the last toys, and he was tired and wanted to rest before the children would patter in asking mommy and daddy if they knew that it was Christmas Day.
Just before the last trace of consciousness fled, Greg thought about the old man who had listened to them sing on Clayton Avenue. Greg wondered if the man had liked the kids’ singing. Then sleep came and chased the thought from his mind.