by Baloney Bill
The story of an unexpected visit on Christmas morning that changed a doctor's life forever
The Gift Bearer, A Christmas Story
Dr. Stevens’ Introduction
It occurs to me this Christmas season, not in a morbid way, but only matter-of-factly, that I will not be around forever, and there are important things I have learned and stories I have heard or experienced which I would like to leave behind as my dime store legacy. Although you, my friends, are too polite to say this directly, reality is not so restrained; I am getting on in years. And one of the greatest treasures I might leave behind is a story so many of you have asked me to retell over the past many years. So that is my intention here, to put down for posterity my recollections of the good doctor.
How difficult to believe he has been gone now nearly 50 years. His memory lives so vividly within me. I was, as you know, his apprentice, partner, and finally, successor. My goal in life was to model myself after him, and after his death I did my best to carry on his work in a way which would honor him. And now I have passed the practice on to another physician for I, too, have become an old man. And so as you have suggested, it's good that some memories of my mentor and friend be put down here.
He was, first and foremost, a deeply religious and philosophical man, and I believe his faith and philosophy engendered all of his other fine qualities. So it is with a great deal of irony, I think, that the first story which comes to mind shows him in a time when he acted with impudence and a glaring lack of hospitality and kindness. The story reveals him in a time of doubt and confusion, his time of questioning and abandoning his faith, and his time of giving up on himself and on the human race. Fortunately, the tale has a happy ending when describing the manner in which he was called back to us all.
He told the story often, every Christmas at least, to the point where for many of us, the warm recollection of his past had become part of our pleasant holiday rituals. I will tell the story as best I can as he told it to me and to some of you. Perhaps as you read this, you will see him as I remember him with his bright eyes under his bushy eyebrows, those eyes always intently focused on his listeners. Try as you read this not only to hear the story but also to remember the man who was so dear to us. For what follows are his words, humbly paraphrased by his close disciple.
“Sit down, Billy,” he said the first holiday season we knew each other, “and I will tell you a different sort of Christmas story.” His eyes took on that dreamy, faraway look, and he began something like this:
The Good Doctor, Bernard Thurman,
Tells His Life-Changing Story
There are breaths of time, incredibly brief moments when compared to one’s whole life; interludes which come from nowhere and which lead inextricably to joy or misery; pop quizzes in which it seems you have but one brief chance to answer one of life's most critical questions.
They come rarely, these sudden, momentary, yet critical tribunals in our lives, and a guilty verdict against us can bring interminable sorrow. Those of us who have made the wrong choices, as we reflect on our lives in our golden years, realize if we had made the more compassionate choice, we would have moved in a much different, more meaningful direction. If only we had acted less self-indulgently and with more concern for our fellow man! Joy unexpectedly knocking at our doors may be either a blessing or a curse depending upon whether we let that joy into our lives. The important decision we need to make that moment is whether to just answer the door or to ignore the knock and cast the visitor away.
That morning I wouldn't have been sure anyone had knocked at all. I had been at my desk since daybreak, isolated from everyone and everything, consumed by my work.
At that time in my life, I confess, the world had become too much for me; I have to admit, I had given up. I wanted nothing more to do with life in society, that whole messy melee of living among the masses. If that sounds like an excuse or an apology for what follows, then perhaps it is. I had left my home and medical practice that December and simply moved away to a different town for a fresh start. I moved especially to get away from the people, all those people with their coughs and broken bones and terminal diseases. I simply couldn't bear them any longer. I had seen my fellow man, had seen them with all their warts and wrinkles, and had turned away from them all. I had given all I had to give until there had been nothing left in me. I was empty to my core. And so I had turned to research, I had become somewhat of an anomaly, a doctor without patients or patience. And what a release there was in that. Yet, in the week preceding Christmas, I'd had some misgivings about my seclusion. The thought struck me that on Christmas morning I would feel some remorse in my solitude. But here the day had come, and I was alone and delighting in my solitary holiday.
But there again, that bitterly cold Christmas morning, there seemed to be a knock at the door.
Such a small rapping on that big door, I wondered again if perhaps I imagined it. Still, I left the warm bright sanctuary of my study, saw my breath as I crossed the cold sitting room, and threw open the latch of the front door. A tiny wisp of a boy stood just outside, looking timidly at me from under his oversized coat, old hat and wool muffler.
From between his hat pulled low and his muffler pulled high peeked his cheeks and eyes — cheeks delicate as a baby’s though now flushed with the cold, and soft blue, mournful eyes. Those bright, piercing eyes brought an immediate uneasiness to me, and I looked quickly this way and that for the must-be chaperones, his parents, but saw instead only snow blowing through the empty streets. He was quite alone. I looked again at the boy. For a moment, I thought he might turn and run, so small and fragile he seemed, but instead he held his ground, thrust a basket of fruit forward to me, and recited, “My father wishes you a Happy Christmas.”
His voice surprised me. It was a child's voice, to be sure, a small high-pitched voice. Nevertheless, it contained a certain authority and dignity which made me remember my manners.
“Yes, thank you,” I said. I reflexively took the basket from him, all the while wondering if I had managed to keep the surprise and annoyance out of my voice. Until that moment, you see, I'd believed myself to be alone, blessedly alone in the city. In the weeks since my arrival, I'd met no one on more than passing terms. There was comfort in this anonymity, a nearly sacred solitude which was now suddenly, unexpectedly tarnished. Apparently and much to my chagrin, I was known. Yet, this youngster’s identity, not to mention that of his father, I couldn't imagine. “Well then, come in by the fire,” I said and moved back to let him pass.
He hesitated but then stepped in. I pushed the door tight against the wind and beckoned him to follow me back to the hearth in my study where the fire crackled hospitably. I set the basket down and allowed the child to warm himself for a few moments before relentless curiosity about my mysterious visitor forced me to speak.
“Might I know your name, child?”
“And your surname?”
A blank stare. Such a strange child he was. Could it be he did not know his full name?
“You live nearby, then?”
“Yes sir, quite near.”
“And who might your father be?” I persisted.
“Yes, boy, who? Your father must have a name.”
The boy turned from the fire with a look of polite patience at my obvious feeble-mindedness. His look irked me. Perhaps he was toying with me. I couldn't be sure.
“A name? Yes, of course,” said he.
“Ah,” I said, allowing a smile, sensing progress with the child. He was, after all, only a child. “May I know that name?”
He hesitated again, as if deigning to state the obvious, before saying, “Why, Daddy, Sir.”
I sighed, then turned away from him. This interruption of my work was quite enough without his impertinence. I busied myself in choosing another log for the fire and chucked it on the grate a bit more harshly then I’d intended. Sparks flew. The boy jumped back involuntarily and cast a cautious glance at me.
“What I am trying to determine, boy, is how I have the pleasure of your father’s acquaintance,” I said, turning back to him and forcing a smile to my tight lips. “He has sent me a gift for Christmas, and yet I do not believe I know him.”
“He knows you,” came his quiet but sure reply.
“But how?” I demanded.
“I'm sure I don't know,” he said thoughtfully, as if wondering himself how his father seemed to know everyone. Then he continued cheerfully, “He did send me here, though, so certainly he knows you well.”
“Knows me well? And I without an inkling of who he might be. Ridiculous!” I ranted. “This is all quite beyond me. You come to me unannounced, some tiny spirit out of the blue with gifts from a father who does not reveal himself except through you. It seems I am blessed with some anonymous benefactor! A man who apparently has no other name than Father, who claims to know me, but keeps his identity a mystery. How shall I behave after receiving this gift and how shall I express my gratitude?”
The boy stood dumb before me. My outburst and his innocence only made me more unraveled.
“Am I am not obliged to the giver?” I continued and pointed to the basket of fruit. “What is expected of me after receiving this?”
He looked at me as if wondering whether my question was rhetorical. When I glared at him and waited, he said with all the graciousness he could muster, “My father only sends the gift. He asks for nothing in return.”
“Only a child could believe that,” I scoffed. “And I am not a child, am I?”
I turned away in anger and stirred the fire, sending more sparks dancing up the chimney, then returned my attention to the boy. His eyes were riveted upon the fire poker which I still wielded.
“Well, am I?” I demanded.
He backed away, tears now welling in his eyes. “I was only told to bring the gift,” came his barely audible reply.
“Yes,” said I with finality. “Well, you've done what you've come to do then, haven't you?” I dropped the poker in the wood box and quickly led him through the house to the door.
We said nothing more. He pulled his wraps more tightly about him, gave one long last look at me, smiled, and moved his small figure from my doorstep into the snowy streets. I stayed in the doorway marking his progress, still trying to determine which might be his house and thereby his father's identity. The winds struck again, though, swirling snow from the rooftops, and in a moment I had lost sight of him. As quickly as he had come, he was gone. I never did determine from whence he came.
I pushed the door shut and hurried back to the fire, shaking my head all the while, noticing but angrily dismissing the mysterious basket of fruit centered bright as a crown on the bureau.
It wasn't until later that I recalled how he had looked at me and smiled just before he left. I shall never forget that look or smile. They haunt me still after all these many years. Just before he left, his countenance held no fear or even dislike of me despite my unwarranted harsh treatment of him. It was with a knowing, satisfied look he took his leave. He appeared to see through me, knew all about me, the good and the bad, and it was all right with him. There was absolution in that look and something more, something I must call love for lack of a better word. It's strange to use that word for such a brief and chance encounter, but in that one look I felt love more powerfully than ever before or since. It was a love not only for me, but for all of mankind, with their warts and ill tempers and all, and it occurred to me that this was the love I myself had not long before his visit felt abundantly for my patients.
I dismissed this idea at once, but over the days and weeks that followed, the thought would not let me rest. It came back to me again and again until I was forced to give it due consideration. Since that Christmas morning I have never been able to return to what I considered to be that blissful state of solitude. My warm and cozy study became less of a retreat and more of a prison; my solitary work became a drudgery. I longed to be out with the people again. By the end of January, I had moved back to my hometown and once again opened my medical office.
How odd this must sound, but what I longed for is to once again just see that look in his eyes. I couldn't escape the recollection of that look of acceptance in his eyes and the love in his smile, and I began looking for that love and acceptance in everyone. I began looking differently at people, and what surprised me is how I’d found, without exception, some trace of that boy’s look on every face, provided I'd made a diligent effort to find it.
He had come, I know now, to challenge me as well as to absolve me, and how clearly I remember him. How clear it is to me, too, that my treatment of him that day is of far less importance than how I treat anyone and everyone now. And life, I know, is full of second chances. For though I had but one chance with him, I have limitless chances with that part of him in everyone. That one lesson from that one child has changed everything — my life, my outlook, my interactions with others, and, hopefully, that child's lesson has helped to change the lives of those around me.
All changed. All for the love of a child sent by his generous but unobservable father. All for an unexpected gift from an unexpected visitor on a Christmas morning so very long ago.