A Tennessee family finds the Spirit of Christmas
The Long Road Home
It was snowing, but not just any kind of snow, it was the big, fluffy stuff, floating down like the feathers of an angel's wings. The waiting pines held out their long arms to catch the snowfall even as it piled thick upon their branches and dressed them all in white. Eventually, the sheer weight of it dropped with a soft “ka-thunk” to the already growing pile below.
It was deathly quiet, peaceful as if the world had stopped for this one moment alone. It was Christmas Eve.
Jesse leaned over the tall back of the dilapidated old-family-couch trying to see through the frozen window. His little shoes ground ruthlessly into the rust-colored cushions as he stretched to look outside. The cracked, thin plates of ice surrounding the window’s edge appeared to be made of gossamer wings. Jesse wiped at the grimy glass over and over again with the sleeve of his sweatshirt.
“Mom! Come and see! It’s snowing! It’s snowing!”
“Well, it’s certainly cold enough, that’s for sure,” said Angie, coming over to the window. She knelt on the couch cushion next to him, wrapping her arm around his little waist. “Well, bless my soul, we’re gonna have us a White Christmas, Jesse.”
“Santa will get my bed for sure now, huh, Mom? Bunk beds, just like I wanted. I can sleep on the top or the bottom. He’ll get it, won’t he, Mom?”
Feeling distracted, she said, “The road home is going to be dangerous."
“Mom? What about my bunk bed?” Jesse whined. “Santa’s going to bring it, right?”
“Oh! I’m sorry, honey. Sure, sure, Santa will bring it tonight. I’m just a little worried about your father, that’s all. He’s already late and it’s almost dark.”
“Aw, Mom, don't worry, he’ll be fine. Maybe he stopped off at the toy store.”
Angie saw the angelic smile of her little eight-year-old and had to laugh. “Yeah, right, wishful thinking, mister.” She roughed up his short-cropped hair. “Why don’t you help me bring in some more wood for the fire? Then we’ll watch, ‘How The Grinch Stole Christmas’ until your father gets home.”
“Okay, Mom.” Jesse jumped onto her back, laughing. “Piggy-back! Piggy-back ride!” They were both giggling as Angie carried him to the back porch where the firewood was stacked.
It was late, and the worry Angie had felt earlier had turned into anxiety. The fire that roared hours ago had already burned down to nothing. She stared into the fireplace, a black gaping hole that mirrored the one in her heart.
Jesse had fallen asleep with his head in her lap, and she gently carried him to her bed and tucked him in. Looking out the bedroom window, she strained her ears for the slightest sound, hoping to hear Andy’s old pickup truck coming up the long gravel driveway that was now covered in a blanket of snow. Where is he? Why hasn’t he called? There must be something wrong, something terribly wrong.
She reached for the phone and called the auto shop, but they told her Andy had left hours ago. Oh, God...where is he?
She lay down beside her son but was unable to sleep.
Andy and Angie had been married ten years before his father had suddenly passed away on Christmas Eve. He always said they had never really been that close, but it was obvious that his passing had affected Andy deeply.
He inherited the old homestead and moved Angie and Jesse out to live on the forty-acre ranch that he had been raised on as a kid. But the ranch held too many memories for him, and Angie would sometimes catch him brooding in certain rooms of the house: a sad expression on his face that he tried to hide whenever she came into the room.
Christmas had been very somber that year, and after the funeral, Andy had changed somehow. He started doing all the things with Jesse that his dad never had time to do with him when he was little. They even joined the Cub Scouts together. Andy became a troop leader and took Jesse camping and fishing all the time. They became very close pals.
Working the ranch though was hard, and with little or no money to show for it, Andy ended up having to take a side job just to make ends meet. He even had to work on Christmas Eve, and was now late coming home . . . very late.
Andy had stopped to pick up a last-minute gift for his boy, then, for no apparent reason at all, decided to go out to the cemetery to see his dad. Thick black clouds rolled across the Tennessee sky, a dark reminder of what was to come.
He strolled the graveyard until he found his father’s headstone. It appeared small and insignificant compared to some of the others. He had always felt he should have gotten something bigger, but his father was never one for life insurance, and Andy had depleted his entire savings account just to take care of the final arrangements.
He knelt down beside the marker, remembering how his dad had always worn that red baseball cap wherever he went--even to church on Sundays. Andy found himself smiling at the thought. He recalled how they never really had a long heart-to-heart talk together and felt that now was as good a time as any. They talked a long time--there was a lot to be said.
Angie called the Sheriff’s Department out of sheer desperation, but they had received no news other than a bulletin about a major storm front moving in. She hung up the phone, feeling distraught and utterly helpless.
Little Jesse kicked off his covers in a fit of restless sleep, mumbling something about Grandpa’s red hat. Angie covered him again, bent to kiss his forehead, and crawled into bed next to him to cuddle. She held him close to her and prayed until she finally fell asleep.
Andy wiped the snow from the gravestone, only then realizing that it had started snowing and was now almost dark. He hurried back to his truck, checking to make sure Jesse’s new bunk bed was securely fastened in the rear. “Angie’s gonna kill me,” he thought.
He jumped inside and cranked the engine--nothing. The battery was dead. He slammed his hand on the steering wheel then jumped out and popped the hood. He fiddled with the battery cables for a while hoping to get a better connection, then climbed back inside to give it another try.
“Come on, baby, come on!” He tried it again. The motor jumped to life. “Yes!” he yelled, triumphantly. He punched the gas pedal and his tires spun-out in the new snow, the rear end of the truck sliding to the side of the road momentarily. The ranch was located twenty miles outside of town and he drove like a madman to get home.
The holiday traffic was bad--bumper-to-bumper. Andy couldn’t believe the long row of red tail lights drawn out in front of him. The more he tried to hurry, the more he became frustrated with the other drivers. It took him forever just to reach the outskirts of town.
He finally arrived at the last traffic light to Road 22--just a straight shot to his house from there. The traffic had died down to almost nothing, and Andy let out a huge sigh of relief. Unbelievably, an eighteen-wheeler pulled out of the truck stop right in front of him. Andy laid on his horn hoping to get by, but the big old truck couldn't care less; it barely moved along through the new snow, ever-so-slowly picking up speed.
Andy stayed on the truck's rear, trying several times to get by the big rig, but the holiday traffic into town was just too heavy. He sat back, choking with road rage--choking on the diesel fumes blowing out the truck’s exhaust pipes and watching the dirty snow thrown onto his windshield.
Then, over the crest of a hill, Andy saw his chance. He stomped on the accelerator and merged into the lane of approaching traffic; a slight smile ran across his lips, but the smile quickly turned into a grimace. In the middle of the highway, stood a man in a red baseball cap.
It was his father.
Andy jerked the wheel to the left and slammed on the brakes; the pickup spun out of control. His world became a nightmare of transplendent headlights cutting through the glistening snow. Abruptly his truck came to a complete stop against the embankment on the wrong side of the road.
Andy climbed out of the cab.
“Dad? Dad!” He walked around the pickup looking for his father.
An old car pulled up and stopped. “Hey, ya all right, buddy?”
Andy looked up to see a long-haired guy yelling at him from a big black Caddilac.
“Are you hurt?” the man persisted.
“Yeah, I’m . . . I’m okay. Did you see a man in a red hat?”
“Are you trying to be funny? Red hat--like Santa? Is that some kind of a Tennessee Christmas joke?”
“It was my father. He was standing in the middle of the road!”
“In the middle of the road? Jeez, mister, I didn’t see anybody, just you spinning off the highway. Are you sure you’re okay?”
“Yeah, I think so.”
“Man, I saw the whole thing,” the stranger continued. “You came around from behind that big rig then totally lost control. Actually, it was a good thing you drove off the road. You never would have made it past that truck. I think I would’ve hit you head-on. Didn’t you even see me coming?”
“See you? No, I didn’t see any car coming.”
The man got a worried look on his face then stepped out of his black sedan and walked to the front of his car. “Aw, man! My headlights are out again!” He smacked the hood of the car with the palm of his hand. The lights momentarily blinked, then came on. “God, I must have a short somewhere. I had no idea I was driving blind.” He climbed back into the driver’s seat. “You’re sure you’re gonna be all right, then?”
“Yeah, I’m fine. But you better get those headlights checked out before you kill somebody.”
“Yeah, I hear ya. Merry Christmas, dude.” The man drove off toward town.
Angie woke up. It was three in the morning. She heard a heavy thump, and then the sound of metal against metal.
“Andy?” She jumped out of bed and ran toward Jesse’s bedroom. “Andy? Is that you?”
“Yeah, hon, it’s me,” he answered, softly. “I didn’t mean to wake you.”
She came into the room just as her husband was closing up his toolbox. She ran into arms. “Oh, honey, are you all right? My, God, where have you been? I was so worried!”
“I’m okay, really, Ang, I’m all right.”
“What happened? What took you so long?”
He smiled and pointed to Jesse’s new bed. “I had to see a man about a bunk bed.”
“Aww...Andy, you got it! He’s gonna be so surprised.” She hugged him again, like she would never let him go, then looked up into his tired face. “Something happened, didn’t it? You seem different somehow.”
“I went out to the cemetery. I wanted to wish my dad a Merry Christmas.”
“What brought that on? You haven’t been out there since the funeral.”
“I know, I know, but I felt like I needed to go. Anyway, after that I had trouble with the truck, it started snowing, traffic was bad, and then the strangest thing happened.” Andy scratched his head, still trying to make sense of the whole thing. “I was out on Road 22, heading home when I . . . I saw my dad.”
“What? Your dad? That’s crazy.”
Andy slightly chuckled. “Tell me! But I saw him, Ang, I swear. Just as plain as I’m seeing you now--red baseball cap and everything! The funny thing was that I slid off the road when I saw him. Then this car comes by with no headlights on. God, Ang, I would’ve crashed into the guy if I hadn’t spun off the highway. My dad...he...he saved my life.”
“My God, Andy! Are you sure you’re all right?”
“Yeah, I’m fine, now. Just a little shaken-up that's all. Angie, tell me, do you believe in ghosts or spirits?”
“Why, yes. . . yes, I do. I believe there are angels watching over us all the time. And I thank the one that brought you home safely to us.”
“Yeah, me too. I guess my Dad was coming home with me for the holidays, huh?” Andy pulled his wife to him. “God, I miss him, Ang. I miss him a lot.” He buried his face into her neck and shoulder as she held him for a while, rubbing his back.
“It’s okay, honey. Everything’s gonna be just fine. Hey, it’s Christmas!” she said, gently pulling away. “What do you say about slipping Jesse into his new bed before he wakes up?”
“Sounds like a great idea to me.”
“I’ll make up the bed and string some red ribbon around it.”
“The kid is going to freak when he wakes up,” laughed Andy.
“He’s been bugging me all day about getting that bed. Give me a minute, and then carry him in, okay?”
“Okay, Ang, and oh, by the way...Merry Christmas, sweetheart.” He gave her a good long kiss.
“Mom! Dad! Wake up!” Jesse came running into his parent's room and jumped on their bed. “Santa came! Santa came!”
“What?” Angie rubbed the sleep from her eyes. “What’s going on?”
“It’s Christmas! Santa came!” Jesse's eyes sparkled as he climbed on top of his dad. “Wake up, Dad! It’s Christmas!” Andy was buried deep in the covers with just a portion of his head showing. Jesse pulled on his ear. “Who’s this big old ear belong to?”
Andy slowly stirred. “Hey, that’s my ear!” He propped himself up in the bed, laughing and giving his little boy a big hug around the neck. “Merry Christmas, champ. What’s all the commotion about?”
“Come and see! Come and see!” Jesse jumped up and down on the bed. “Santa brought me a new bed. Just like I wanted. A new bed! Get up, already! Get up!”
Andy and Angie smiled at each other then crawled out of the warmth of their covers and followed Jesse to his room.
He was bouncing off the walls as he showed off his new bed “Can you believe it? A brand new bed!” He climbed to the top bunk, then down to the bottom again. He was getting ready to make the trip a second time when Andy snagged him like a monkey from a tree.
“Come on! Let’s go see what else Santa brought!”
“Presents? Oh, boy!”
The rest of the morning was devoted to the sound of laughter and the ripping of wrapping paper. Angie was pulling breakfast together in the kitchen while Jesse and his dad built a fort out of Legos.
“I got you a present, Dad.”
“You did? Well, let’s see it! Dad’s like Christmas presents too, you know.”
Jesse ran off to his room and came back with a small brown paper bag. It was decorated with a hand-drawn Santa Claus on one side, and a beautifully colored Christmas Tree on the other. He proudly gave it to his dad.
“Whoa! This looks expensive! I hope you didn’t spend too much money on your old man.”
“Naw, I found it on the back porch.”
“The back porch, heh? It must really be expensive,” Andy said, smiling as he opened the bag.
Angie came in carrying two cups of coffee.
“Yeah, Mom and I were getting some firewood, and I found it stuffed under some logs. I cleaned it up though.”
Andy reached into the bag and pulled out a red baseball cap.
“It was Grandpa’s,” Jesse said. “I thought you might want it.”
Andy clutched the cap in his hand, tears welling up in his eyes.
“Oh, Andy, I had no idea," Angie said. "He didn’t say anything to me about it.”
Andy pulled the cap on, tears running down his cheek and neck. “Thanks, champ. It’s just what I always wanted.”