Monday, December 22, 2008

Pay it Forward

The last Christmas my mother was alive, she did not want to put up our tree. Granted, it was a ramshackle semblance of the tree I once thought of as glorious and grand...but it was still Christmas, and I thought she deserved some spirited decorations.

She refused. Even after I told her that I'd trudge up the rickety attic steps, wrestle it down, decorate it, and stuff all the bent branches back into the box come January 1.

She didn't budge. Looking back, I think she realized it would be her last Christmas holiday, and she simply didn't want to relive all the memories. Each ornament would have brought about reminisces of years past, and with that, tears and heartache. I finally relented.

A few days after the tree standoff, my uncle arrived at my parents' doorstep. He awkwardly carried something swathed in green garbage bags. It was a present for my mother.

She sat in her recliner, perplexed and bewildered, and proceeded to unveil what turned out to be a handmade wooden Christmas tree. My uncle had carefully crafted it in his woodshop from pine, painted it a lovely hunter green, and had even made sure to include a golden star at the very top.

My mother was thrilled...and tearful...and, ultimately, so touched that her brother had gone to such great lengths to try to make her last Christmas (did we all know it then?) a festive one.

We strung some soft white lights around the new tree, placed it atop a sturdy table, and my mother finished the decorating with one silver ornament...something new and not tied to years of treasured, but painful, memories.

It's been almost four years since my mother passed away, and the painted Christmas tree has been sitting in the attic all this time. Simply collecting dust.

December rolled around this year and my co-worker, Lynne, set off to cheerfully trim the Special Olympics office with holiday garlands and ornaments. Last year, we'd suffered a serious seasonal debacle, and watched our Christmas tree crack in half and fall to the floor when a member of our cleaning crew accidentally backed into it with the vacuum.

Lynne tried valiantly to assemble the tree again this year...but it, and Lynne, had lost the battle. The tree found its final resting place in the town dump.

I could see Lynne's disappointment, and my mind raced to try to conjure up some type of solution.

There it was. In my parents' attic. Long forgotten...but much loved.

That evening I pulled the tree down from the depths of the cold and dark attic, and with a little dusting (and permission from my thrilled father), I paid that tree forward.

We've all been enjoying the little-tree-that-could for the past few weeks, thanks to some dedicated stringing of popcorn and cranberries that really gave it some cheer.

Several days ago, Special Olympics' CFO, Mike, knocked on my door. "Liza, I have a favor to ask you. Would you mind if, during the Christmas break, I took your mother's tree home to put in Loretta's room for her to enjoy?"

I've known Mike for just about two years now, and during that time, I've found a mentor and an individual who, on a daily basis, displays kindness, generosity, and patience. I would have said "yes" to probably anything Mike needed from me...but this particular request struck me deeply. Not just because the request involved my mother's tree, but because it also involved Loretta.

Loretta Claiborne is somewhat of a Special Olympics celebrity, and Mike invites her to spend each Christmas holiday with his wife and three young boys. I met Loretta last year, and I found myself humbled in her presence. She is kind, gracious...salt-of-the-earth. The kind of person who makes you want to strive to be better than you are.

Loretta was the middle of seven children in a poor, single-parent family. Born partially blind and mildly retarded, she was unable to walk or talk until age four. Eventually, though, she began to run. And before she knew it, she had crossed the finish line of 25 marathons, twice placing among the top 100 women in the Boston Marathon. Disney has recounted her life in a documentary, and her biography has also been published...and she's only in her 50s.

Loretta also holds a black belt in karate, communicates in four languages--including sign language--and holds honorary doctorate degrees from Quinnipiac University and Villanova University, making her the first person with mental retardation known to receive such honors.

I hadn't been feeling the Christmas spirit this year. Monetary struggles are hitting everyone hard, and the news isn't exactly broadcasting the most uplifting stories. My momentum for gift shopping had hit a all time low. Something just wasn't "right".

Then came Mike's request.

I was beyond touched. As cliche as it sounds, I found myself thinking, "This is what Christmas is truly about."

Loretta being able to enjoy the tree that had made my mother’s last Christmas so joyful had finally made things "right". I couldn't imagine a more perfect fit. These two inspiring women, both of whom had struggled greatly in their lives, would never know one another. But this simple tree had united them for me.

I pulled out of the parking lot the other night, heading home, and saw my mother's tree in the window, still lit.

I welled up a little...feeling so good about paying my gifts forward.

1 comment:

  1. Okay have made me cry. Thank you for sharing this. Casey told me that in our pain, that is where we find our best work, you truly have a gift and he was right, in reflecting on your mom, you have found your best work. Thank you for sharing.