For Shalina. Merry Christmas, baby.
A few days ago, my girl and I drove downtown to donate some non-perishables. We loaded two cardboard boxes heaped with cans of beans, soups, corn, fruit and peas into the back of the car, and headed out. Traffic was terrible and the icy roads didn't help, as we watched cars helplessly slip n' slide through intersections and in-and-out of their lanes - their winter tire investments coming up short. But the weather was beautiful. The morning sun shone effortlessly through the sparse clouds that littered the bright blue sky, bathing our little city in an ironic December warmth. The drive was lovely and it set the mood for what was to come.
We pulled into the closed school's parking lot a little while after, but it was almost full. I squeezed the car into a spot near the back, lodged between two giant Chevy Suburbans, and hopped out. Popping the trunk, we took the first box and began the long trek towards the school's doors, but before we could make it even halfway the doors swung wide open. A young man (couldn't have been much older than me) burst from the opening and tried to keep his balance on the icy pavement as he sprinted out towards us.
"Hold on!" he yelled out "Lemme help you guys with that!"
We were a little taken aback, so we froze.
He didn't stop to catch his breath in the brisk morning air as he skidded to a halt in front of us: "Let me take that from you! I'm Bobby, by the way." Before I could say another word, he gently took the box from my arms, smiled and nodded his head in the direction of the school. "Follow me!" he grinned and, have first made sure that we were in fact following him, began walking back.
"This looks great!" he said over his shoulder, "Thanks so much! I just know the family this is going to will be absolutely thrilled!"
I could see the smile spreading on my baby's face as she gripped my hand tighter in hers. There was even a noticeable skip in her step. It made me smile too. She piped up:
"We've got another box in the car, actually."
Bobby spun around suddenly. "Another box?!"
He looked down at the heaping contents. "Well, that's just… amazing! Thanks!" Shifting the heavy load in his arms, "As you can see, we're rather busy, but I'll go put this inside, if you wouldn't mind grabbing the other one?"
I shook my head and smiled. "No, that's entirely out of the question. I've never heard such insanity."
Bobby looked taken aback, but my girl lifted her arms and cut in. "Oh, don't mind him. He's got a weird sense of humour. We'll be right back!" She grabbed my arm, spun on her heel and tugged me back towards the car. Bobby smiled, shrugged and continued walking on.
"Don't be silly." She smiled, "Not everyone knows you're an idiot."
I swung her hand back and forth like a child. "Can't help it. It's in my blood." Grinning, "Besides, I do it SO well."
She laughed and playfully nudged me with one shoulder. We got the second box out of the car and started walking back towards the school once again. I hadn't been entirely delighted about getting up early, but seeing the smile on her face, I would do it a thousand times over. And a thousand times again. The warmth in her face, the light in her eyes, the bounce in her step and the song in her voice. I mean, she's already one of the happiest, optimistic people I know - but this kind of joy and cheer was special. I'd be a damned liar if I said it hadn't already rubbed off on me.
We finally reached the school doors, but we weren't alone. Shuffling from cold foot to foot, stood an old woman. Her withered face hid under an old grey hat, but the piercing blue eyes studied everything around her from its shelter. Confident? No. Uncomfortable? Possibly. Shy? Definitely. In an old knit-green sweater that hung like a drape on her short form, she tried to avert her eyes from the couple that now approached her. She eyed the box we carried, but wouldn't dare look us in the eye. It was as if she'd been here before, no stranger to the school's shelter, but felt an outsider all the same.
"Merry Christmas." we said in unison.
She kept shuffling uncomfortably, but we managed to make out a small "Merry Christmas" from underneath the hat and through the tattered scarf that wound its way around her neck. The awkward silence was shattered as the doors banged open and Bobby walked out.
"You weren't kidding!" He said gladly, looking at our cargo. The old lady caught his eye and he turned his head towards her. "Oh, hi there! I'll be right with you!"
But, being the person she is, my girl spoke up again. "That's alright! We've got time." And we stepped back to give the lady some room.
She finally looked at us, locking eyes with the pretty girl at my side. She didn't say thanks, but her eyes did the talking. Even my blithering mind could see it. She turned to face Bobby and in a frail voice, started to speak.
"Well, I don't really have a call-number you see… because I haven't the money to buy for a whole family." She shifted in that old, sickly-green sweater and shoved her black gloved hands into the ratty canvas bag slung over her shoulder. Pulling out two lone cans of soup, she went on. "This soup's all I have to give, and I was just wondering if you could add it to the other carts?"
Bobby broke out into that contagious smile and laughed. "Sure, of course! Thanks so much!"
She nodded quickly and gently placed the two cans in his outstretched hands. The shy look on her face never dwindled and she kept her eyes near the ground. She almost bowed a small 'thank you' and, turning around slowly, she began walking away.
We were all taken aback, our jaws on the ground. She looked so hungry herself, and was probably one of the people that came here each year to collect some food for the holidays. Yet, here she stood giving what she could simply for the spirit of giving. Eventually, Bobby called out to the old lady as she reached the edge of the parking lot: "A very Merry Christmas to you!"
The rest is pretty standard. We left the second box in the school, wished the volunteers a Merry Christmas and began the drive back home. But I could feel the true spirit of Christmas that day. It wasn't how much you gave, but how you gave it. It's true, we had donated two whole boxes rather than two cans - but there was so much more we could have given. We weren't lacking in food. We hadn't known true hunger (except for when my girlfriend actually cooks). We had never been forced to swallow our pride and ask for help when it came to our basic needs. I couldn't even begin to imagine what that would be like, neither of us could. Giving is not a number, it's a feeling. It's not a means, it's an end. It's not consumerism, it's love. Love of the truest, most basic and fundamental kind: love for another human being. Not someone you know, relate to or even like - but love for someone who you know needs it.
To watch that old lady give a day worth of meals away, her hunger eating away at her body and mind, drove me. It was that tiny tinge of being outdone, watching someone give so little, yet give so MUCH. But with that sense of competition and loss, came a surge of power: to know that whoever received those cans would be more grateful than I had imagined. To me, two boxes of food was pocket change. To someone in need, it was new life. It was hope. I felt a hunger to feed hunger. A need to quench need. Desperate to quell desperation.
We sat in the car driving back, as Peggy Lee drifted out of our radio and filled the car: "It's that time of year, when the world falls in love…".
My girl gripped my hand as I kept my eyes on the road: "Baby?" she said.
"Mhmm?" I replied.
"I want to give to the world."