Friday, December 25, 2009

The Gift, By Nancy L. Dahberg

[This is a story that Jack Kornfield traditionally reads when leading retreats at holiday times.]

It was Sunday. Christmas. Our family had spent the holidays in San Francisco with my husband's parents. But in order for us to be back at work on Monday, we found ourselves driving the 400 miles home to Los Angeles on Christmas Day.

It is normally an 8-hour drive, but with kids it can be a 14-hour endurance test. When we could stand it no longer, we stopped for lunch in King City. This little metropolis is made up of six gas stations and three sleazy diners, and it was into one of these diners that the four of us trooped--road weary and saddle sore.

As I sat Erik, our 1-year-old, in a high chair, I looked around the room and wondered, "What am I doing in this place?"

The restaurant was nearly empty. We were the only family and ours were the only children. Everyone else was busy eating, talking quietly, aware perhaps that we were all somehow out of place on this special day, when even the cynical pause to reflect on peace and brotherhood.

My reverie was interrupted when I heard Erik squeal with glee, "Hithere." (Two words he thought were one.) "Hithere" he pounded his fat baby hands--whack, whack--on the metal high chair tray. His face was alive with excitement, eyes wide, gums bared in a toothless grin. He wriggled, and chirped, and giggled, and then I saw the source of the merriment...and my eyes could not take it all in at once.

A tattered rag of a coat--obviously bought by someone else eons ago--dirty, greasy, and worn...baggy pants--both they and the zipper at half-mast over a spindly body--toes that poked out of would-be shoes...a shirt that had ring-around-the-collar all over and a face like none other...gums as bare as Erik' uncombed, unwashed, and unbearable...whiskers too short to be called a beard, but way, way beyond a shadow, and a nose so varicose that it looked like the map of New York.

I was too far away to smell him--but I knew he smelled--and his hands were waving in the air, flapping about on loose wrists.

"Hi there baby; hi there, big boy. I see ya, buster."

My husband and I exchanged a look that was a cross between "What do we do?" and "Poor devil."

Erik continued to laugh and answer, "Hi, Hithere." Every call was echoed.

I noticed waitresses eyebrows shoot to their foreheads, and several people sitting near us "ahemed" out loud.

This old geezer was creating a nuisance with my beautiful baby.

I shoved a cracker at Erik, and he pulverized it on the tray. I whispered "Why me?" under my breath.

Our meal came, and the cacophony continued. Now the old bum was shouting from across the room: "Do ya know patty cake?...Atta boy... Do ya know peek-a-boo?...Hey, look, he knows peek-a-boo!"

Nobody thought it was cute. The guy was a drunk and a disturbance, I was embarrassed. My husband, Dennis, was humiliated. Even our six-year-old said, "Why is that old man talking so loud?"

We ate in silence--all except Erik, who was running through his repertoire for the admiring applause of a skid-row bum.

Finally, I had enough. I turned the high chair. Erik screamed and clamored around to face his old buddy. Now I was mad.

Dennis went to pay the check, imploring me to "get Erik and meet me in the parking lot."

I trundled Erik out of the high chair and looked toward the exit. The old man sat poised and waiting, his chair directly between me and the door.

"Lord, just let me out of here before he speaks to me or Erik." I bolted for the door.

I soon became obvious that both the Lord and Erik had other plans.

As I drew closer to the man, I turned my back, walking to sidestep him--and any air he might be breathing. As I did so, Erik, all the while with his eyes riveted to his best friend, leaned far over my arm, reaching with both arms in a baby's "pick me up" position.

In a split second of balancing my baby and turning to counter his weight I came eye-to-eye with the old man. Erik was lunging for him, arms spread wide.

The bum's eyes both asked and implored, "Would you let me hold your baby?"

There was no need for me to answer since Erik propelled himself from my arms to the man's.

Suddenly a very old man and a very young baby consummated their love relationship. Erik laid his tiny head upon the man's ragged shoulder. The man's eyes closed, and I saw tears hover beneath his lashes. His aged hands full of grime, and pain, and hard labor--gently, so gently, cradled my baby's bottom and stroked his back.

I stood awestruck. The old man rocked and cradled Erik in his arms for a moment, and then his eyes opened and set squarely on mine. He said in a firm and commanding voice, "You take care of this baby."

Somehow I managed, "I will", from a throat that contained a stone.

He pried Erik from his chest--unwillingly, longingly--as though he was in pain.

"God bless you ma'm. You've given me my Christmas gift."

I said nothing more than a muttered thanks.

With Erik back in my arms, I ran for the car. Dennis wondered why I was crying and holding Erik so tightly and why I was saying, "My God, oh God, forgive me."



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