December 12, 2018

Room at the Inn

In this story the travelers are not turned away.

Dixil Rodríguez

I look out the window. If I squint the lampost disappears, and it looks as if the moon is shining over the falling snow. Tonight the heavens are decorating the mountaintops. Tonight my dear friend Lisa and her 6-year-old son, JD, will arrive for the holidays.

Between baking and preparing dinner, I glance through the window again, and see two figures exiting the apartment leasing office: a woman holds a small child’s hand, both carry plastic bags. What are they doing out in the snow? A storm is coming.

I run outside to the leasing office in time to see the agent pack up, ready to leave. She tells me the mother and child are homeless. “They want shelter. They’re tired and hungry, so I sent them to the big shelter in Salt Lake.”

Salt Lake? Twenty miles away? In socks and no coat I run after them. Maybe it’s against my better judgment; maybe I know Lisa will soon be here. I meet the strangers: Margo and her son, Michael. I take the plastic bag that Michael is carrying. I have a place where they can stay during the storm.

Once at home, they are comfortable in the room I prepared for Lisa. They settle into the room with two small twin beds. My small two-bedroom, two-bath apartment fits us all.

A six-year-old who remembers what it feels like to not have any gifts and wants to share what he has.

Just as I close one door I run to open another: “Merry Christmas!” I hug JD remembering how small he was two years ago. When I hug Lisa, I whisper, “You’re going to kill me, but . . .” She hugs me tighter and laughs: “Yeah, yeah. I saw it. No worries. Everyone’s home.”

* * *

That night after dinner Lisa makes a bed for JD so he can sleep under the Christmas tree lights while she sleeps on the sofa bed close by. While we are enjoying the tree lights and the holiday music, Margo emerges, wet hair, wearing a familiar robe, holding a trash bag. She is apologetic and speaks softly.

“May I wash these in the kitchen sink?” she asks.

I don’t understand, but Lisa steps in. “There’s a washer and dryer in the hall closet: let me help you.” Lisa’s hospitality is unique. For her everything is a simple act of kindness in practical life.

JD and Michael walk around the tree looking at ornaments. They pretend ornaments are train cars, lining them on the floor. I sit at a distance from the play zone with Lisa and Margo and listen. Lisa is telling Margo her story: one day her husband left, along with her two grown daughters; all moved to Montana. She was left with the baby, JD, to care for. At the same time I was receiving news about being ill and confronting the fact that I was alone. We were friends, but out of financial necessity, moving into this apartment together seemed to make sense. Lisa worked nights; I worked days. We shared responsibilities and took care of JD.

Margo listens and takes a deep breath. “A week ago my husband told me that he had another family in east Utah, and that he was moving there without me. Michael was left in my care. We had no home and few belongings, and we packed clothes in plastic bags and went to a shelter. There was no room.” The first night they slept in someone’s backyard. Desperate, they walked around and found this apartment complex, offered the leasing agent cleaning services for the possibility to sleep in the lobby for two nights. Turned away, she was willing to walk to Salt Lake City. She looks at Michael and says, “I need a plan.”

* * *

Lisa walks around the Christmas tree. “Boys, do you know what this tree is missing?” The three huddle together, whisper, giggle, and make a plan to find the “missing item” tomorrow. They high-five one another before parting ways. I help prepare the sofa bed: “Did you know Michael is 6 years old too?” Lisa stops unwrapping a blanket and looks at me as if she knows exactly what Margo must be feeling.

Keeping our voices quiet, Lisa and I catch up. I hear about JD’s new school, her new job, an equestrian ranch she inherited in northern California where an annual camp for autistic children is offered. Her daughters have joined her in California. In two years God has changed our lives.

Our conversation eventually arrives at an important intersection: Do we have anything to share with Margo and Michael for Christmas? Tomorrow we are taking the boys to the mall. Maybe we can find something there.We focus on what they need: Coats. Basic winter clothes? How do we buy these unexpected gifts?

I walk to the small table where mail is placed and reach for a card from my mother. I open the card, remove a check, and place it next to us. I glance at Mom’s Christmas card, now resting over the fireplace with cards from friends—three kings, virgin Mary, Baby Jesus—and carefully open my writing desk drawer. I hand Lisa an envelope with the cashed check that arrived with my mother’s card.

Lisa looks at me: “Are you sure?”

Yes, I’m sure.

* * *

The trip to the mall is scheduled, and we are ready to go! But Margo is emptying the dishwasher. She would like to avoid the crowded mall and will prepare a late lunch for us. She appears happy to have a purpose. I wonder if a crowded mall during the holiday season would remind her of what she cannot provide for Michael this year.

Christmas is on Sunday. On Thursday, against my better judgment, I am in a mall full of people who have no holiday cheer. We let the boys pick out coats, then search for one just for Margo. A few purchases later we head home. The drive is pleasant; we sing Christmas carols. I watch JD and Michael sing together as if they are old friends. By the time we arrive home warm food welcomes us and compliments for the chef abound. Sitting in the dining room, we are family.

* * *

Thursday night Lisa and I wrap gifts. A small knock on the door interrupts us: JD. He sits on the bed and asks: “These are gifts for Margo and Michael. Your gifts. But what about my gift for Michael? He doesn’t have any toys. Can I share?”

We stand still, as if JD has uttered something profound. A 6-year-old who remembers what it feels like to not have any gifts and wants to share what he has. In our efforts to provide what was needed, we forgot about the simplicity of a gift, particularly for a child. JD exits quietly, and as if on a sprint, Lisa helps me separate boxes.

Early Friday morning I wake up listening to JD knocking on everyone’s bedroom door. Apparently there are gifts under the tree for Christmas Day!

The weekend flies by. On Friday afternoon we attend a university performance of Messiah. Margo cries as the choir sings. Has music stirred memories somewhere inside of better times? holidays without sorrow? I know that stirring. It arrives at unexpected times.

On Friday evening we break bread together as a strong storm covers the entire valley with icy snow, leaving us stranded in the apartment. We spend Sabbath together. Close to bedtime Lisa makes a ceremony out of the fact our tree will now be “complete.” JD and Michael stand on chairs, little hands reach high and place a star at the top of the tree. After a countdown, the star shines bright. We all clap as if it’s the most beautiful star we’ve ever seen. Because it is.

* * *

The boys are awake very early Sunday morning. Christmas carols play in the background. Lisa has converted the living room into a gift-sharing area. Gifts are sorted by name. Margo and Michael stare at one another as packages are placed in front of them.

As wrapping paper flies all over the l
iving room, gifts are shared. This is far from the quiet Christmas Day I expected, yet somehow perfect. As the boys play, Margo pulls Lisa and me into the kitchen. She is grateful for everything. She is amazed at how quickly a bad situation has been turned around, giving her hope.  From her pocket she takes out two molds. It looks like a flour mold. Baked? On it are two sets of handprints, and underneath each a signature from Michael and JD. This is a precious gift.

As we talk, Lisa whispers: “Margo, I have an idea about your situation . . .”

Hours later I take a moment alone to sit under the tree, near the fireplace. As I glance at the star shining on the tree, I pray in gratitude for the warmth of the hearth and hearts in our little home.

* * *

The following evening I help Lisa pack. She casually hands me an envelope. I shake my head. We were in this together! If my mother knew how I used her gift, she would be so happy! Lisa stops packing. “Look, you taught me about helping others when I couldn’t even feed JD. These experiences land at your doorstep! I am honored to help her a few steps further.” She hands me the envelope, again, and I shake my head again.

“Fine! I’ll give it to her when we get to her destination,” she laughs, wiping away tears. I recognize how much loss, difficulties, joy, and precious lessons were shared in this space. Sometimes lessons surpass the seasons of the calendar.

* * *

In the morning the car is packed. Lisa and JD are driving to California via Idaho. Margo’s family is in Idaho, and the offer to be with her parents and sisters was well received. I know they will be safe in the journey. Still, it’s difficult to let them go. A quiet apartment awaits.

That night I sleep under the tree, watching the lights, amazed at how bright the star is. I stare at a card of Jesus on the manger. No room at the inn.

How much have I learned from that story? How much more is left to learn?

Dixil Rodríguez, a hospital chaplain, lives in Southern California. This article first appeared in the December 2018 Adventist Review. It received an Award of Excellence in feature writing from the Associated Church Press in its Best of the Church Press Awards.