Monday, October 22, 2012

Christmas Blessing (a Missionary Story)

I want to take a break from my usual routine of satire and silliness to tell my Christmas story. I know it's a little early for that sort of thing, but this actually took place in October too. It was 2006; I was a missionary serving in Charleston, South Carolina.

It was a rough time for a number of reasons. My companion was affable but mostly uninterested in missionary work, and after seven weeks of shouldering most of the workload alone and without success I was tired and frustrated. I was right in the middle of my two year service, long enough that it was hard to remember not having been a missionary, but with the end still very far away. Not that I was counting down the days: I liked many of the people we met, and Charleston was beautiful area. Still, those were long, stressful days, sometimes even depressing ones.

Charleston presents some unique challenges for a missionary. The downtown area sits on a peninsula about a three miles long and no more than a mile wide at the confluence of two rivers, which combine to form a natural harbor opening to the Atlantic Ocean. At the tip of the peninsula are opulent mansions, a combination of antebellum architecture and Ferraris. Surrounding the mansions are tourist attractions: stores, tours, and museums. Further inland is a medical college, a hospital, and lots of dismal, high-crime housing projects. None of it made for easy proselyting, and we spent much of our time in surrounding suburbs.

In the midst of this I received a call from the mission office one Wednesday morning. A member from out of state, they said, was at the hospital and needed a blessing. That means going downtown, I thought disgustedly. There was nothing else to do there; it was just a waste of our car's mileage allotment.  Besides, wasn't that the ward's responsibility? Shouldn't we call the bishop or stake president? We didn't even have a name, just a room number. Still, all the ward leadership would be at work, and we didn't have any firm appointments that morning. We decided to go.

We drove across the Ravenel Bridge (one of my favorite things in Charleston) and to the hospital adjacent to the Medical University of South Carolina. I felt out of place as we searched for the correct room: the hospital staff clearly wasn't accustomed to seeing Mormon missionaries roam its halls. Eventually, when we thought were were in the vicinity, we asked a nurse for help. "Oh, you're here to see Santa!" she said brightly, pointing to a nearby room. Not knowing what to make of that I thanked her and crossed the hall, pausing to knock lightly on the open door before entering.

The first thing I noticed was the dry erase board next to to the door, where nurses wrote patients' names. John Christmas, it said. Someone had drawn bells, wreaths, and a snowman around the name. Before I could process that a kindly, gray-haired woman greeted us from inside the room. She was sitting down next to the hospital bed on which the patient rested, partially obscured by medical equipment a neck brace. Again before I could say anything he spoke in a gruff voice,

"You got a problem?"

"Err…uhh…no…" I stammered.

"You want one of mine?"

The joke took a minute to sink in, as I'd finally taken good look at the patient. He was a heavyset man with a long, white beard, around 60 or 70. I glanced back at the white board. John Christmas. Santa, the nurse had said. And there he was.

We introduced ourselves and before long became acquainted with John and Raylene Christmas. They were from California, where John owned an electric/heating business and every year loved to dress as Santa for sick and disabled kids. While visiting some nearby friends he'd fallen off a Segway scooter, which was how, just months before Christmas, he was himself disabled with a broken back.

In spite of their misfortune, John and Raylene proved a charming couple. Soon he told us his conversion story. Santa, somewhat to my surprise, had once been an atheist until a series of miraculous events led him to be baptized into the LDS church decades before. Now he was a happy and strong Mormon. He was also a straight-talker, at one point correcting me after I used too many "umms" in a sentence. "Don't use filler words, Elder. A pregnant [he paused] …pause is very underrated today." Maybe it says something about me that what I remember most clearly is Santa correcting my grammar.

After a long chat, my companion and I offered to give him a blessing. I don't remember having a numinous spiritual experience or what words I said, but when we finished they thanked us sincerely and soon after we left. It took us a few days to get back downtown, but we briefly saw the John and Raylene again on Sunday. John seemed better, and they were excited to return home when they could. We tried to visit a final time two or three days later, but they had already left.

More than a year later, after I'd returned home, I got a letter in the mail from the Christmases. They thanked me for the blessing and let me know that Santa was back on the job and nearly healed. I still have the letter somewhere, but couldn't find it when writing this. I wish I'd have written back, but I never did. The Day I Met Santa has always been one of my favorite mission stories, but I hadn't thought about it much until recently, when it came to mind for no particular reason. Today, as I prepared to write this post, I thought to look up the Christmas family to see if there was a way to contact them. Instead I found John's obituary. He died September 14, 2012.

I don't know what effect my blessing had six years ago, whether John would have recovered anyway or whether it made all the difference, but I was glad I was there when I was. I hope his last years were good for him, because between graduating, staying employeed, and marrying my beautiful wife they've been good for me. Though my time with the Christmases was incredibly brief, they were kind people who gave me a lift I needed, and I hope I somehow returned the favor. If nothing else, it's a heck of a tale -- not many people can claim that, in some small way, they may have saved Christmas.