The story before the story
There is an old growth forest south of Tom’s home, built of old growth trees, hemlocks with their flat spruce needles that never wither or fade, sturdy oaks who wisely hunker down each winter, and sugar maples who turn flamboyant each fall when their leaves dance between citron, mustard yellow, burnt orange, deep red, then finally float effortlessly to the ground like rainbow snowflakes, where they blend into the earth and eventually freeze, to be covered by thick, white snow. The whole old growth forest south of Tom’s home in Michigan turns frozen and white, color constricts to grayscale, with only a pop of evergreen amongst the pines. The days shorten, the northern winds beat against the bark of the old growth trees, and only once a day does the sky ignite with color as the sun dips into Lake Michigan, although on most dusky evenings even the sunset is hidden by gray clouds.
Every December Tom camps in this forest for a long weekend and returns home with a Christmas tree for his wife Samantha to decorate. For years the children camped too, but now they’ve grown up and moved away to Chicago, Denver, San Francisco. Tom has another reason he camps each December, to walk peacefully amongst the trees and to pray. He wanders along the trails, scaling the dunes to watch the cold waves on the lake, hoping to see a sunset through the clouds. He listens for birds brave enough to survive the winter, and he watches for the sly, silent bobcat that must dwell somewhere deep in the forest. To be fair, Tom also loves the warmth of sleeping outdoors alongside a campfire with his back to the cold wind as a welcomed juxtaposition that resounds each year with his life during the frantic holiday season.
Why this forest in this season? It helps him meditate on the meaning of Christmas, reflect on the past year of his life and prepare his heart for a new year. His prayer every Advent season, which gains special clarity on his camping weekend, is for the patience to wait through the unresolved tensions that seem to swirl about this world. In the wild, cold loneliness he laments the losses from his past, and waits for a new year of marriage with his wife of 40 years, a new year of missing his grown children, and for the last few years especially, he tries dealing with the empathy he feels for all the suffering people around the globe, the troubles of which have shrunk to fit in the pockets of every person who reads the news on their phone. He carries this bad news every day.
Why this forest in this season? Here Tom waits for Christ to return. He walks. He listens. He dreams. For four decades he has camped in this vast forest, always experiencing something familiar and something new. Some years nothing special happens. But this year, something utterly fascinating and nearly magical occurs.
Perhaps the magic had to happen because Tom is having an especially odd year; one in which his youngest son, Joshua, was killed overseas in a war, his middle daughter, Maggie, announced that she is expecting her first child, and his oldest daughter, Hanna, received a promotion so important he’s hardly heard from her since. And nearly one year ago, after Christmas, while writing thank you letters to their friends, Samantha noticed the jitters in his handwriting, the smaller lettering, the shaky lines. He had been hiding the warning signs, but she finally saw. The doctor diagnosed him with Parkinson’s Disease. Tom would say, however, that thus far in this year, his 62-year-old heart aches much more than his body because of his son, Joshua. Tom would also say this year’s journey walking through the woods at night, hunting for another Christmas tree, would be worth being told no matter the circumstances.