A Christmas Story
Sometimes, when you least expect it, a gift comes your way.
“Well Charlie, your blood pressure is great and your cholesterol is the best it’s ever been. Keep doing what you’re doing, especially with the holidays coming up. Step up your exercise, cut out the salt, and reduce those carbs.”
Charlie chuckled and nodded. He was one of my favorite patients, and a friend.
“I will doc. I know your mantra by heart. Heard it a few times by now.”
He jumped down from the exam table and smoothed the front of his slacks. “And you know mine, too.”
I did know his “mantra”, and I waited for him to share it with me once again.
“Love your Lord, your family, and your friends. Gotta be in that order. Especially at this time of year, with tomorrow bein’ Christmas Eve and all.”
He stood there a moment, studying the tiled floor. “It wasn’t always that way for me, ya know. That wasn’t my focus, my priorities. It took somethin’…It took my almost dying to finally understand things.”
He looked up at me, silent, and I said, “Tell me about it.”
* * *
Charlie was twenty years younger when he took off with a couple of friends on a hunting trip to British Columbia. It was the dead of winter, and they had been promised some great moose hunts—maybe even some elk.
This would prove to be a rugged adventure, part of it on horseback through snow-covered forests, and part of it leading their horses up narrow and rocky ravines. On the first night, their guides led them to couple of weather-worn log cabins. Tight quarters, but warm. That wouldn’t be the case for the rest of their trip. They pitched tents in whatever shelter they could find, seeking relief from the near-constant snow and whipping, howling wind.
Worse still—no moose. No sign of any game for three days. Charlie and his friends were wondering if this hunting excursion would prove to be their biggest misadventure, and they voiced their concerns to the lead guide.
Jack was French-Canadian, an experienced hunter and tracker, and a man of few words.
“Soon,” was his response to their complaints.
That was enough, at least for the moment.
But two more days of trudging through drifts as high as their waist was taking its toll. They were tired and frustrated. And cold. The temperature hovered in the minus teens most of the day, worse at night. And they hadn’t seen the sun since getting off their plane in Vancouver. Huddled around their struggling fire, the discussion eventually turned to giving up and heading back down the mountain.
Not Charlie. He hadn’t come a couple of thousand miles for his first moose to give up now. The conversation became more animated, and Charlie was quickly and soundly outvoted. They were going to pack up in the morning and head home.
Charlie turned to Jack. “What do you think? Is there any chance of finding some moose?”
Jack pocked the fire with a long stick then dropped it onto the small blaze.
“Tomorrow.” His words were quiet, muffled by the wind hammering the tent walls.
“What was that?” Charlie asked, leaning closer to the man.
“He said ‘tomorrow’”, one of Charlie’s friends said, shaking his head. “Not me. But if you want to traipse off with him somewhere, have at it. One more day, though, and then we’re out of here.”
“Tomorrow then,” Charlie muttered, his eyes studying the flames as they licked and consumed Jack’s stick.
The next morning, Charlie and Jack were the only ones up at first light. It couldn’t be called “sunrise”, since that hadn’t happened in more than a week. It was just the black of night gradually and grudgingly giving way to what would be another gray and snowy day.
They saddled and loaded their horses, checked their packs for provisions should they get lost, and headed once again up the trail.
For a mile or so they wandered through tall redwoods, the snow not so deep here, and their passage was not difficult. In spite of multiple layers of clothing, Charlie caught himself shivering, and his jaw quivering. He was cold—colder than he could ever remember being.
They emerged from the forest and everything changed. The snow was deeper here—uneven drifts slowing them while a gathering storm threatened more frozen precipitation. Another thirty minutes and they could barely see the narrow trail before them. Jack and Charlie were walking now, leading their hesitant horses up into the fog and snow.
And then he was alone. Jack and his horse disappeared somewhere ahead, leaving Charlie stumbling forward. He called out to the guide, but the wailing wind blew his words back in his face.
His horse knew better, and was balking now, pulling against him. Charlie coaxed the animal, pulling on the reins and leaning into the steep hill. He could barely see the horse’s face when it happened. The wind ceased its relentless blowing and the snow stopped. It was only for an instant, but he had seen it. They were on the middle of a narrow trail—no more than two or three feet across—and on each side the earth dropped precipitously away, falling hundreds of feet to what must be a stony and deadly gorge.
Charlie froze, seized by a fear he had never experienced. The wind picked up and the snow fell harder than before, immediately blinding him. He barely could see the wide-eyed and frightened look on his horse, barely a foot in front of him.
He was going to die, and he knew it.
“Lord, save me.”
Thoughts of his wife and children flooded his mind, and his heart ached in his chest. He would never see them again. So many things unsaid. Some many things undone.
“Lord, save me.”
Charlie had always been a religious man, striving to be good in the eyes of his family and friends. But this was different. His life was about to end, and he sensed a great loss, a great emptiness.
And then the words flowed out of his heart. He understood, and he prayed for forgiveness, for not seeing what was right before him. It wasn’t about himself, or even his family. It was about his relationship with his Lord. That had to be first and foremost.
“Lord save me, and if I make it off this mountain, I will forever tell this story and what you did for me. And I will always try to put you first in my life, and then others.”
He wasn’t bargaining, or pleading. He finally understood.
A peace spread over Charlie, like the warm waters of a tropical beach. He no longer shivered. He was no longer afraid.
Whatever happened would happen. His life, as it had always been, was out of his control.
The horse reared, jerking the reins out of Charlie’s hands.
“This is it,” he thought. “We’re both going over the edge.”
The horse bolted past him, someone negotiating the narrow ledge without falling or pushing Charlie to a certain death. He reached out and grabbed the horse’s tail, then struggled to keep up with the animal as it lurched up the hill.
Blinding snow, howling wind, and the certainty of death on either side. Charlie closed his eyes and struggled to keep up.
The horse stopped and Charlie stumbled into its hind-quarters. He opened his eyes and was blinded by the dazzling sunlight of a blue, cloudless sky. Just ahead was Jack, standing beside his horse, looking out over a large, open meadow.
Charlie shielded his eyes, taking in the beauty of this place. He was alive. Somehow, he was alive.
“There.” The guide’s single, solemn word pierced the silence of the meadow.
Charlie looked at him. Jack was pointing to the edge of the meadow where a massive male moose stood near the treeline, its huge antlers moving majestically as he turned his head toward the two men.
“There’s your moose.” Jack held his rifle, ready to back up Charlie should his shot miss.
The moose was looking at Charlie now, his head held high and proud. Their eyes met, and for a moment, there was no sound in the meadow.
Then Charlie spoke. “Nothing will die on this mountain today.”
* * *
“Wow, I had no idea Charlie. What an experience.”
He took a deep breath and our eyes met.
“I’ve kept my word to the Lord doc. I tell that story whenever I get the chance. I’m not perfect, not by any stretch. But that happened more than twenty years ago and nothing has changed. I know what’s important. That’s my mantra, my song, and I’ll sing it all my days.”
He opened the door and stepped into the hallway.
“Oh, and Merry Christmas.”