Nothing about December 2022 has felt Christmassy. Maybe it was starting the month missing you and your sister as you finished your first semesters of college. Or maybe it’s because Dad’s job currently demands more of him than any of us like to spare. And then there was my bright idea to trade in rogue pine needles and runny noses for a pre-lit plastic tree from Walmart this year. Perhaps when I’m not finding needles in the back of the suburban or stuck in the living room rug come April I’ll be thankful, but no amount of Trader Joes Cedar Balsam candles have been able to replace the ambiance of a live Christmas tree. Not to mention, twenty years worth of homemade ornaments don’t tell the same stories hanging from perfectly symmetrical plastic branches- they simply add to the Walmart flare.
This was also the first year my Christmas shopping was done almost exclusively from the couch, checking things off your three sister’s wish-lists shared on our family group texts. Lists complete with links to oversized sweatshirts I hate, the latest gadgets no one needs, and new shoes that drain the entire Christmas budget with one click. I never walked down a toy isle, moved an elf, and we didn’t even pretend to leave Santa cookies on Christmas Eve.
This year I especially appreciated your staunch refusal to make your own list, not wanting to use other people’s money to get yourself a present. And I appreciate your determination to not look at your sisters’ lists, wanting each gift you give to be your own idea. Intent even to use your own money to shop for us despite my willingness to subsidize.
Of course, son, as much as you love your family, your favorite part of being home for the holidays is endless hours with Sully, your beautiful blue Parrotlet who’s been your constant companion and best friend since you adopted him last spring. Years of begging and months of research finally convinced us to let you get this pet bird. The bird facts you’ve accumulated are only topped by the mathematical formulas and programming algorithms constantly coursing through your brilliant mind. You told us how smart and friendly these tiny creatures were, but we never imagined the bond that could exist between a boy and his bird. Nor did I expect a bird to be so like having a toddler. He is needy, loud, and messy, but he is also delightfully affectionate, playful, and curious. As much as I enjoy Sully, the best part of having him around is how often you call or come home to check on him. I’ve been so excited about the bird monitor wrapped and waiting under the tree so next semester you’ll have constant access to him while at school. I’ve only requested when you mention coming home to see your parrot, you pronounce it in a way that sounds a bit more like parents!
The week before Christmas when our family of six was under one roof, excitement finally began to build as the boardgames came out of hiatus, no seat was left empty at the dinner table, and beds, couches, and extra mattresses were filled nightly with your sisters’ friends. Of course, Dad continued running reports at midnight and had endless work meetings, but even he finally managed to complete his Christmas shopping just before stores closed heading into Christmas Eve.
The excitement stalled however when the Grinch made an unwelcome visit that same evening to your dad’s truck, busting the window and stealing (along with other things) the beautifully wrapped package for Mom. On top of the typical holiday to-dos, we now had credit cards to cancel, windows to replace, more errands to squeeze in on Christmas Eve, and a few less gifts to unwrap Christmas morning.
Twas the day before Christmas and we were all running around getting ready for the annual Candlelight service and Christmas Eve celebration with the cousins. You and Sully were playing video games and watching YouTube videos, gladly pausing each time Dad or I asked for help. I was in the living room wrapping the last few boxes Amazon just delivered when Dad asked you to take out the trash. A minute later I heard your panicked scream. I rushed outside and after convincing you to breath, understood you’d taken out the trash oblivious to the fact Sully was still on your shoulder. Startled by the crash of the trash landing in the bin, he flew. Dad and I sprung into action, walking the street listening intently to the chorus of bird songs filling the cold December air. You heard it first- the unmistakable squawking of an anxious desperate Sully coming from the neighbor’s backyard tree. I ran inside to the Christmas tree and unwrapped Dad’s new binoculars, immediately realizing the irony that both your parents would now be without presents to open Christmas morning. Our neighbors granted permission to enter their backyard and climb their trees in hopes of reuniting a devastated teenage boy and his terrified bird. But there was no chance anyone would be able to climb anywhere near the wispy branch 50 feet in the air where Sully was stuck paralyzed in fear. For hours we watched other birds curiously circling and pecking at his tiny body, forcing him to new heights. I’ll never forget watching Dad and your sisters climb into the car and head to the Christmas Eve service while you sat faithfully perched on the roof of our garage begging Sully to fly to you. After hours of tree climbing and bird watching, I’d no choice but to begin preparing dinner. The house was a mess, presents left half wrapped, but even you knew a Christmas Eve meal must be prepared for our soon to arrive guests. And we both knew as the sun continued its descent, you would soon be saying one last goodbye to your best friend. We left the open cage in the driveway right by the trashcans that originally startled him, hoping if forced from the tree he’d head there for safety.
I listened to you tell him you love him, and that you were sorry. I listened to his last chirps as the sun finally disappeared and he settled in for the night. I helped you off the garage and together we went inside scraped up, sun and wind burned, fingers frozen stiff, and toes frostbitten. We cried together as you went over everything you knew about the dangers the night held for Sully. The good news was it was likely too cold for all the neighborhood owls to be out hunting tonight. So even though his tiny delicate frame and bright blue feathers would make him an easy target, he might not meet any birds of prey. But the bad news was his tiny tropical Parrotlet body can only survive for short times in temperatures as low as 50°. We checked the weather acknowledging it was already 38° and soon it would hit a low of 27°. I added a blanket and his favorite treats to the cage calling out to him through the darkness, but as you had expected he was no longer responding. Being a lover of science, you never once questioned the natural course of events and saw no point in the cage or my waking up and checking in throughout the night. You explained to me several times that once the sun sets and a bird settles in to roost, he will not wake again until the sun rises. If he wakes at all.
The cousins came and went, and I was so proud of you for loving them well despite your broken heart. It was a beautiful picture of what it means when the weary rejoice! When they left, I busied myself with all the normal night before Christmas tasks, adding to the list removing a fourth of your presents under the tree because they were meant to be shared with Sully.
Just before heading to bed, I stopped by your room to remind you God tends to the birds of the air. I shared my plan to be outside by his cage when the sun came up. I told you to prepare for the worst, but hope for the best. You have never cared much for trite cliches or empty platitudes, so you told me through your tears that false hope is never helpful, and God never promised life wouldn’t hurt or that it would always make sense. You told me real hope is not the same thing as wishing for something that might possibly come true. You also told me it was pointless to hope in ever seeing Sully again, even if it was your hearts most desperate desire. And you reminded me of the statistics which promised you’d almost certainly never see Sully again. I conceded that it was wrong to put any hope in my deep desire Sully would magically show up by morning. But I also reminded you not to put your hope in statistics and the laws of nature as they too bow to the Creator.
I ignored the impossible odds that my striving would make no difference, checking the cage one last time before getting into bed. And I checked it again several times during the night wondering through tears why God was taking so long to restore all that is broken in this world and in my own heart. Wondering how to wake up Christmas morning and rejoice despite the restlessness and the weariness within and without. Wondering how to make my own soul hope beyond what this human heart desires or my limited mind knows. Restless sleep finally came until the first bird sound startled me awake just as the sun began to rise.
I threw on fuzzy socks and a snuggie a top my pajamas, raced out the back door, and then began to pace our driveway circling the bird cage. For over an hour I watched the daylight break and listened to the birds come alive one by one adding their unique music to the chorus in the sky. I occasionally added my own chirps and whistles to the mix hoping to hear Sully’s familiar chatter and chirps in response.
But alas, I said my own final goodbye to Sully, then on my way inside noticed the truck’s shattered window yet to be replaced. The eternal optimist in me thought how nice it would be if Sully found his way inside the truck during the night giving both the robbery and the escaped bird some purposeful closure and a happy ending. I even peeked inside just in case, but no such luck. I walked in the back door leaving the December chill outside, and set our annual Christmas traditions in motion. I turned on the oven and placed the same orange flavored Pillsbury cinnamon rolls your dad ate as a little boy on Christmas morning on the baking sheet. Then as the oven preheated I collected all the Christmas Eve trash, and took it out back. As I dropped it in the outside can, I suddenly heard those unmistakable squawks and squeals from our neighbor’s backyard oak, undoubtedly meant to catch my attention. I tripped as I bolted up the stairs to wake you. And then woke everyone else in the process of insisting you put on pants and shoes before leaving the house.
I chased you out the door with a coat, but by the time I got there you were already climbing onto the garage roof convinced you’d seen Sully in our own backyard. Our recent research told us birds raised in captivity often struggle to navigate the art of flying downward, so you wanted to give him a target he could possibly reach. And oh, how he tried to reach you! He flew back and forth from treetop to treetop as you called to one another. But it was obvious we needed a new plan. You are far too risk-adverse and clumsy to safely navigate the great heights of our house’s two-story hipped roof, and unfortunately your bird and your father do not get along. I am only slightly less clumsy and much less agile than you, so I didn’t initially seem like the best option. We recruited fearless Hallie to join our rescue mission, but the bird missed his target flying just over her head, landing in the pear tree across the street.
It seemed obvious I was going to have to ascend the roof myself. So as the Spaulding siblings were tweeting and whistling out in the front yard, Dad hoisted me from the patio roof up to the second story where I spent the next half hour of our Christmas morning flapping and bird calling along our highest roof ridge in my fuzzy socks, Birkenstocks, tie dye pajama pants, and a large grey hooded snuggie. I saw the Parrotlet in the pear tree and giggled as I sang about this wonderful gift given to me on this first day of Christmas! I long since stopped worrying what the neighbors think about our odd family as you walk around the cul-de-sac for hours daily thinking your brilliant thoughts out loud. I imagine whatever they thought before now has been confirmed by your rather eccentric mother’s rooftop Christmas adventure.
At the time however, all I was considering was how to get that bird home. After a few attempts to fly as other birds pecked and pushed him out of their air space, Sully managed to land on the far side of the roof where I was pacing. We inched towards each other until he finally flew to my shoulder. Dad managed to get me down slowly and calmly, but just as I was about to climb through the second story window onto Hallie’s bed, Sully flew again. There was a collective gasp from all of us, followed by a collective sigh as he quickly landed on his favorite shoulder. I moved out of the way so that my boy and his bird could climb through the window first, and our very Merry Christmas could finally begin!
Cade, you are right that it is dumb to prepare for the worst and hope for the best, because real Hope does not ever disappoint. Hope that is real is sure, steady, and certain. Wishing all suffering and sadness would stop does not make it stop any more than wishing your bird home was ever going to bring him home. Wishing in something flimsy and uncertain will always disappoint us even though some of our wishes sometimes do come true. Our own feelings, desires, and wishes are as flimsy as the tree branch that kept your bird alive, and no matter how much we want something, nothing in this world is certain or guaranteed. But this nothing also includes statistics and nature. Trusting in facts, formulas, logic, and reason to have the final say in this world will also disappoint us. Facts may be true, and feelings may be real, but neither are unchanging, sure, steady, or certain for all eternity.
You and Sully taught me a lot about hope this week. You taught me the difference between a wish and a hope. You taught me not to prepare for the worst, but rather to fight against the worst. Preparing for the worst often means that we do nothing and resign ourselves to defeat. Just like we fought and worked hard to bring Sully home even though the odds were against us, and the onlookers thought we were completely insane, so we should be constantly fighting for what is good, true, and beautiful, and we should work hard to extend justice and grace to a broken and hurting world even if victory feels impossible. And we do that because we have placed our hope in a victory that is not impossible but is absolutely certain. This Hope is the hope of Christmas and the only reason a weary world has to rejoice. Because the birth of Jesus means that the world will not be weary forever. So, we fight against the worst, rejoicing in a sure and steady Hope guaranteeing the best is yet to come. Merry Christmas Cade!