Another Christmas where everything had gone wrong.
It shouldnít have. Everything was set for a wonderful
Christmas. Bing was singing White Christmas right after the
Chipmunks had chirped through their holiday offering. Lights decorating
the porch tossed colors through the picture window, scattering red and
blue and green and gold across the hardwood floors. Christmas cards hung
on a string in front of the window. Over the fireplace, a crŤche was
arranged with the Wise Men still journeying across the thick oak mantel to
reach the baby lying in a porcelain manger set beneath a glowing star. A
small Christmas tree, perched on a short table, glistened with tinsel and
ornaments and lights. Everything was ready for a perfect Christmas, but it
Mr. Shepard looked at the table which he had set with
the dishes his late wife had brought out only once a year. Arranged on the
tablecloth that was as white as his hair, the red and green dishes looked
festive. A poinsettia was flanked by candles decorated with wax ivy and
berries. From the kitchen of the first floor apartment came the scent of
roasted turkey and all the fixings. Heíd ordered it from the caterer
right after Thanksgiving, hoping that this would be the year that
Christmas would go right. It had started out okay. His daughters came to
visit, bringing his grandchildren and great grandchildren. And despite the
fact that even the youngest was questioning if Santa was real, theyíd
had fun exchanging gifts and looking at photos of previous Christmas
Sitting in his favorite chair by the window that
overlooked the porch of the large Victorian house and the street beyond in
the quiet southeastern Massachusetts town of Lansboro, he watched as
snowflakes were tossed back and forth by the wind. Heíd planned with
such care this year, not inviting either Gabrielle or Mike, who lived in
the two apartments upstairs, until the very last minute. That way, heíd
been sure that neither one would discover the other was coming for dinner
at his apartment...until it was too late. Even that plan had failed.
First, Gabrielle had sent her regrets, saying that one
of her older sisters was calling during what would have been the middle of
dinner. Her sister lived on the West Coast, so they didnít talk as often
as theyíd like, and her sister would be hurt if Gabrielle wasnít there
to take the call. Mr. Shepardís offer to push dinner back was one sheíd
reluctantly accepted. He glanced at the clock over the mantel. She should
be arriving in a few minutes.
But the other upstairs tenantóMikeóhad bowed out
with the excuse of needing to work late at his lab across town, that his
work was reaching such a critical point that even the holidays had to take
a backseat. How could Mr. Shepard argue with that? He wasnít even sure
what Mike did out there. It was some kind of medical research, but beyond
that anything Mike explained was too esoteric for an old man to
A knock came on the door.
He stood slowly. If he fell and broke a bone, he could
end up in a place like the one where Gabrielle worked, a place for old
people. Heíd lived in this house from the time he was married, over
sixty years ago, and heíd changed it from a single-family to a multi-
because he missed the sound of young people. When Gabrielle had moved in a
few years ago, heíd been delighted. Then young Mike had taken the second
apartment almost two years ago, and heíd hoped that romantic sparks
would soon fly. The two of them were made for each other. They just didnít
seem to know that.
"Come in!" he called.
"Merry Christmas," Gabrielle said when she
opened the door. Her dark hair was pulled back with a festive ribbon, and
she held out a container of brightly decorated cookies with one hand while
the other remained behind her back. "Iím so sorry about being
He noticed how she took the time, while she was
greeting him, to scan the main room of the apartment. Was she still
worried that Mike might be hiding behind the small Christmas tree, its
lights blinking on and off merrily? Why was she so skittish around that
"Better late than never." It was a silly
response, but he didnít know what else to say. "Címon in."
Gabrielle walked in and held out a bag she had been
holding behind her back. "Merry Christmas, Mr. Shepard."
"You shouldnít have brought me a gift."
"If you can make dinner, I think I can make you
something." She set the cookies on the table and watched expectantly
as he opened the bag.
He lifted out a delicate paper snowflake. It was as
intricately designed as an arabesque. Three-dimensional, it hung from
plastic thread that vanished when held up to the light. It looked
different from every angle as it twirled in his fingers. He knew it must
have taken heróeven with her artistic talentóhours to cut out the
"Itís beautiful," he said with a broad
smile. "Thank you."
"Itís one of a kind." She laughed.
"You know how they say that no two snowflakes are alike."
"This one looks like a star."
Her smile broadened. "Iíd thought it resembled a
star, too, but I set out to make a snowflake, so you could enjoy it all
winter, not just for today."
"Iíll enjoy admiring it every day, summer as
well as winter."
"As I said, itís one of a kind. Itíll be a
long time before I attempt something that elaborate again."
"Itís good to see you spending some time on your
art." He looped the plastic thread over the knob on the built-in
hutch so it hung down and continued to move in every breath of air seeping
through the old windows.
"It felt good to spend some time on it."
Motioning for her to sit at the table, Mr. Shepard
brought the sliced turkey from the kitchen and set it on the table next to
the bowls covered with aluminum foil. "Anything worthwhile needs some
time spent on it, or else it just withers and dies."
"True." She began to peel the foil off bowls
of potatoes and gravy and vegetables.
"Anything worthwhile," he repeated, glancing
at the empty place setting across the table from her.
Gabrielle stiffened. "Itís Christmas, Mr.
Shepard. Canít we talk about peace on earth?"
"And good will toward men?"
She wagged a finger at him, but her smile looked
strained. "Save the matchmaking for Sadie Hawkinsís Day."
"That comes only on February 29th."
"But womenís lib did away with a girl having to
wait for a boy to ask her out. Why donít you and Mike go out for dinner
some night? Just get away from everything and get to know each other
better." He offered her a smile. "He is a really nice
"Iím sure he is. Do you want some
potatoes?" She held out the bowl.
Mr. Shepard sighed, beginning to think there was no
hope that either Gabrielle or Mike would open their eyes and seeóreally
seeóeach other. As he and Gabrielle ate and chatted easily about every
subject but the man who hadnít joined them, he wondered if romance was
dead for young people. Heíd done everything on earth he could think of
to persuade them to see each other as something more than neighbors, as
something more than just a someone who passed through a busy life barely
Everything on earth.
Through the meal and while he was bidding Gabrielle a
good evening after telling her that he didnít want any help with the
dishes, he glanced again and again at the snowflake...the star snowflake.
It was dancing in the heat coming from the grumpy furnace. Light reflected
on the white paper, making it shine as stars always did more brightly on
this special night. A night that for more than two millennia had been
proof that miracles were possible.
He sat in his favorite chair and stared out the window
as headlights turned into the driveway next to the house. A car pulled up
beside Gabrielleís. He didnít need to be able to see through the
darkness beyond the porch light to know it was Mikeís car. Itíd
developed a hole in its muffler yesterday and now sounded like a
tractor-trailer with heartburn. When he waved to the young man rushing up
the steps, Mike waved back before coming into the house. The porch lights
shut off moments before there was a knock on his door.
"Come in!" Mr. Shepard called as he had to
The door opened just enough for Mike to peek in. His
light brown hair looked as if it could use a cut, and he wore a coat too
thin for the cold night. Intelligence and fatigue filled his eyes. "I
wanted to stop in and wish you a Merry Christmas! Iím sorry I missed
your Christmas supper, Mr. Shepard. Maybe next year I wonít be tied down
with work at the lab."
"You said that last year."
He laughed. "So I did. How about I bring down some
beer for us to have a celebration on New Yearís Eve?"
"You donít have other plans?"
"Neither does anyone else in the house."
It was odd, Mr. Shepard mused, how Mikeís expression
was identical to Gabrielleís whenever he suggested the two of them might
seek each other out. They were so much alike. Kindhearted,
overworked, and scared of...He wasnít sure what they were scared of, but
itíd made them worse than gun-shy. Itíd made them love-shy. He couldnít
imagine a sorrier state for a young man and a young woman.
When Mike hurried to make his escape, Mr. Shepard took
pity on him and let him go with a "Merry Christmas" and
"See you soon."
He looked back out the window. With the porch light
off, he could see the snowflake star reflected there, a companion to the
other stars glittering in the crisp winter night. He had tried
everything on earth to bring Gabrielle and Mike together. Now he needed to
try something else. Heíd never asked for a miracle, but he was 85 years
old. If he didnít ask tonight when the need was so desperate, when would
Folding his hands together, he bowed his head and
began, "Dear Lord, Iím asking you to intercede in the lives of
Gabrielle DíAngelo and Michael Archer." He hesitated. What exactly
did he want for them? With a smile, he continued, "All Iím asking
for them is to open their hearts so they might discover love and realize
they want to spend their lives together raising a family. Isnít it
obvious to You that they belong together? This is the only thing Iím
asking. A Christmas to make whatís wrong right."
When had Heaven gotten boring? Not boring exactly. Just
the same, century after century.
Jack leaned his chin on his elbow and looked around
him. No one else seemed bored. The pax collectors were busy. There was
always someone praying for peace. Beyond them, the dogma catchers were
arguing a point of law. They never stopped debating and never changed
their minds on anything.
He turned his chair in the other direction. The
hosanna-tation workers were busy preparing hallelujahs, and the sic
transit gloria mundi drivers were scheduling those who were about to
take their final journeys.
Everyone was busy. Everything was running smoothly.
Just as it always did.
He watched as a trainee, Ernie, placed a stack of
papers on Jackís otherwise clean desk. He seldom got ahead here at the
Pray Care Center and never at this time of year. When December rolled
around on Earth, folks who had not had time for prayers during their busy
lives the rest of the year suddenly sent up requests for blessings on the
whole world. Goodwill to men was easy. Peace on Earth he passed on to the
pax collectors in hopes that this year would be the one to answer that
prayer of peace.
"What is this?" asked Ernie, picking a slip
up from the floor. Glancing at it, the trainee gulped loudly as he handed
it to Jack.
Jack sat straighter. What was this? A prayer
request on the floor? How had it gotten on the floor? He looked at the
date on it. The prayer had been sent up in October, almost two months ago.
He groaned as he read the prayer asking that a childís pet not die.
Gathering his robes around him, Jack fairly flew to his
supervisor. He held out the slip, bowed his head, and gulped like Ernie
His supervisor took one look at it and sighed.
"Oh, good heavens, this is not good."
"Spot is no longer on Earth." The supervisor
opened a large book and pointed to a page. "Yes, Spot left the Earth
two days after this prayer was sent up." She sighed again. "It
was a blessing, for Spot was suffering greatly."
Jack smiled with relief. "So there is nothing that
would have changed."
His supervisor closed the book. "Jack, you know
our policy. We will have no unanswered prayers."
"But if Spot was scheduled to leaveó"
His supervisor tapped a scroll hanging nearby.
"How could you have forgotten our prayer policies after your many
years at the Pray Care Center?"
Jack stared at the scroll and read silently:
No prayer will go unanswered.
If the prayer request cannot be filled in a timely
manner, a satisfactory substitute will be found.
Every request is blessed.
The supervisor shook her head again and said, "I
will have to take this to my supervisor. This is a sad oversight,
Jack. A child could lose faith over this. It will have to be attended to
at once, before we lose that young heart." She gave him a kind smile
as she put her hand on his shoulder. "You have always paid such
attention to your work. I am sure that will count in your favor."
Jack dragged himself back to his desk. Ernie was
waiting there, his eyes wide.
"What happened?" Ernie asked.
Jack sat at his desk. "I let a prayer slip past
me. Iíve never done that before."
"Everyone makes mistakes."
"This is Heaven, Ernie. Youíre not on Earth any
longer. Heaven shouldnít make mistakes."
"So what will you do?"
"I need to make sure I donít make any more
mistakes. I need to get these prayer requests handled on time." He
brightened. "Better yet, Iíll make sure I get answers for every
prayer coming here for the next few days. Iíll make sure everyone gets
just what they pray for."
Ernie looked uncertain. "You know that all prayers
canít be answered like that. Sometimes people pray for things that arenít
what they should have, things that could ruin their lives on Earth."
Waving him aside, Jack reached for the topmost sheet on
the pile. He choked back a gasp so loudly that the others in the Pray Care
Center looked down to see if thunder was nearing the gates of Heaven. When
he saw the names scrawled across the slip, he glanced in the other
direction. Not every prayer came from below. Some came from above. Prayers
from them had the highest priority.
He scanned the request. A lonely-hearts requestóto
help a man and a woman know that they were meant to spend their lives
together and build a family that would bring them joy.
He checked in his files. Yes, this was all right.
Answering this prayer should be simple; heíd forward the request to
family services with an "expedite immediately" on it. They would
handle the details, find the soul waiting to make this pair a family and
get that soul to Earth on the double. This was real basic stuff. Even
Ernie could handle this one. Love was one of the things Heaven did best.
Jack had answered these kinds of heartfelt prayers since heíd started
The only question was why they had sent it. They
did not usually get involved in this type of prayer request. They
were more apt to deal with the big global issues. Peace on Earth
definitely would come from them.
It was Christmastime, though. No one in Heaven ever
forgot that this was a very special time of year when exceptional things
happened and miracles seemed almost commonplace. Maybe that was what they
wanted. A miracle.
Jack grinned. Miracles were fun. They must be used
sparingly, because folks on Earth found it difficult to accept that a
miracle had happened. They wanted explanations why. Few people were able
to accept the truth on faith.
Ernie asked, "Can I help?"
"You can watch. As a trainee, you still have a lot
to learn." He quickly told Ernie what he needed and sent him to
retrieve it. "Just keep an eye on the time, okay?"
"Miracles have to unfold at the proper time."
Ernie grinned and rubbed his hands together. "A
Jack smiled, too, as the trainee rushed off to get what
they needed. His smile disappeared as he glanced down at the slip again.
It did seem odd that this request for a miracle had come in as a simple
prayer request, but, if this was what they wanted, then he should
not delay fulfilling it by asking his supervisor silly questions. He could
not let this one slip past him. He would make sure it was answered.