Early last Monday morning, at 6:08 a.m. to be precise, the following email landed in my inbox: “Let me know what you think of the book. – J.”
What book? I immediately assumed my dear friend J., whom I haven’t seen or spoken to for quite some time, had made a mistake. Surely this email was intended for someone else. Perhaps my name popped up from her contact list as she typed in a name that started with a G or C and she hadn’t noticed. That’s happened to me. So I promptly typed the following reply: “What book?” It seemed more appropriate than, have you lost your marbles?
I went to send the reply email, but a millisecond before clicking the send button, something gave me pause. It couldn’t be, could it?
The week prior I had received a book from Amazon. That’s not unusual. I read a lot. I receive frequent Amazon deliveries. This particular delivery box contained a book on Buddhism. Again, nothing unusual there: I had recently ordered one or two on that very subject. I thought they had been delivered, but I could easily have been mistaken. What gave me pause at the time, however, was the title of the book: “Buddha’s Brain.” I didn’t remember that particular title, but, of course, it was quite possible my memory was hazy. I was busy with something else at the time, so I didn’t think much about it. I laid the book on the counter until I had time to read it.
I hadn’t given it any more thought, that is, until just before clicking the send button on my reply email to J. I stood up, walked to the kitchen, and picked up the book. Fortunately, I had stuffed the shipping papers into the book and not the trash can as I usually do.
When I pulled the paperwork from the book, this is what I found on a small slip: “A gift for you. Thought immediately of this book when I read your last post. It’s good. And at least in part, it takes dead aim at which you wrote about. Love to Susan. J.”
Suddenly, the 6:08 email made perfect sense. And just as suddenly I felt really stupid (and perhaps a little bit old). Naturally, I hurriedly trashed the draft reply email and wrote one that was contrite and more suitable to the occasion. I profusely apologized for my ridiculous oversight.
The next time I picked up the book was the following morning, when I deposited it into my bag to take along on a business trip that day to Tucson. I’d be on the plane for a total of four hours. I was eager to read the book; I knew that any book J. recommended would be well worth reading.
As I mentioned in my last post, it was a busy travel day, undoubtedly due in part to spring break. But it was my lucky day. I landed an aisle seat on the left side (better for a righty), with the middle seat open. There were but a few empty seats remaining on this Southwest flight. I was savvy enough to keep my eyes glued to my newspaper. From experience I knew a mere glance at a fellow passenger could be interpreted as a license to sit in my middle seat instead of the ones farther back.
I sensed the attendants were about ready to close the door and prepare to taxi. I remembered seeing a blur pass by, but didn’t think much of it. And then an attendant’s voice came over the PA system. “Would anyone seated in a row with an empty middle seat be so kind to move (presumably to a much less desirable middle seat, I silently interjected) so a mother and her young boy could sit together?” They were the blur.
D**n! It was like having a touchdown catch reversed on appeal. I thought I had it! I was so close.
I stood up, looked back and saw the anxious-looking young mother holding the hand of her little boy. I motioned to the two empty seats. Her face beamed with an overwhelming sense of relief and gratitude. The attendant found another seat for me. Surprisingly, it was an aisle seat, albeit not with a vacant middle. There couldn’t have been more than five or so empty seats on the plane. Why there was an empty aisle seat was a mystery to me.
A little while later I was sitting there with book in hand thinking about the look of relief and gratitude on the mother’s face. And it got me to wondering. Why did that please me so?
It truly was no big deal giving up my seat; it was trivial by any standard. Yet I took great delight in seeing the look on the mother’s face with her little boy by her side. More to the point, I took delight in having had the opportunity to give them something. But it wasn’t my gift that was on my mind. It was their gift to me. Yet I hadn’t immediately recognized it as a gift to me.
Similarly, the book my friend had Amazon deliver was a very special gift, yet, at the time, I hadn’t even realized it was a gift. Why?
I think it was because I wasn’t expecting a gift. Worse yet, I’m not sure I ever expect gifts.
Sitting there on the crowded plane, my mind traveled back to Tecate, Mexico. Vera, in the 1990s your grandmother, father, uncle and I accompanied a group from our church to Mexico to build a house for a poor family. We arrived in Tecate from San Diego after a ridiculously dangerous, rickety bus ride over a narrow, treacherous mountain road (without guard rails).
It was to be a very small house — certainly no larger than our family room in West Chester. The sponsor organization provided the plans and materials. There was to be only one window in this very small structure that was to be someone’s home. Here is a photo of your dad at the work site, and below is one of your grandparents (which tells you a lot about your grandmother!).
Our group purchased another window so the young couple would have two. We finished the basic structure in one week (the slab had been poured before we arrived). The electric and plumbing would be taken care of by someone else. At the end of our last work day, we turned over the house key to the young couple who would live there. I will forever remember the tears of joy streaming down the young woman’s face — all this, I thought, for a teeny, basic structure that no one in West Chester would even call a house. As I sat on the plane on my way to Tucson, I thought about the precious gift that Mexican couple had given to us gringos that sunny day in Tecate. It was a perpetual gift — one that was still alive more than 17 years later.
When your dad was in kindergarten, Vera, he was asked by his teacher to share three wishes. Your grandmother recently came across that school paper. One of your dad’s wishes was, “I wish there wasn’t any school.” Good move, D.: it’s a sure way to ingratiate yourself with a teacher. But it’s the last wish that I recalled while sitting on that Tucson flight: “I wish it was Christmas every day.”
Sitting on that plane, it occurred to me that maybe it is.
As I sat there experiencing inexplicable joy from being able to give my seat to a young mother and child, and the inexplicable, embarrassing oversight in not recognizing my friend’s gift when it was delivered to the house, I began to wonder what other disguised gifts I’ve received.
Here are just a few that came to mind:
- It was a gift seeing you earlier this month at your home in Indianapolis, Vera. Being able to hold you, make you laugh, help you walk, and spoon disgusting looking veggies into your open mouth was a precious gift beyond measure. Christmas was never any better.
- It was a gift a few days ago when I read this email from your mother: “… climbed three stairs by herself yesterday. (Carefully supervised, of course!) All she wants to do is climb everything and pull herself up! I love it; she’s so fun.” Christmas pales in comparison.
- It is a gift every Monday and Wednesday morning this semester when I get to spend 75 minutes with a class of college students as their teacher. Bi-weekly Christmas.
- It is a gift to have wonderful neighbors in Colorado (with whom we spent Easter yesterday) and to have the opportunity to live in this magnificent part of the earth and see the glorious skies, amazing wildlife and magnificent mountains. Christmas every day.
- It is a gift when your grandmother comes into the kitchen in the morning and hugs me. Pure Christmas.
I realize now that I could spend the rest of my life jotting down all the gifts I’ve received over the years that I hadn’t even recognized were gifts at the time they were received.
I suspect I hadn’t recognized my friend’s book as the gift it was simply because I wasn’t expecting it. It’s not in my nature to expect gifts. Perhaps it should be.
Perhaps your dad’s wish came true and I didn’t even know it. Perhaps it is Christmas every day.