Sunday, December 24, 2006

A Christmas Carol

By the waters of Babylon, there we sat and down and wept, when we remembered Zion.
Psalm 137

One of the more interesting things about life is that you can find perspective in the most unlikely places. This is a true story. This is what happened in a liquor store last year on Christmas Eve.

I was there buying a bottle of whiskey to take to my brother's house for the Christmas dinner I was already dreading. Not that I don't get along with my brother or anything. Well, let's put it this way. I get along with him as well as anybody does. It's just that I approached Christmas of 2005 with all of the joyous anticipation that I had earlier reserved for the colonoscopy that I had endured 2 weeks earlier. I was in the liquor store because I couldn't get the same kind of sedatives for Christmas that the doctor had given me to get through that earlier ordeal.

2005 was no fun. To use a sports metaphor-as I always do-when the Great Scorer starts to add 'em up on me, He will note that for the most part, 2005 was the year I hit around .125 while simultaneously losing about a foot on my fast ball. As far as I was concerned, the only thing good about the advent of the Holidays was the certain knowledge that they would usher in both a new year and the prospect of a potential comeback.

So there I was in line to pay for my whiskey when I heard someone say, "Tulane. What's going to happen to poor Tulane?"

There was a nattily attired older man standing behind me. I was wearing a Tulane sweatshirt that a friend had given me for Christmas. The gentleman reached toward me. He touched the letters on my shirt. OK. It was a little weird. But he seemed like a nice enough old guy.

"TOOlane." He said, pronouncing it correctly. "Poor TOOlane."

I offered my hand and introduced myself. I told him I graduated from law school there in 1981. I asked him what his connection was to the well known fount of lousy football.

"They fired me yesterday."

He was getting emotional. I took him by the arm and we stepped outside. He had been on the faculty of the medical school for 42 years. Tulane's medical campus downtown was ravaged by Hurricane Katrina along with LSU and Charity Hospital. Tulane and LSU got off fairly light in comparison to Charity. Charity was forced to shut down completely which was something I never thought I would see in this lifetime. I had read that Tulane and LSU decided to downsize significantly in order to survive. Downsizing is a polite way of saying you are getting rid of people to save money. The word comes easily. Maybe it's because we never think we may be standing in a line at the store next to someone who is the living embodiment of that sterile term.

The man acknowledged he was lucky saying he knew lots of people who were a lot worse off than him. Lots of folks on the Coast were left destitute and here he was up here in Little Rock grateful to the colleague at UAMS who had gotten him a position there. He found himself a place to live in my neighborhood. And, I might add, he found the liquor store. Things could be worse. He wasn't in a FEMA trailer in Port Sulphur. He knew that and he was grateful.

"Believe me, I am not complaining." He said. "The people here couldn't be nicer. I am enjoying living somewhere where the seasons actually change. The cool air is invigorating. Arkansas is so beautiful and UAMS is first rate. Absolutely first rate. But it's not home. I miss Tulane. I miss my old life."

At this point he was weeping openly. I put my arm around his shoulders and walked him out away from the store. That seemed to wake him up.

"Don't pay me any mind,"he said, pulling himself together. "I'm just a foolish old man. I usually handle this situation pretty well if I may compliment myself. But just seeing you in that shirt reminded me that as wonderful as Arkansas is, and as kind as the people are, it's just not home. And I was just..overwhelmed I guess. I apologize for behaving so foolishly in public. This really isn't like me."

I assured him he had no reason to apologize.

"Thank you for listening."he said as he shook my hand.

"Merry Christmas, Doc. I hope to see you again soon." I said.

"Merry Christmas to you." he replied as he turned away.

He took a few steps then turned back around to face me again.

"You tell your lady friend that her Christmas present made an old man cry."

We take blind dumb luck for granted in this life. We feel we are entitled to be happy and that success is a given. However, but for a different roll of the cosmic dice, my life could have worked out dramatically for the worse and I know it. Don't get me wrong. I've got my fair share of problems just like anybody else. Ask anyone that knows me. They will be happy to confirm this.

But I haven't been displaced. I have a job. I'm as healthy as a horse. I have my home where I am surrounded by my friends and my loved ones. There's a little money laid aside and there's food in the refrigerator. When it comes right down to it, I have nothing to complain about. It would be nice this Christmas if we could all think more about those around us who are forced to persevere in tough circumstances more than we think of ourselves.

I haven't seen Doc lately. God knows, Tulane ain't Zion but it represented everything that was home for him. Maybe he made it back home for Christmas. If so, I hope someday he is able to remember his time here in Babylon with some measure of fondness.

And I hope God will forgive me if I ever take any aspect of my relatively charmed existence for granted. Even for one minute.

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