A ride home on Christmas eve

pierogi ornament 2

I was 6 years old. It was Christmas eve. The traditional Slovak dinner was prepared — mushroom soup and pierogies. My mom, my younger brother and I were waiting for my dad to get home so we could eat.

The waiting part was no surprise.

My dad served as a paratrooper in the Korean war. He was wounded during a mission. The experience changed him. He brought home some demons.

The demons emerged during the holidays. My dad would get off work at a marketplace in downtown Cleveland and head across the street to a tavern with his co-workers. They would have a holiday drink and go home; my dad would stay and drink. Maybe he was trying to drown those demons.

Meanwhile, we were home waiting. And getting hungry.

Mom decided we’d eat without him. After supper, my brother and I got into our new pajamas. We always got new ones for Christmas, the kind with footies and cool designs like race cars or superheroes.

Snug in our sleepwear, we sat on the couch and waited some more. It was getting late. My mom was anxious, afraid that something bad had happened.

A surprise visitor


Finally, headlights illuminated the driveway. We looked out the front window. We could see a car, and we could tell it wasn’t my dad’s car. We could see two silhouettes in the front seat — a driver and a slumped-over passenger.

The slumped-over passenger? My dad, no doubt. Someone had given him a ride home. Not the first time.

The driver helped my dad to the front door. When my mom opened the door, we saw both figures in the light and got a huge surprise.

The man who drove my father home? A black man.

Understand this: We lived in an ethnic neighborhood on Cleveland’s east side. There were no black people in my neighborhood. Many people in my neighborhood wouldn’t welcome a black person to their door. This was the 1960s. The civil rights movement was in full swing. There was a lot of racial tension in cities like Cleveland.

This black man had great courage coming to my house, not knowing how he would be received.

After they got my dad inside, my mom invited the man to stay and eat – her way of saying thanks. He accepted. I remember sitting at the kitchen table with him. I’m guessing it was the only time in his life that he had pierogies and mushroom soup.

He saw he could help, so he did

Years later, I asked my mom about that night. The man told her that he knew my dad, saw him at the bar, realized he was in no condition to drive, and decided to get him home safely.

The man could have found any number of legitimate reasons to avoid getting involved. It was Christmas eve. He’d be putting someone drunk into his car, risking a mess. He didn’t know my family and whether we would welcome his gesture or even appreciate it. Besides, my dad would probably just get drunk again and be in the same predicament, so what’s the point?

Why bother with him?

Instead of walking away, the man thought about how my dad could get behind the wheel and kill himself, and maybe kill someone else, too. The man could do something about it, so he did.

He changed everything about my life – more than any of us can ever know.

Months later, my dad recognized that his drinking was a problem. He joined Alcoholics Anonymous and courageously transformed his life. My family had many good times together over the years, times we might not have received if not for that courageous man on Christmas eve.

One act changes everything

And who knows how many other families were affected that night? Many people were on the road. How many other lives and other families did the man save?

I never saw that man again. I think about him every Christmas, though. I’m thankful for what he did.

Every Christmas eve, I pray for the man who had the kindness to drive my dad home and change my life and my family in unknowable ways. And I pray for the courage to be a little more like him every day.

Maybe you could, too.

Wait a while


One of my favorite summer activities as a youngster was setting up for our church festival. We lived down the street from our Catholic church – Our Lady of Lourdes — and got paid to do the grunt work.

The pastor was a kind man known as Father John. He’d directed many festivals and knew the process. He was wise about many things, including the importance of patience.

He was always slowing down us youngsters.

For instance, we wanted to drag the tables and chairs out of the creepy, cobweb-filled church basement and set them up in the food court as fast possible, checking that nasty job off our to-do list. Father John knew better.

He’d tell us: “Wait a while.”

As we toted the dirty tables from the church basement, he’d have us unfold them and set them on their sides. He’d get a hose and spray them clean, reminding us that nobody wants to sit at a dirty table.

He’d also spray us a time or two, which was part of the fun on a hot June afternoon.

Only when the tables and chairs were clean and dry were they ready to be moved to their proper place. Father John was right about this, of course. He knew that in our rush to move onto the next thing, we’d be creating problems down the line.

Just slow down. Do what needs to be done now, and do it well – even if you end up wet and dirty in the process.

Wait a while.

No fast-forward button

That three-word expression has stuck in my head all these years. It’s taught me not only about setting up chairs and tables for an event, but also about getting through many difficult challenges in life.

Sometimes, you just have to wait a while.

I’ve had so many times when I wished I could hit a fast-forward button. I’d think about something exciting that’s just over the horizon – summer vacation, graduation, a new job, a fun trip, starting a family – and I’d spend a lot of time daydreaming about it and looking forward to it.

And in the process of fixating on days to come, I’d miss all the good stuff in the current one.

I think that fast-forward feeling is particularly true for all of us in the tough times. We lose a parent or a spouse or a child, and we wish the pain would go away instead of scraping our insides day after day. We lose a job or a relationship or a role, and we want to move onto the next thing right away.

Something happens that bruises our self-confidence or our self-worth, and we wish the wound would heal overnight.

Grieving and healing work in their own time, in their own way, for each of us. It’s no fun being in those moments, but the only way to grow through them is to accept them while without slipping into despair.

Yes, this moment really sucks. But it’s not the end. Be a little patient.

Wait a while.

Many faith communities recently observed a wait-a-while day, the one between Good Friday and Easter Sunday. It recalls the day after a group of followers saw their leader publicly humiliated and executed as an insurgent.

Their response? They ran and hid behind locked doors. They felt totally crushed. Their lives had just crashed and burned — or so it seemed. All their aspirations of transforming the world with their message of love-one-another felt so foolish.

It’s time to get real, give up and move on. Go back to fishing or doing whatever.

But wait a while. The story isn’t finished. You’ll see, soon enough.

The story isn’t finished

None of our stories is ever finished. The author of life never gives up on life, or on the love that infuses all of it and each of us. We go through many times when it feels as though we’ve been crushed. All our hopes and aspirations seem buried, and a big old stone has been rolled in front of the tomb.

We need to hold fast a little longer, and to listen as we do. We’ll hear the sound of the immovable stone somehow getting rolled away. Soon, the morning sunlight is peeking into the cold, dead space inside of us, infusing us with life again.

It takes time. It never happens in an instant or an hour or a day. There’s no fast-forward button to healing and growth – and it’s probably best. If there was, we’d wind up zooming past life itself.

So, hold on. Wait a while. Your story isn’t finished.

In many ways, it’s starting all over again.