With Christmas just two weeks away, I am reminded that I’ve never been lucky in receiving or giving Christmas gifts. I get something I don’t need or want and turn around and do the same for a friend.
But two years ago, I gave the perfect Christmas gift. I bought it on the spur of the moment at a convenience store. It was not wrapped. Most of it was hazardous to health. The rest of it would disappear in a couple of days. But I never felt better about a gift, and I would be repaid – in full.
The recipient was Betty, a welfare mother and sometimes crack cocaine user who died three months ago – one month after her 50th birthday. She’d been homeless. She’d been helpless (suffering from bone cancer). Some would call her hapless.
She was a friend of mine. I met her in 1996 when my St. Thomas colleagues (Ron Riley, Brad Jacobsen and Steven Lybrand) and I were working on a documentary about those living in poverty: who they were, what happened to their families and why they couldn’t turn things around.
Betty could be exasperating. She frequently screamed at her four children. She never had a regular mealtime or bedtime or read-a-story time. The father of her children was long gone and Betty had neither the skills nor inclination to provide a real home.
For a month Betty worked at The Grill at St. Thomas, making sandwiches. She liked the job, loved the students and, I think, felt good about working. But as usually happened with Betty, she’d oversleep the alarm and miss her bus and her shift.
She lived in north Minneapolis, south Minneapolis and, for a few months, in a downtown shelter. She lived with an aquarium full of tropical fish and a big-screen TV, and she lived in a rented duplex that had no working furnace and no running water. That’s where I connected with her after a two-year absence – just before Christmas.
A friend and I walked up to the house on 18th Avenue, just off Franklin Avenue. The yard was strewn with cans and bottles. Some of the windows were broken. The door looked as though it’d been assaulted with an axe. Finally, the door opened. Betty was dressed in a torn and tattered housecoat. I stood there and stared.
“Dave,” she said. She put her arms around me and we clung together for … it must have been five minutes. I can’t recall a greeting so needy, so overwhelming, so poignant. She didn’t ask me why it had been so long. She didn’t complain. She just hugged me.
The front of the house had been used by drug dealers, whose customers came day and night. She heated the living room and kitchen by leaving open the stove door. She got water from the neighbors, carrying several buckets a day to fix a meal, wash her face or flush the toilet. Her kids weren’t doing well: too many babies and too little money.
They came to see Betty sporadically, and the visits usually ended in arguments over money.
My friend and I decided to visit the corner convenience store. We bought a case of bottled water, two gallons of spring water, a sixpack of Mountain Dew (the sugar AND the caffeine) and three packs of Benson and Hedges menthol 100s. If they weren’t menthol or 100s, Betty didn’t want 'em.
When we got back to Betty’s place, I set the stuff on the cluttered kitchen table. “I know it’s not wrapped and I know it’s not much,” I mumbled, “but Merry Christmas.
Betty smiled. “Merry Christmas,” she said, “and come back.”
I did, maybe a half dozen times. Sometimes, she was doped up with drugs to relieve the pain. Sometimes, she was up to going outside for a smoke. In the winter, I’d bundle her up and push her wheelchair outside under the canopy of a tent adjacent to the nursing home in Robbinsdale.
The last time we saw each other was in August this year; the weather was warm and Betty and I sat outside under a tree at the edge of the parking lot. Her body was swelled from the steroids and she looked like the Pillsbury Doughboy in her wheelchair. She lit up and I hunkered down in front of her.
I told her I was going to have surgery for prostate cancer. “Say a prayer for me,” I told her, and she said she would. When I got up to go, I patted Betty’s cheek as I usually did. “Hey momma, keep up the fight. As long as you can put the flame to a smoke, they can’t keep you down.”
I turned, started to walk away and heard Betty say, “I love you.”
P.S. To give a perfect gift to a friend or family, tell them about the St. Thomas Christmas Concert to be broadcast on Twin Cities Public Television: 9 p.m. Dec. 23 on Channel 2, 7 p.m. Dec. 24 on Channel 17 and 9 a.m. Dec. 25 on Channel 2. The concert was wonderful. Imagine 2,000 people singing “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing.” The Lutherans have nothing on this group when it comes to sound, soul and spirit.