I was 16 years old in December of 1989 and living in the mountains of Northern California. We had snow on the trees and a skiff of it on the ground that year, but not enough to fill Lake Shasta yet. We prayed for more snow and rain to fill the depleted water reserves and hoped that our prayers would fit into the Lord’s grand scheme of things. We knew that the water was desperately needed in the fertile San Joaquin Valley to the south of us, but we wanted the beauty of the full lake in our own backyard as well. More snow would be a blessing.
Every Sunday and Wednesday we drove 45 minutes south over bridges, through forests and mountain passes to Central Valley, California to attend church and participate in its youth program. My brothers and I enjoyed these weekly treks. Aaron was old enough to drive the little blue Volkswagen Rabbit given to us by our brother Kirk. It was a 5 speed manual transmission that had a faulty starter motor. We lived at the top of a hill in the little town of Lakehead so leaving home and getting the car started was easy. Aaron would put it in neutral, Jared and I would give the car a push down our driveway, he’d pop the clutch, the engine would fire, we’d hop in on the run and together speed down the road on our way to college, church, or a dollar movie with friends. But getting it started for the trip home was by turns frustrating, irritating, embarrassing, or hilarious. We couldn’t always find a hill to park on so instead Aaron would search for a parking place that would give us a clear track to push it in. Jared and I would push the car around the parking lot, Jared muttering under his breath the whole time, while Aaron tried popping the clutch. Sometimes it worked but other times we’d wear ourselves out pushing the car around and around before it would finally sputter to life amid the sounds of Aaron laughing at us huffing and puffing and Jared debating the unfairness of himself never getting to be in the driver’s seat.
It was always considerably warmer in Central Valley and Redding than it was in our own mountain home. The snow we prayed for on our mountain tops never seemed to be more than rain down in the valley. We’d hit the slushy mess just as we crossed the last bridge over the lake and watch the snow disappear with the miles as the car traveled ever further south. I loved the snow more than the rain; the clean expanse of it, the hope of it for the coming year, the promise of fun on the slopes and runs of the mountain. The rain seemed dreary to me; cold, wet, and quickly dissipating into the earth where it couldn’t be held for future use. Even with the warmer valley weather, I preferred the perfection of the snow.
December had come that year with all of the usual excitement and the added knowledge that it would be my brother Aaron’s last Christmas with us before he served a church mission for 2 years. We didn’t know yet where he would be serving, but we were excited for him as he prepared and studied in expectation of the call. We had driven up to Mt. Shasta to cut down a tree the day after Thanksgiving. In typical “Mom” fashion it was enormous. She has always loved big trees. It almost brushed the top of the ceiling in our 11 foot living room. I remember sitting in the glow of its lights late one evening, my feet tucked up under me on the window seat, watching the reflection of the soft, colorful beams on the falling snow, sipping cocoa, and listening to the sound of Andy Williams singing Christmas carols scratching out of the speakers from Dad’s old records. I recall thinking “this is perfect, this moment is absolutely perfect.” And it was. I put a lot of weight on perfection in those days: perfect looks, perfect words, and perfect clothes.
It took an experience with the imperfections of life to help me see where real perfection was found.
My church young women’s leaders, Robin and Marilyn, had planned a simple service activity for one of our weekly Wednesday evening meetings. They had arranged for a caroling trip to the local nursing home where we would walk around, sing some Christmas songs, share a few smiles, and then travel back to the church for hot cocoa and cookies. I confess that I was more interested in the cocoa, cookies, and camaraderie of my friends than singing to the elderly. I was plagued by the callousness that often accompanies youth. I didn’t really think about how difficult it was for the elderly to sit day after day in one room, to hope for a visit from a friend or even a stranger that seldom came. I didn’t really want to enter the discomfort of those hospital-like rooms, with the antiseptic smells, sparse decor, and underlying scent of sorrow. We walked in past the small strand of Christmas lights that seemed a pathetic attempt to cheer those who must feel cheerless.
I watched the faces of the old as we sang “Silent Night” and “The First Noel”, some had tears in their eyes, some tried to sing along, and all thanked us as we left their rooms. I didn’t feel the joy that often accompanies service; I felt sad. How many people come and visit just at Christmas like we do? I thought. How long and empty the rest of the year must be. Where were the nameless, faceless, families of these old and feeble individuals? Did they come to visit? Did they bring not only Christmas cheer, but love on Valentine’s Day, hope at Easter, and gratitude at Thanksgiving?
And then Robin turned to us and stopped us before we entered the next room and my condemnation of nameless family members and friends turned on myself.
“We’re going into Brother Tingey’s room now” she said. “He has Alzheimer’s Disease so he doesn’t really remember much of anything. You know Sister Tingey passed away a while ago but the family said he doesn’t remember from day to day so don’t say anything to him about it okay? This is our last stop and then we’ll head back to the church.”
I had completely forgotten him but thoughts quickly ran through my mind as we began to file into his room. He and his small, sweet wife, who seemed so petite next to his tall frame, had been the white-haired angels of our congregation. I remembered their smiling faces from past Sundays, Sister Tingey’s gentle touch on my hair and Brother Tingey’s quiet “You sure look pretty today!” I recalled a tiny rag doll that they had given me years earlier on my birthday. I remember Sister Tingey bending down to place the small imitation of a sleeping baby in my hands while Brother Tingey patted her on the back and the warm summer sunshine haloed her white hair. I knew exactly where that doll sat at home; forgotten in a corner of my now poster, shoe, and jewelry adorned room. I hadn’t even remembered that Sister Tingey had passed away. I’m sure someone had said something to me but I hadn’t paid much attention. I hadn’t even noticed when they stopped coming to church because of age and illness. How long had it been? How long had I forgotten?
We all fit in the room, standing in a semi-circle around Brother Tingey’s wheelchair where he sat, his head drooping nearly to his chest, his eyes closed, and his mouth open in a slack state that made it appear as if he were asleep. A nurse came in and said “He might not know you’re even here, he usually doesn’t respond to us, but go ahead and sing to him, you just never know.”
We started singing our Christmas carols, “Angels We Have Heard on High” and “Joy to the World”. Still Brother Tingey sat unaware and unmoving in his chair, it hurt to see him that way, it hurt worse that I hadn’t even remembered he existed. Finally Marilyn said “Let’s sing him a primary song and then head home.” Softly and gently we started to sing “I Am a Child of God.”
“I am a Child of God, and he has sent me here. Has given me an earthly home with parents kind and dear…” we sang the old familiar song, one we had learned from the time we were little more than infants and suddenly something happened to Brother Tingey. He started to lift his head, he opened and blinked his eyes and looked up at us for the first time since we entered the room. He began to smile as we continued to the end of the first verse, then he said in a voice as old, and as feeble as he was “I know that song”. We kept singing all the way to the end of the song to the last line “Teach me all that I must do to live with Thee someday” and there were tears in Brother Tingey’s eyes and on his cheeks. We all wept and smiled and hugged him as we left the room to head back to the church.
I stepped out of the nursing home and felt the rain hit my cheeks to mingle with my tears. The rain didn’t seem as dreary as it had earlier. The Christmas lights seemed a little bit brighter as they reflected onto the wet pavement. They weren’t pathetic at all, they were evidence that someone cared enough to share some small bit of their Christmas joy with others. I closed my eyes and lifted my face towards the rain, felt its cooling touch on my face and breathed deeply of the damp air. My heart was changed from when I walked in that nursing home door. I went in feeling pity for those who couldn’t experience the “perfect Christmas” that I had in my snowy mountain home, but as I thought of the look on Brother Tingey’s face when he heard the sound of a children’s worship song my idea of perfection changed.
I had forgotten Brother Tingey, his kindness, his generosity, his strength of spirit; Brother Tingey had forgotten himself, his wife, their life together, and his family; but there was someone who had never forgotten him. Through the simplicity of a song and the imperfect voices of a group of teenage girls Brother Tingey was reminded that he was still a Child of God.
Sometimes in the hurry and worry of just living our lives we forget each other. Sometimes in our pursuit of perfection we forget who we really are. But though we forget ourselves and forget one another and though others may forget us; there is one who never forgets who we are. Jesus Christ, our Savior and friend knows our names; He knows our joy, our sorrow, and our pain and even when in our weakness we forget to comfort, serve, and lift one another’s hearts, He never does.
I hadn’t remembered Brother Tingey before that Christmas season, but I have never forgotten him since, nor have I forgotten the witness born to me that night that we truly are children of God. He is our Father and He loves us, He wants us to be happy, and He asks us to remember Him and our brothers and sisters here upon the earth. This Christmas remember who you are, remember you are loved, and reach out to share that love. You’ll find that love is the greatest measure of perfection, not snow or lights, or cocoa and cookies. It is the love in our hearts, the love evidenced by the work of our hands, and the love spoken to another that measures most truly the perfection of our lives.