The Christmas Box Miracle: My Spiritual Journey of Destiny, Healing and Hope
by Richard Paul Evans
Editors’ Note: In the next few days before Christmas, Meridian will be running several excerpts from the current New York Times Bestseller by Richard Paul Evans called The Christmas Box Miracle. This is a book about the writing of another book, The Christmas Box. It shares the journey of how a father wrote a story for his own children that soared to the heights of publishing success-and the surprising setbacks he faced along the way.
In today’s excerpt, Richard tells about losing an election for a state office, only to find out there was something else in store for him.
It was past midnight, election night 1992. Keri and I sat in a crimson-carpeted reception room of the Little America hotel, staring silently and red-eyed at a computer screen, awaiting the final vote count for my race. The hotel staff was tearing down the wet bar across from us. Somewhere the moan of a vacuum droned.
It was a presidential election year and the federal races had been decided hours earlier. Bennett had won in a landslide and William Jefferson Clinton had been declared America’s forty-second president. Though there still came an occasional jubilant shout, they came with less frequency and voice. The crowds were gone, floating away with the television cameras. It was something I had noticed years before: the crowds always leave with the press. Now, at this hour, just a hatful of candidates, political groupies and lobbyists lingered, watching television and computer monitors as the election tallies of regional races came in from voting districts around the state. My race for the state legislature had been neck and neck all evening, sometimes within just a few dozen votes. When the final tally of my race flashed on the screen, neither of us knew what to say. Keri finally spoke. “You lost,” she said softly.
I had lost by 1 percent, fewer than one hundred votes. As we walked out of the hotel, Keri took my hand. “Are you real upset?” she asked.
“I don’t know. Ask me in the morning.”
“I’m . . .” She paused for a moment, then confessed, “I’m just glad you don’t have to be a legislator.”
A Brief Respite
It was as if fate had set me up for such a brief respite in my life. Bennett’s victorious campaign had eased the financial burden of the previous years, and my own loss had left me with time on my hands. It was somewhere in this recess that I decided to do something I had never done before. I decided to write a book.
I don’t recall the exact moment that I conceived the idea. If I had known the impact it would have on my life I probably would have recorded every detail surrounding it. But in truth, I considered it of such little importance to me that I did not even bother to write it in my journal or, for a while, tell anyone about it.
I had always heard that you should write from your own deepest experiences. I wanted to write something that would express my love for my girls–something that captured the feelings of a father and the power of the love that these little girls had brought into my life. I don’t recall why I decided to make it a Christmas story. I suppose it had something to do with the fact that I planned to share the book with my daughters around Christmastime. Or maybe it was just because I love Christmas.
I love everything about this season. But I think what I love most about Christmas are its sounds. The bells of street corner Santa Clauses, the familiar Christmas records on the phonograph, the sweet, untuned voices of Christmas carolers. And the bustling downtown noises. The crisp crinkle of wrapping paper and department store sacks and the cheerful Christmas greetings of strangers. And then there are the Christmas stories. The wisdom of Dickens and all Christmas storytellers. . . .
The Christmas Box
As I began to write, the story came into my mind in torrents of inspiration. I took to leaving notepads around the house, as the words would come to me when I least expected: in the middle of the night, in the shower, early in the morning. On one occasion I pulled off Interstate 15 to write nearly an entire chapter, scribbling on the back of envelopes and bills and whatever paper I could find in the car at the time.
The story came to me like a jigsaw puzzle, with pieces here and there, while the final picture remained a mystery. For four weeks I wasn’t sure what the book was about–until early one December morning, around 4 a.m., when the story woke me.
I climbed out of bed, retrieved a pen and paper and, in the predawn still, sat down at the kitchen table and began to write. Suddenly there came to mind something I had heard from a neighbor of mine, Leah Perry.
Leah was an elderly woman and a widow of more than a decade. Initially my church had asked me to keep an eye on her. Our monthly visits were awkward at first, and even though she was lonely, I sensed that she didn’t really want me around.
That changed one Christmas Eve. Keri and I were headed out to our traditional family parties when I remembered that I hadn’t given Leah a gift I had bought for her. Keri was running behind, so I loaded Jenna and Allyson into the car and we agreed to meet at Keri’s parents’ house in an hour.
When we arrived at Leah’s, the house was dark. Assuming that she was out, I left the gift on her doorstep; then, just to be sure, rang her doorbell. As I turned to go, I suddenly heard movement inside the house. Then the locks on the door slid and the door partially opened. Leah peered out. Her hair was uncombed and she wore a nightgown. I handed her the gift and she thanked me. As I turned to go, I was suddenly filled with sadness that she was alone on Christmas Eve. I turned back to her. “What are you doing tonight?” I asked.
“My kids are coming for me.”
I nodded, said good night, and the door shut and locked behind me. Before we pulled out of the driveway the lights went back out. For a moment we sat in the car, then I turned to Jenna. “I don’t think she’s going anywhere, do you?”
Jenna shook her head.
I didn’t feel right leaving her alone. I sighed, then the three of us climbed out of the car and knocked at her door. Again the locks slid and the door opened.
“If it’s not too much of an inconvenience,” I said, “my daughters have never seen a player piano. I thought maybe you could show them yours.”
Her face lit up. I knew Leah well enough by then to know that the player piano was her pride. “Of course,” she said.
We sat on her aged couch as Leah brought out roll after roll of music. She played every Christmas song she had, accompanied by our singing at the top of our lungs. After nearly an hour (and three times through “I Want a Hippopotamus for Christmas”), I said, “Keri’s going to be wondering where we are. We better go.” We stopped at her doorstep. “I know your family’s coming, but would you consider sharing Christmas Eve with us instead?”
She looked at me gratefully, but declined. “I better stay here,” she said.
Our visits were never the same after that. I saw much more of her and she shared more of herself. I would sit back in her red couch, she in her La-Z-Boy lift chair from Sears (I remember the brand, as we had had at least two long discussions about her chair and its delivery), and she’d knit as we talked. We would usually talk about her kids or her deceased husband, Rod (Rod was a barber and a good dancer and she married him because he made her laugh), her health or her next operation. There was always an operation on the horizon. In the course of our visits Leah had both hip and knee replacements.
During one evening visit Leah was in a melancholy mood and began to reminisce. She told me that when she was little she lived up in the Avenues, next to the Salt Lake City Cemetery. Though it was forbidden, she and her sister would often play behind its walls. One day, while walking through the cemetery, she suddenly heard a horrible wailing. She looked up to see a woman kneeling at the base of a sandstone angel statue, clawing at the ground as if it held her from something she wanted desperately. After the woman left, Leah approached the statue. Etched in its stone base were three words: our little angel.
The Pieces Fit
Now, nearly seventy years later, alone in our kitchen, I realized that the story of the woman at the angel fit perfectly in my book, bringing my entire story together, as if I had just placed a key piece of the puzzle. I understood, for the first time, that my story was about the pain my mother felt in losing a child.
At this moment something peculiar happened. I suddenly felt that I was not alone in the room. Moreover, I believed that I knew who was with me: my little sister, Sue, who had died when I was still a toddler.
Sue’s death was not something our family spoke openly about. She was stillborn, and at the time, American culture did not openly acknowledge the hurt of such losses. My mother was sent home from the hospital with a rose and the consolation that she could always just have another baby. For months after her loss, friends and church members avoided her, unsure of what to say. My father, following the counsel of others, urged her to just get on with her life.
As a child I remember only a few instances of my mother speaking of Sue. Once, when I was around five, I found my mother alone in a room crying. Frightened, I asked her what was wrong.
“It’s Sue’s birthday,” she said.
I believe that at that moment, at 4 a.m. in our small kitchen on Preston Street, Sue and I were reunited. I said out loud, “Sue, you gave me this story for Mom.” As I spoke the words, it instantly came to my mind–in the same way the story had come to my mind–“Dedicate this book to me.”
A few nights later, I presented the finished manuscript of my book to Keri, asking for her critique. I had not realized at the time that this was an intimidating thing to do to a wife: for either I had to be a good writer or she had to be a good liar. Initially, Keri tried to put it off, citing the late hour. I persisted. I asked her to read just the first few pages. If she didn’t like it she didn’t have to read it. “I’d understand,” I lied.
Keri took the manuscript from me, went downstairs, sat on the couch and began to read. I took the pages from her as she read them. I soon noticed that she was actually engrossed in the book. An hour and a half later there were tears running down her cheeks. She finished my manuscript, set it aside and, for a moment, said nothing. I was brimming with anticipation.
“What did you think?” I asked.
She looked at me thoughtfully, then asked, “Where did you get that story?”
It was then that I told her about the experience I had had in the kitchen several days earlier.
“It makes me want to be a better mother,” she said.
2001 Meridian Magazine. All Rights Reserved.