Vail Daily columnist Warren Miller: A heart-breaking Christmas
Ryan Summerlin December 23, 2012
I had finished my last-minute Christmas shopping and driven back to where I was staying through the gathering darkness and the monotonous numbing noise of my windshield wipers.
There was still time to tell my year-and-a-half-old son another story about Santa Claus. The thought once again passed my mind that my son was probably too young to be taken to the shopping mall to sit in Santa’s lap. But I knew I wanted to do for my son what had never been done for me when I was a young child.
This was going to be a difficult Christmas because my wife was off on a trip that couldn’t be avoided. My son and I were staying with friends during the holidays so that it wouldn’t be too lonely in the apartment with my wife gone.
I had wrapped a few presents the day before and would put them under the tree after I put my son to bed. Now it was time to hold my son in my arms and help him hang up his stocking. This was done with a few hidden tears that were hard to conceal and a sparkle in my son’s eyes. I explained one more time how Santa Claus would arrive in his sleigh, pulled by eight reindeer and miraculously come down the chimney and leave him all kinds of nice things.
By 7 o’clock my son was in bed, a hasty dinner was eaten and I said goodbye to my host and hostess and drove down the long hill into the real world once again.
In the trunk of my car were presents that had yet to be delivered. Before the night would be over, I would drive more than 100 miles, stop at five houses and leave my selection of toys for the children of my friends.
It seemed to me as though only a minute or two had passed until I was finally stopping at the last home I was visiting. I knew that the man of the house, a friend of many years, would be up late putting his three kids’ Christmas toys together.
And he was, but I didn’t realize it until it was too late, as I rang the doorbell and glanced at my watch, it was already 12:45 Christmas morning. I also had 40 more miles of surface street traffic to drive through to get back to where I was staying and try and catch a little sleep before my young son woke him up.
“Come on in!” my frustrated friend said as he appeared at the door with a wrench in one hand and a pair of pliers in the other. A new bicycle lay in disarray on the living room floor, alongside a wagon that still had to be screwed together for the youngest of his two boys.
My friend had spent most of the evening putting together the kitchen set for his daughter and sipping a lot of eggnog while doing it. By this point in time, the slots for the screwdriver were a lot smaller than the end of the screwdriver. So I took over from my friend and completed the wagon first and then tackled the bicycle.
Not an easy task when your eyes are red and swollen from a lot of crying and driving on Christmas Eve. Tears of sadness without my young wife and of regret for not being able to even send her a Christmas card.
This would be our son’s second Christmas and his first without her to help with the unwrapping of the presents and cooking the turkey dinner. (This year, we would have had enough money to buy our own turkey and all of the trimmings.)
By the time the bicycle was finished, we had had a lot of conversation about how fate had taken my wife away on this long trip and it had to happen so close to Christmas, too. All of us had tried everything we knew how to do to avoid it, but in the end it had to be.
It was after 2 a.m. when I got back in my car and headed across town to be with my son when he woke up on Christmas morning. By now the heavy rain had backed off a little, but at the same time, the wind had increased to about 20 miles an hour.
The traffic lights on the street I was driving down had been turned off, and they were only yellow caution lights at this time of the morning. The Christmas decorations hanging across the street in front of the mall were whipping back and forth in the heavy wind and pouring rain. The many multi-colored lights were reflected in the water in the deserted streets.
About 15 minutes into my drive, an uncontrollable wave of remorse overcame me. I missed my wife more than I ever thought possible. I had tried everything that I could think of to somehow soften the grief that I knew would really come crashing down when dawn came Christmas morning. My son would be opening his presents, and she wouldn’t be there.
I knew I was sobbing hysterically, and I had to pull over and stop because I could no longer drive as retching sobs convulsed my entire body.
I pulled over, stopped, leaned back and screamed as though this might help me find an answer somewhere – some sort of an answer to explain why my wife had to go away.
She had died in the mounting agony of spinal cancer in nine short months at the age of 26 and left me and our 18-month-old son behind to somehow try and build a new life without her.
When I finally got control of myself and was able to see once again through swollen red, tear-strained eyes, I caught a little movement of something out of the corner of my eye. On a rain-soaked bench at a bus stop in howling wind at 2:30 on Christmas morning was a man with a long white cane and a seeing-eye dog. They were waiting for a bus that might not be running on Christmas morning. Two blocks down the street I came out of my self-pity-induced stupor and spun my steering wheel to go back and give the blind man and his dog a ride to wherever they wanted to go.
As I approached the intersection, a red bus pulled away with only one passenger on board: a blind man and his seeing-eye dog in a bus that was being driven by a man with a long white beard and snow-white hair.
Filmmaker Warren Miller lived in Vail for 12 years, and his column began in the Vail Daily before being syndicated to more than 50 publications. For more of Miller’s stories and stuff, log onto warrenmiller.net. For information about his foundation, The Warren Miller Freedom Foundation, go to