Friday, January 02, 2009

Why I have several Christmas trees...


Welcome to our home
 Many guests in my home have asked me about why I have not one, but lots of Christmas trees. Others have asked me why I am looking for another tree to add to the collection. Why in the world would I want to go to all of this work, or expense? I know it might sound crazy, but I am wanting to get another one this year for at least 75% off at an after Christmas sale. That is when I get them and I usually don't pay more than $20. It's more than enjoying the way they look or having a passion to collect something. There is a deeper personal meaning for me.

Larry and I have a tree next to our bed, and a small one in the master bathroom.

Why would I go to the trouble to set up more than one tree when I have such a busy life? And why would I purposely plan to have to spend all the time required to take them down and put them away when the season is over? It's a long story why. The other night at one of our Christmas parties somebody remarked, "You have more Christmas trees in your house than anyone else I know!" I just smiled and nodded. Telling why takes some time. And if I don't feel it's the right time, I don't go into the reason why. If you want to know the full story, and you have some time, keep reading. But get a box of kleenex first.


The Boy Behind the Trees...

I had a very special friend named Joe Palmerino. He was one of my very best friends all throughout high school. I was very involved in all things music and theatre in high school, in fact I was elected the president of our chorale which was our "show choir" and this was a very big part of my life back then and pretty much what I lived for as a teen. Joe and I were very involved in this together. We did everything together both in and out of school. Joe had a perfect smile that he flashed often, a hysterical sense of humor, and was one of the most loyal friends I ever had. He looked to me as a mentor musically which was always puzzling to me because he was so talented himself. In fact, after high school that is what Joe did -- professional theatre and dance.

Our unique relationship...

I shared with Joe about my relationship with God many times and we had extreme differences of opinion about this. While we agreed on a lot of things and greatly enjoyed spending time together, there were a few things we didn't see eye to eye on, however those things did not destroy our friendship. Even though Joe didn't agree with me and rebuffed my invitations about spiritual matters, we remained very close. In fact, one time I was ministering in a series of revival meetings in the area, and there were thousands of flyers the church had given us to distribute. Joe called and asked me what I was doing that Saturday and I said, "passing out flyers about church services" and he said, "awesome, let me help you and then we'll go shopping." Yes, he loved to shop. One of my favorite memories is when we would go to Eastpoint Mall and I would try on dresses, and come out of the dressing room and Joe would critique them. He had an amazing fashion sense as well. One of my best memories of Joe was when he was with me downtown at an intersection, crossing the street and waving flyers at people yelling, "Hey, you've got to come to this great revival service...you need to be there"! He was passionately talking to people and recommending they come and hear me, even though he didn't have a relationship with God. Joe would also come to occasional services where I was ministering even though he was opposed to most of what I believed. He came because of our friendship -- it was just the kind of guy he was.

Through the Years...

Years passed. Graduation came and went. College came and went. I got married. Joe came to the wedding. On our wedding video he can be seen at the reception, cutting up and making silly jokes at the camera and wishing me a lifetime of happiness with Larry. Joe was elated when I had kids. He loved it when I'd share stories with him about them. After getting married Larry and I moved to New Jersey and then Ohio, ministering as youth pastors, and all the while I stayed good friends with Joe. This was before the days of e-mail. We snail mailed and phoned often and kept up on each other's lives. All through that time I would periodically let Joe know I was praying for him, and asked if he thought any more about God. When I did, the conversation would get a little tense for a while. Sometimes he wouldn't call me back for a while, probably fearing that I'd ask him about his relationship with God, or hearing me say, "Joey, I love you even though we don't always agree on things."

The Dreaded Call

One day a terrible call came.  It was Joe, his voice breaking, telling me, "Deanna...I have AIDS."

This was many years ago, before they had all of the life-prolonging drugs they now have that have extended so many people's lives who have AIDS. The terrible thing was, I knew that without a miracle, Joe didn't have much time as people back then died much more quickly with AIDS and second and most important, I feared because he had no relationship with God. I cried on the phone with him, as any real friend would.

Joe did live for a few more years. In an incredible turn of events, I was living in Baltimore at the time he died. Larry and I were in transition in our ministry and for three months, at the exact time Joe passed away, we were living in Baltimore. I never would have imagined in my wildest dreams that I would have been able to actually be there in person for him during this time but God is so amazing.

Times I'll Never Forget

Some days I would just go over and sit with him and we'd talk or eat cheesesteak subs or McDonalds together, or listen to music. Usually his Mom would be there and we'd talk as well. I've always thought the world of her as well as his sister, Cathy, or "Sissy" as Joe called her and therefore pretty much everyone called her. You might wonder where Joe's father was in all this. Well the answer is he abandoned him and the family when he was just a small boy. He was a deadbeat father who went to chase his own dream and left his family behind. I remember once when we were kids and Joe didn't have a winter coat to wear and his father had never helped or sent the child support he needed and Joe had called him on the phone and said, "Dad I really need a winter coat -- I outgrew mine from last year" and his Dad said, "Go to hell" and hung up. Joe was dumbfounded when he put down the phone and cried on my shoulder.

The Most Meaningful Day

About a month before Joe died, he called me one morning, his voice breaking. I instinctively said, "Joe, what's wrong?" and panicked that maybe he was getting ready to take his last breath or something. Imagine my relief when he said, "I've been thinking about Jesus, Deanna. I'm ready. Can you come over to the house and pray with me?" Never did I get to his house so fast in all my life! Not only did I pray with him to come to Christ, but I also laid hands on him and prayed for his physical healing. It was not the first time I had done that nor the last. He was never healed here on earth, so do I regret that? No. Absolutely not. My biggest regret would have been not ever doing it. You see I came to the conclusion a long time ago that God has told me to lay hands on people and pray for them. It's His job to heal them, not mine. My job is to obey. I do my job and leave His job to Him.



The Day A Christmas Tree Slayed Us 

One day in December right before Joe died, I was at his house with his Mom and we were all three talking about something...not anything particularly emotion-invoking, and suddenly Joe just started to weep. I mean, really weep. He wasn't saying anything he was just sobbing and staring at the Christmas tree. His Mom said, "Joey, what's wrong?" and he was way too emotional to answer. He just cried. So I stood up and went over by his chair and put my arms around his head and just held on to him while he cried. He was so frail. He had gone down to some crazy weight like 80 or 90 lbs and was just a shell of a person outwardly. I remember how tiny his head felt as I was holding it in my arms that day. I remember how the big broad smile he customarily flashed with his perfectly straight teeth was missing, replaced by this inconsolable grief. Finally I said, "Joe, are you crying because you believe this may be your last Christmas? Are you thinking this could be your last time looking at the Christmas tree?" He never answered verbally, he just shook his head, "yes...yes...yes..." nodding fast as I was speaking. His Mom came over and put her arms around both of us and we just stood there having a group hug, bawling our eyes out.

Our living room tree

My A-ha Moment

It was that day I realized just how much people take things for granted. That Christmas was real to Joe because He was actually celebrating it for the first time for the correct reason. And now, it would be his last. Life is such a vapor. How many times do we take Jesus' birthday for granted? Most of us take having "another Christmas" as just that..."another" year, "another" Christmas...nothing particularly special. What if we all knew it was our last? Would we look at the opportunity to celebrate the birth of Christ with our family, spending time around the Christmas tree differently?

I determined that day standing there hugging Joe's head while he wept, that I would never view it the same. I decided at that moment that, wherever I am in my house, I want to see the Christmas tree. I want to be reminded everywhere I look of what's important, to savor the beauty of the celebration of Christ's birth and all that surrounds it. Because I never know when it might be my last time here with my family. After all, just because I don't have AIDS doesn't make me any more invincible than Joe.

A house full of trees

So I get more Christmas trees when I can. I don't get ridiculous about it.  It's not an obsession. I acquire them on sale or many times people give them to me knowing about the meaning it personally holds. One of my trees is filled with family memories with most of the things on it made by the kids and ornaments given by our precious church people over the years. As I look at it I'm reminded of the treasured relationships God has given me. Another is my sugared "fruit of the spirit" tree that is in the dining area of our kitchen, symbolizing all of the fruits of the spirit from the Bible and reminding us of living as Christ -- whose birthday we are celebrating -- asks us to live. It's not about spending the money, it's about remembering...why Jesus came and how blessed we are to spend every moment in celebration of this with those we love.



Back to Joe and his family...

The very sad day came when Joe's Mom called and told me, "Deanna, Joey took his last breath this morning."   I was dreading that call. While elated that after almost 14 years of sharing about God with my friend he had finally come to know Him, I was angry that his life here on earth was over. I grieved that there would be no more letters, no more phone calls, no more eating cheesesteak subs when I came back home to visit in Baltimore, no more laughing together over the plethora of stupid "inside jokes" we had...no more re-hashing all of the wonderful memories we had from our days in the Sparrows Point High School Music and Theatre Department, no more of any of that. It was also hard for me not to hate Joe's Dad, I will be honest. But I knew I had to forgive him.

Grieving the Loss

Months before, Joe had asked me to minister at his funeral. I was dreading it as much as I loved him, I just wanted to sit there and cry -- not get up and share. I also knew the place would be packed with an amazingly talented array of people in the music and theatre world and quite honestly I knew I'd be lucky to stay standing let alone sing or speak. "But weren't you filled with happiness and hope because he had come into a relationship with God before he died?" you may be wondering. Yes, but quite honestly I was also devasted. I hate goodbyes. Always have, always will.  That's a long story for another day. Suffice it to say, I know someday it will be "hello" in heaven. But right then on earth, it was definitely goodbye. And I was mad. Mad at the devil. Mad at sickness. Mad at Joe's Dad. I went through a season of being mad at Joe too. I wished things could have been different so he could still be here. In time, I had to let it all go and just remember the good times.

Joe's Last Wishes and a Private Performance

Among other things, Joe asked me to sing "I Dreamed a Dream" from Les Miserables and "The Last Song" by Elton John. The latter is basically a song about a father and his son who dies of AIDS. I'll never forget Joe's Dad's reaction at the funeral as these songs were sung. It pretty much evoked exactly the response Joe wanted. He was absolutely beside himself with regret and grief. Inconsolable. Months earlier Joe wanted to hear me sing the songs. He said, "Obviously I won't be there when you sing them, so can you do them for me now so I can hear you?" I sang the first two lines from I Dreamed a Dream and he became so emotional we just shut the tape recorder that played the accompanying music and he and his Mom and I sat there and consoled him in another group hug.

Honoring My Friend

As I spoke, I tried not to look at Sissy who was on the front row on the funeral parlor, laying across two chairs just sobbing, and Joe's Mom next to her. At one point when I faltered and had to stop I said, "I'm sorry..." as I tried to compose myself and his mother spoke out and said, "That's okay honey, Joey would understand. We all knew how very much you loved him." (That made it worse -- I cried even harder once she said that.) Somehow I made it through what Joe has asked me to do and told the people assembled it was the hardest thing I have ever had to do in my life.

I was thrilled about his decision to pray with me, and I shared with everyone about that. But quite honestly, I hate saying goodbye to people in this life although I know I'll see them in heaven. I hate funerals. I'm a pastor and yes I've done gazillions of funerals and should be used to it by now. And maybe I should say nothing but, "Yippee!!! We're going to heaven!" and sing I'll Fly Away or Heaven's Jubilee but frankly, we're not all there together yet. So I do miss people. And that's why I cry. Old songs like We'll Understand it Better by and By and Farther Along We'll Know All About It make more sense to me because while we do have that blessed hope and assurance, fact is, we are still living right now here on this earth. Heaven is our home and sometimes life here on earth is hard.


You remember details when something like this happens. 

My sugared fruit tree
I remember how cold the air was on my face coming out of the funeral home. I remember my mother and sister being with me. I remember the strong alcohol smell on Joe's father's breath when he talked to me that night. I remember Sissy telling me the doctor had to prescribe her valiums just to get through the funeral without having a complete nervous breakdown. I remember Joe's mom's big arms hugging me and how I marveled at the fact that she didn't claw her ex-husband to death right there at the funeral. The strength of mothers amazes me. I remember that in the car on the way home that night , 4Him's Christmas CD was playing. The first song that came on was, "A Christmas to Remember."

Oh, star so bright
Oh, heavenly lightYou filled Bethlehem's sky with splendor
Oh, God's own Son
Oh, innocent One
You have made this a night to remember
oh Made this a night to remember

Indeed it was a night to remember. A lot of time has passed by. It's now been 15 years since Joe's death. Each year at Christmas I get a card from Joe's mother that says, "Fifteen years [or however many years it's been that year] since Joey has been gone..." and then she mentions something like, "Oh how I miss him..." or "Thank you again for being such a good friend to him..."

Sissy e-mails me occasionally and lets me know how she's doing.

One thing is for sure, fifteen years ago it was a Christmas to remember that taught me to make every Christmas one to remember.

This is why I have more than one Christmas tree, in fact lots of them. Most nights in December after I get home from whatever yuletide event I may be at, I get in my jammies and sit by one of the Christmas trees, reading, snuggling or talking to my family and friends. It's how I want to end every day in December. I want to squeeze every precious moment in that I can, because I don't know when my last celebration of Jesus birth here on earth with my loved ones will be.

Since heaven is an eternal worship celebration of our Lord I do hope He saw fit to put a Christmas tree in Joe's heavenly mansion. I do rejoice in the fact that when I get there with him, we'll sit by it and have a cheesesteak sub and some Utz potato chips and I'll say, "Silly boy...can you imagine if you wouldn't have prayed that prayer? I almost rapped you upside your head some days waiting for it to happen..."


Joe and me, just a few months before he passed away...

9 comments:

SpiritledWoman said...

Wow! Thank you for sharing this special part of your heart. I lost a good friend that resembles yours 8 years ago. May we cherish our memories and be sure of a reunion in eternity!

Deborah said...

With tears running down my face; I have read and reread this; How I love christmas after many years of serving as Pastors in a church that thought it was sin to put up a christmas tree; I remember the feeling of joy and the childrens face of awe at the beautiful christmas tree, I can understand your love for them (for a different reason)I love the smell and sights at christmas. love always me

Anonymous said...

PD,
Thank you for sharing. In the church I copastor, I have come up against resistance in regard to the Christmas decor of our church. A staff person went off on me over storage one year (he saw me as his little space invader). Another has a "sour attitude" each year and this year I let it get to me. I do it all to bless...not depress!But he gets all irritated by it.
Our church looked so festive and decorated with elegance but these folks even went as far as to say:
no church is perfect...sometimes the decorating aggravates me. I was just really surprised at all the attitudes toward Christmas decor. I do it because it's Jesus' Birthday celebration and I am excited every year! It's all to bless not impress or depress! Thanks for sharing.

Leanne said...

As if those two songs don't already reduce me to a pile of mushy, blubbery tears...now I have even more of a reason!

What a beautiful story of God's grace and redemption - thank you for sharing it with all of us :o).

And I agree with you on two counts:

1. I love Christmas bling - the more, the better!

2. Funerals do suck. Even the ones for Christians.

Kathy Hartley said...

Deanna Just read your love letter about your dear friend Joe. What an amazing reminder of the unconditional Love Of God to us at this time of the year and all year long. Christmas has always been my favorite time of the year, with all the beautiful lights and gifts and cheer. For once upon a time God gave the greatest gift of all, His son Jesus and the gift of eternity to spend time with Him. We will see all our loved ones, my dad, and those that gone on before us. What a wonderful promise of a Christmas gift to come.
Thank you for taking time to share this with us. It will make me more thankful this year as we gather to celebrate yet another Christmas together.

Eagles Wings said...

Wow - you were right - I had to get the box of tissues!
What an awesome story of salvation! I'm sorry for your loss.
Can't wait to rejoice in heaven with you - with Baltimore cheese steaks and UTZ potato chips :-)

And I don't think I'll ever look at Christmas the same!

Deanna said...

Thanks everyone ~ I am so glad the story is such a blessing to you and has impacted your life in some way. Joe would be amazed and thrilled at that and I will have to share it with his Mom in my Christmas card this year. :)

Bobby B. said...

Hey Deanna!
Beautiful story. It really touched me. When I saw your photo it took me back years! I remember you also played piano very well! What was the song you played and sang at a Christmas show at SPHS...was it "Merry Christmas, Baby"??? I've, recently, realized (Praise God!)that it is important to stay in touch with "where you came from". God Bless You!
Bobby Betlejewski ***Beetle-back then-Bobby B. now : )

Deanna said...

Hi Bobby,
The song was, "Merry Christmas Darling" by the Carpenters.

It's good to hear from you!! I hope you are doing great.

Blessings,
Deanna