_    I glance across the headlines in the paper.  It's the usual.  Good things seem to rarely come up there.  It is always something bad or tragic happening to someone else, somewhere far away.  Like most people, I seem to try to keep it at a distance.  Surely good things must happen out there.  Maybe to prove it to myself, I spend a bit of time before the holidays giving out baskets to those working on the late nights and times when everyone else is out, able to relax and enjoy themselves.  The baskets are nothing special, just some pastries and fruit with a little holiday cheer, but hopefully, a way to also say thanks for being there.

    Admittedly, there is a selfish motive as well.  I've always been one to troll for a smile where it is least expected.  So, on the morning before Christmas Eve, I find myself out driving around town, gathering goods and balancing baskets on the car seats and the dash board getting ready.  The first stop is at the police station in our small town.  The reaction there is limited as everything is boarded off and insulated from the public anymore.  I hand the basket to a clerk through a small sliding glass window with a "Merry Christmas".  My hope is that some will get to those out on patrol all night and I tell the clerk to save some for them.  He nods and thanks me, obviously a little confused by the process.  A similar scene plays out at the Sheriff's office.  Thankful, but a little bewildered.  Next is the fire station.  It's all volunteer here.  They have a doorbell that I ring.  The chief comes to the door and I hand it to him.  "Hey!  Thank you!  I'll put this out on the table for the guys."  I smile inside as I know some of the "guys" are actually "Gals".  Last year I was greeted by a cute blonde sliding down the pole to come to the door.  At 53, I don't think I can expect to get that kind of greeting much anymore ....

_    I realize now that I have been putting off the next stop for last.  It's hard.  The hospital is simultaneously my least favorite stop and most anticipated. My memories here are still strong, but the emotion and reaction I get here are the most raw.  It's the place where unexpected pleasantries are the most appreciated. 

    I walk through the doors, past the receptionist, who greets me with a smile.  I feel surreal walking down the bright, stark white corridor with a big red Santa hat and overflowing basket of stuff.  It feels like everything is in slow motion ... the walking .... the breathing, the woman walking past.  I know her.  She's a waitress in town, but she is distracted and does not recognize me in my get up.  I reach the elevator and push the button for my destination, the ICU. 

    It's here that I've found the most appreciation, where the emotions and stress are constant, and where I hope I can inject a bit of cheer.  Riding up the elevator I know what will come.  The nurse at the desk will look up and, with a detached, professional voice, simply state "May I help you?"  They see a lot come through those doors, so finding themselves facing a middle-aged, balding man in a Santa hat with a basket of goodies is unlikely to throw them.  Then I'll tell them, "No, I just want to drop this off."  The first reaction will be a brief glimpse of relief as they realize that this is easy and I am not another problem for them to fix or deal with. Then, the real magic starts as they realize that I am looking at them when I hold out the basket.  It is for them, not someone staying here, nor their relatives.  Just something to leave on the desk for them to enjoy when they can.  The looks and smiles are what you see on a four year old when they first spy the presents under the Christmas tree.  For that brief moment, they smile and relax.

    The automatic doors slide open to the ICU.  I look up, but the desk is empty.  I contemplate just leaving it there for a moment.  A doctor is off to the side some distance away talking with a couple.  I decide to wait a bit.  I know this music.  The look on the couple's face is familiar as they are trying to comprehend how their life is changing with the information they are getting.  The doctor is smoothly going through the details with a practiced voice that is both professional and empathetic.

    I turn away and pretend to study a painting on the wall.  Soon the couple walks past and out the door.  The doctor turns his attention to me ..... The line comes ...."May I help you?"  I'm unprepared, caught up in my own thoughts.   "Uh, ... I just wanted to leave this here for you guys.", I stutter.  "Oh!"  "Well, thank you!" he says with genuine appreciation.  "Who is it from?"  "Oh that doesn't matter.  Have a nice Christmas." I say over my shoulder as I quickly turn away and start out the door. I can see him smiling and peaking in the basket with anticipation. 

    The doors slide open and I almost bump into a nurse coming in.  Her hair is a bit disheveled and her eyes are red and puffy.  She is wiping away tears, but quickly tries to gain her composure when she notices me.  She looks up at me as we pass, trying to comprehend the unexpected Santa clad face looking back at her.  "Merry Christmas!" I tell her, already knowing she is far beyond that cheer right now.  Her eyes are searching and haunting and stay with me as I get back on the elevator.  Hopefully she'll get a smile from the gift I left too.  I ride down to the ground floor in awkward silence with the couple.  Back in the car I just sit, shaking and trying to hold back the tears and get a hold of myself. I keep seeing those eyes look up at me......

    Sitting on our comfortable couch with the dog curled up next to me, I find my eyes are drawn back over the headlines again.  I read one.  "Two girls killed in a head on collision with a logging truck".  I cringe, but continue to read the short paragraph, now that I'm hooked into the story.  At 7:30 in the morning, the young girl driving had drifted over the center line and hit a logging truck.  She died immediately and her sister was taken to the hospital where she died later.  A third sister survived with minor injuries .......  It starts to sink in as I make the connection to the events of my morning.  I try to imagine the family who lost two daughters on the eve of Christmas.  The sister who will never know why she was the one to survive.  The truck driver who will be left always wondering if there was something he could have done.  The Sheriff's Deputy responding to the scene.  The nurse looking up at my silliness with those eyes. Those eyes..... I give Wendy a hug and feel comforted by the warmth of her soft fur.

_    I know.  This is pretty distressing and sad for a blog post.  But for me, it was also a reminder to appreciate what is here now, to take advantage of opportunities in front of us.  To enjoy those around us.  To stop being angry with all my stupid, petty 'problems' and to look around me once in a while. 

    Nature is telling me this too.  Winter, so far, has been gentle.  A bit cold a times, but not her worst.  Last week it warmed unseasonably with a brilliant clear day.  Wendy and I took a stroll out in the yard, surprised at the unexpected bright sunny day. "What is that?"  We are greeted by a familiar, but unexpected sound, some how out of place in the brown silence of winter.  It's a loud buzzing.  Zooming and zipping past in all directions were the bees.  Surprised at their presence, Wendy whips around fruitlessly snapping at a passing bee.  The bees know when to take advantage of the opportunity and they were out enjoying the temporary freedom from their confined slumber.  We put some sugar out for them and a few took up the offer.  It was a glorious sign of life in the dead of winter.  I'm glad those dang bees are around.

    We wish everyone a happy holiday season.  Be safe and enjoy the coming year!  I'm sure it will be full of unexpected gifts if you take the time to look for them.