That Christmas season, Christmas 2002, our tree was absolutely perfect. A white spruce with lush, green needles, and branches that arched upward, as if to heaven. My husband, Al, and our daughters, Corinne and Louise, spent the evening decorating it.
We hung Lord knows how many ornaments, some of them heirlooms that told our family history. Beneath the tree was a pile of beautifully wrapped presents— and a few not-so-beautifully wrapped ones, in baggy, black plastic bags.
To me, those gifts were the most precious, sent by my son, Ephraim. Looking around our festive living room, I thought of that famous line from the film Field of Dreams: “If you build it, he will come.”
I hoped by some miracle that Ephraim would come home for Christmas, even though I knew it wasn’t going to happen. A member of the Delaware Army National Guard Military Police Unit, he was stationed overseas with the U.S. Air Force in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.
He and his team were tasked with the job of base security. Ephraim had been there since August and was not scheduled to return home until the following March.
I prayed every day for my son’s safety. If there was even the slightest chance that he would be back for Christmas, I wanted him to come home to the perfect celebration.
Then came the phone call.
“Mom?” said Ephraim. The line crackled with static. Just from the way he said that one word, I knew something was wrong.
“What is it?” I asked.
“Things are pretty edgy over here,” he said. “It’s even worse than what you’re seeing on the news.”
And what we were seeing was bad enough. Terrorist attacks were escalating. The situation was devolving into chaos.
“You’re definitely not coming home for Christmas, are you?” I asked, trying to mask the fear in my voice.
“Still hoping for March,” Ephraim sighed. “It was never a real possibility I’d be home for Christmas.”
I didn’t know what to say. I was afraid my worries would infect him. He had enough to be concerned about. I didn’t want him to know how scared I was.
“Hey,” he said, breaking the silence, “did you get the presents?”
“Yes, they came the other day, tied with a ribbon. Who helped you with the wrapping?” We shared a laugh.
Then a sudden urgency crept into his voice. “Mom, I’ve got to run. Probably won’t get to talk to you until after the holidays, so please tell everyone merry Christmas from me. I’ll e-mail when I can.”
The phone went click. Ephraim was gone.
Christmas Day arrived, but Al, the girls and I didn’t feel much like celebrating. How could we, with Ephraim so far away?
Suddenly, I had an idea. “What if we wait until Ephraim returns home to have Christmas?” I said. “We’ll leave the presents unopened, even if we have to wait until March.”
“And what about the tree?” Louise asked. “It won’t last till then.”
“We’ll water it,” I said, “and hope that its needles stay green. We’ll leave it up as long as possible. For Ephraim.”
January arrived with no word from my son. Still, I held out hope that we would be able to celebrate with him soon. I watered the tree faithfully, and so far it looked as fresh as the day we brought it home.
By the end of the month, though, it was clear that the trunk had dried out. It no longer soaked up the water. I removed the water pan beneath it and sprayed the branches themselves.
I knew it was a lost cause. It was only a matter of days before the needles would turn brown, the branches would sag and we would have to throw it out.
My heart sank. I feared for my son. I thought that he’d be home by now, Lord. Was he, too, running out of time?
A week passed. Then another. Yet somehow, the tree’s branches remained robust, its needles green.
One cold February night, Corinne and Louise tied yellow ribbons and bows to the branches in honor of their brother.
Lord, bring Ephraim home, before the needles on the tree begin to fall, I prayed.
On March 1, I tidied Ephraim’s room, imagining the moment that he would walk through the front door. Finally!
And then we got the news. News that made me fear even more for my son. A new wave of violence had broken out. Terrorists blew up a Riyadh hotel, killing a number of Americans.
Ephraim’s unit was ordered to remove the bodies, and then remain on high alert. That meant serving 14-hour shifts patrolling the base, dressed in full battle gear in 120- degree heat. His return was put on hold indefinitely.
How could I wait any longer? I wondered. How could I get through even one more day without seeing my son?
Standing in the living room, I looked at that tree we had left up for Ephraim. Still green. Still holding on. Strong and faithful. Like it’s waiting for him, I thought.
If this tree could hold on for my son, maybe I could too.
No one from Ephraim’s unit returned home in March. No one returned home in April. But every time my faith flagged, I turned to that tree, still somehow alive. God, I hear you, I prayed. I won’t give up hope.
Ephraim called in early May. Again, a scratchy connection. But his joy was clear. “Mom,” he said, “I’m coming home!”
On May 10, he finally walked through our front door. Our hugs and tears—both his and ours—seemed like they would last forever.
Finally, he stepped through the foyer into the living room. “Oh, my Lord!” he cried.
The tree, with its ornaments and yellow ribbons, stood tall and proud, as robust and green as the day we decorated it. Corinne threw the switch and lit the lights.
“We weren’t the only ones waiting for you,” I said. “Christmas did too.”
“Amazing!” Ephraim exclaimed. “But where’d you get a perfect Christmas tree in May?”
We told him the story that evening, after opening presents and feasting on a holiday meal. Only then did we notice that the branches were suddenly turning. We took down the tree and put it outside.
Overnight its color changed, from green to a sickly orange-brown. When I touched the tree the next morning, the needles fell in cascades to the ground. How had it lasted this long?
It had survived just long enough. To teach me not to quit believing. In hope. In God. In his saving power that never fails, never withers. It’s evergreen.
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