It wasn’t Christmas, but the view out the small window made me think it could be. Above, stars---scattered like snowflakes across the navy sky---looked down on their reflection below, the twinkling lights of home. In contrast to the storm inside me, the sight radiated a peace so sweetly tender, it conveyed to me something of the awesome love of God. The words played in my head, “O little town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie….”
The turmoil of the past year had come to an end, but the memory of it haunted me like a powerful novel or movie might. Had it all been a dream? Or, did I really live through it? Of course, I had, but returning home messed with my perspective. One day I was at work in the combat zone, wondering how I could be leaving with the job unfinished. What had my presence there accomplished? The situation was the same as when I arrived, as if I had merely entered stage right, crossed to the other side and exited stage left. I shouldn’t be going home. Not now, anyway. Yet, the next day I would be “back in the world” as if waking from a long winter’s sleep.
I thought of one Vietnamese boy, a long-time patient, who tried unsuccessfully to hide his tears when he realized we were saying our final goodbyes to him. I could never forget him, or the headquarters’ officer who had “adopted” our hospital ward. Whenever this man showed up, usually bringing crayons, coloring books or other treats for the children, the boy cried out with delight, “Meester Ceegar!” Soon, we called both the boy and the cigar-chomping officer by the same name. My heart rebelled against leaving my storehouse of patients and coworkers behind.
So now, with the heart-wrenching good-byes over, I wept in silence, all the way home. The bus from Travis Air Force Base had dropped us and our luggage between the two terminals at the San Francisco airport. It seemed somehow appropriate that it was pouring rain, drenching our luggage and our uniforms. Heaven masked our own tears as we bade farewell to friendships forged in the fires of duty to God and country.
A grandfatherly man sat in the aisle seat, an empty space between us. I was grateful that he didn’t try to make conversation. I thought of the doctor, a stranger across the aisle on another flight more than a year before. Noticing my uniform, he had a lot of helpful advice to offer from his time in the Pacific during World War II. I appreciated that conversation, then. I appreciated even more the silence, now.
What must he be thinking! I figured he could guess, seeing a young woman so wasted from the tropic heat that she no longer filled out her summer uniform. He would realize I was returning from a tour of duty, something of an emotional wreck who needed to resolve a year’s worth of experience, questions, memories before presenting a normal face to the family waiting at home.
But, a definite gentleness about this man made me wonder. Could he be lifting me up in prayer? Just as the view out the window stunned me with its inexpressible sense of the most beautiful “peace on earth, good will to men” message, I felt a similar comfort, near as my own breath. Somehow, it seemed as if my grief and I were enveloped in the strong embrace of the softest downy wings. Surely, he had to be praying for me, pitiful sight that I must have been. Or, just perhaps, could it be that this man was actually something more? Could it be that God had sent His angel to escort me safely all the way home?
How silently, how silently, The wondrous Gift is given!
So God imparts to human hearts The blessings of his heaven.
No ear may hear his coming, But in this world of sin,
Where meek souls will receive him, still The dear Christ enters in.* --Phillips Brooks
(*Third stanza, “O little town of Bethlehem”)
“And they that be wise shall shine as the brightness of the firmament; and they that turn many to righteousness as the stars for ever and ever.” ---Daniel 12:3