We had one day to find the perfect one. Eight hours later, we returned to the store we started with that morning. We had run out of choices.
Four days earlier, my husband’s niece had been rendered fatherless after my brother-in-law was killed in a freak accident. She was left to celebrate her sixteenth birthday without a dad to make it special. My husband and I wanted to find the perfect gift that would offer her hope in her altered future.
“Do you remember how much Karen loved hers?” I nudged my husband’s arm. He blinked open eyes swollen from lack of sleep and too many tears.
“Loved what?” he mumbled into his pillow.
“Her hope chest. That’s what we need to find for Kayla. The perfect hope chest.” I smiled as I gazed out of the upstairs’ window in my in-law’s farmhouse. Memories of my daughter’s sixteenth birthday warmed my heart in the chilly room. For six years, Karen had filled her own chest with doilies, dishes and dreams for her future. She’d recently found her dream and would soon leave home to be married.
We wanted Kayla to have similar hopes for herself. She needed to believe in a future filled with exciting possibilities more than ever now.
“We have just two left, an oak and a cherry.” The saleswoman pointed toward the polished wood chests. My eyes clung to the one finished in a deep cherry. I ran my hand over the top to search for any imperfections.
“It needs to have a lock. This one doesn’t have one.” My husband closed the lid of the oak chest. “She needs to have a lock so that she knows her treasures are for her eyes only.”
My husband’s words surprised me. Up until then, he had been quiet as we explored store after store hoping that the recent Christmas season hadn’t deleted the stock of chests.
In the end, there were just these two. One had a lock, one didn’t.
“I’m sure her brother won’t get into it, honey.” I thought of my fifteen year old nephew, his own world turned upside down. We would have another special birthday next year. I shook my head and focused on my husband’s face. His struggle to control his emotions was still fresh. “I agree. She needs to know she has a safe place to store her dreams and hopes.” I pointed to the cherry chest. “I love this one. What do you think?”
“It has the lock,” he nodded. My husband reached down and showed me the hidden area in the back to store the key.
We loaded the chest into our rental car complete with a helium balloon emblazoned with the words “Happy Sweet Sixteen” in pink and red hearts. It was almost bedtime and we had to fly home the next day. We hoped the family would still be awake so that we could offer our surprise. We didn’t speak about the sadness we knew would accompany our visit.
“Let’s pray that God will unlock the pain in her heart and open it to His healing in the coming days,” I offered in the car’s soft glow. We whispered a quick prayer and pulled into the driveway.
My sister-in-law ushered us into the family room still decorated with a ten foot Christmas tree. I averted my eyes from the flannel shirt and tools piled beneath.
“Happy Birthday, Kayla! We wanted to give you our gift before we left. We’re sorry we can’t be here Saturday for the actual day.” Kayla smiled in the shy way she always did and reached for her rabbit tucked in the cage by the stairs.
My husband nudged my nephew. “Come on Bud, help me outside.” I watched Kayla’s smile spread to her eyes.
The hope chest occupied the remaining space in the room. We held our breathe hoping our birthday choice would fill a tiny piece of the enormous void in her life.
My husband got on his knees in front of the chest. He showed Kayla how it opened, lifting the heavy cherry lid. Both uncle and niece rubbed a hand over the smooth cedar lining inside.
“This is the best part,” my husband whispered close to Kayla’s ear. He motioned her to look behind the lid. “This is where the key to the lock is.” My niece’s smile competed with the tree lights as he passed the key to her open hand.
Author’s note: This is a true story. The birthday hope chest continues to be filled with a young woman’s dreams.
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