This year, I would like a pair of sweatpants for Christmas. The pair I’ve got now came out of the “Lost and Found” bin at the local gym when my originals split a seam (Oh, if only that new bulge were muscle). Now, that pair has sprung leaks, a series of small holes that, unlike my eyesight, show no signs of fading. I’ll probably get a bottle of scent instead of the much-needed pair of sweats. That, however, is not why I hate Christmas.
In part, I hate Christmas because it has become all about presents. And, of course, annoying songs like “Frosty the Snowman,” which I have found myself singing silently for about a week now. Mostly, I hate Christmas because it can bring out the opposite of what it should in people. We can become more self-obsessed and greedy than at other times of the year.
The first time this began to bother me was a long time ago. More than 20 years ago or so. On that Christmas morning, Washington, D.C., was covered in a thick sheet of ice. Nothing moved. Nothing could move. Everyone stayed indoors and ate and lounged about. We had a weather-imposed day-long curfew.
Well, most of us did. Some emergency services were in business. The Washington Humane Society was open because it had dogs and cats to feed and keep warm. Its volunteer drivers were on call, too, and I was one of them. My truck was outfitted with studded snow tires and chains and 50-pound bags of sand. We always prided ourselves on getting to our destinations even in adverse weather conditions, often without seeing another vehicle.
Just before lunchtime, a call came in. Could we pick up a dog lying on the ice between two houses? No, they had no idea who owned the dog or why the dog was there.
When I got to the address, I managed to crawl my way down the ice-covered steps and across the skating rink lawn to the caller’s door. It was so cold my fingers and feet were numb. Two men answered. A father and son? Behind them, in the warm, cozy room, I could see the tree and Christmas lights. Music was playing. They pointed to the side of the house, shivered, and closed the door quickly.
The dog was lying on her side. She was so heavily pregnant that I was surprised she wasn’t delivering the pups then and there. She tried to get away when she saw me coming, but her front legs had been squashed, and I could see broken bones protruding. She had apparently been hit by a car and managed to drag herself this far before collapsing. She was suffering from exposure and wild-eyed with fear. Her only hope of getting away was to scramble past me, but her crushed legs and the ice made escape impossible. I pulled out a long leash and put it around her neck. Now I was faced with a dilemma. The mixed German shepherd and the litter she was carrying must have weighed over 70 pounds. She couldn’t manage the walk–certainly not the steps to the sidewalk–under her own steam. I weighed in at about 110 pounds. Even on dry ground, picking her up would have been impossible. We were both shaking uncontrollably from the icy wind.
I blocked her exit with two wooden pallets, anchored her to them, and gingerly maneuvered my way back to the house. Knock, knock. Would anyone be able to help me get the dog to the truck, I pleaded to the beautifully dressed young woman who came to the door. The men on the couch shook their heads and said in no uncertain terms that that was my job. They weren’t going out in that weather to touch some dirty mutt. Thank you.
It took me a long time to administer the sedative to her, to wait for its effects to kick in, and then push and pull her body across the lawn. It took longer to winch her, courtesy of my leash and the snow chains, up the steps to the truck. I have no recollection of how exactly I got her into the truck, but it wasn’t easy. As I worked, and she snored, I remember hearing that blasted Christmas music coming from inside the house.
Over the years, I have read about and personally witnessed all sorts of wonderful charitable acts at this time of year. My heart is filled with gratitude for each person responsible for every one. If this season brings out the best in some people, it is a good time. Yet, the image of people turning their backs on Christmas morning to the plight of an exhausted, pregnant stray dog, her legs in tatters, never fades.
There are so many, of all species, who have nothing or little. Just a few hours’ plane ride away, there are countries where children know only war, lands where children have never had a toy–not just a favorite toy, but any toy. There are places where old men and women must still perform back-breaking manual labor or starve, and where human beings and animals sift through garbage dumps together for food. Here at home, there are people and animals who live on the street or find refuge in cardboard boxes and abandoned cars.
There are worse things in life than not getting a pair of sweatpants for Christmas. Turning our backs on those who have so much less is one of them.