“When pride comes, then comes disgrace,
but with the humble is wisdom.”
“Pride goes before destruction,
and a haughty spirit before a fall.”
The cheerful holiday music assaulted her emotionally, as if someone had rubbed salt on the open wounds of her heart. The Friend walked around the square downtown, taking in the twinkling lights and the beautiful holiday decorations. Large, red bows hung from every light pole, and garland was strung about the shops and restaurants that surrounded the square. Mistletoe was strategically placed above several shop doorways, and many happy shoppers happily obliged the call of the mistletoe.
Nestled in the warmth of her overcoat, the chill inside her heart made her shutter. How did my life become such a mess?
She took a seat on an empty bench and observed the joy that seemed to emanate from families around her. One mother and daughter sat on a bench across from The Friend and captivated her attention. They each sipped on hot chocolate while they shared a cinnamon roll from the Bakery Bear, laughing about some secret joke as they enjoyed their treats. The daughter looked to be about 15 years of age, and The Friend couldn’t help but compare their close relationship to the distant and strained relationship she had with her own daughter, who was now also 15.
Holidays had never been the same after her bitter divorce with Chip. She’d known he was a snake in the courtroom, but never did she imagine she would be on the receiving end of his venomous strikes. The divorce process had not been easy for The Friend, let alone dignified. Chip humiliated her in front of friends and family, attempting to drag her character through the mud. There was even a period in which she feared the judge would give majority custody to Chip, not because she was incapable or neglectful in any way, but because Chip’s lies were so convincing. She and Chip had to sell their million dollar home to pay off massive debt, and The Friend, in great desperation, had purchased a home on the same street as her parents’. No longer able to afford a private nanny, she’d been forced to depend on her mom’s help once more.
The divorce had left her emotionally broken, physically drained, and financially strained. Though it occurred ten years prior, she had never fully recovered from the rejection and humiliation of it all. She worked hard to hide her despair from others, pridefully trying to appear as if she had it all together. From outward appearances, more people thought this to be the case. She was a successful and respected ER physician, and she was highly sought after for training and educating medical professionals in the field. Even still, depression seeped into her personal life in the aftermath of the divorce, and though she put on a bold and courageous front, inwardly, she often felt as if she was sinking in quick sand.
The damage to her relationships with her children had been significant, and she feared they might never recover. During the divorce, Chip made it his mission to contaminate their children’s views of their mother. They would come home from the weekends at their dad’s, telling The Friend that Chip said things like “She never wanted you in the first place,” and “She has always felt that you kids get in the way of her career.” The fact that they had practically been raised by their nanny only further solidified his statements in their young minds. Try as she might to reassure them of her love, Chip’s lies took root deep in their hearts.
Fresh tears fell down her face as she remembered how desperately she had tried to repair the damage to Sarah and Charles’ innocent hearts. But how do you explain to a child that you foolishly believed they would be satisfied with new toys and the best clothes? That you realized all too late their need for your love, time, and attention was more important than your pursuit of wealth and success? She shook her head as she considered the futility of her life.
She had so many regrets. She had been so focused on the satisfaction she was sure that wealth would bring, that she had never imagined the great tragedy that would become her life when she lost it all.
Sarah, just recently entering her teen years, was already so angry. The Friend trembled at the thought of what rebellious choices Sarah would make in the coming years. She remembered the argument they had had earlier in the week. Sarah had been invited to a New Year’s Eve party at a senior boy’s house. While The Friend had initially said “yes,” she changed her mind when Sarah admitted there would be no adult supervision.
“You try to control my life all the time! Dad would let me go. He always lets me do whatever I want!” Sarah had shouted in rage. No matter how The Friend tried to reason with her daughter, she’d gotten nowhere. That fight had ended terribly, with Sarah shouting, “I hate you!” as she fled from the room. She’d given her mom the silent treatment the rest of the evening, and she left for Chip’s house the next day. She had heard nothing from her daughter since.
At one time in her life, she would have been thankful to have Christmas Eve and Christmas off at the hospital, but since the kids were at Chip’s this week, she felt hopeless instead. Her parents had invited her to the Christmas Eve service at their church, but she had politely but firmly declined. Though she knew she was about as low as a person could get in life, she still refused to enter that church. God has done nothing for her over the last ten years. Why should I sit and pretend like I care?
The Friend had come to the square this evening in order to avoid a certain visit from her parents. She couldn’t face their pity tonight. The chill of the evening air penetrated her thick overcoat and she shivered, more aware of the chill of her thoughts. As she stood to walk around, she felt heavy with disappointment…in herself, her life, her choices. She had hoped coming to the square might alleviate some of her sadness, but it didn’t seem to be doing the trick. Instead, it only further underscored her loneliness.
As she walked by the Bakery Bear Coffee Shop, she stopped to examine the framed picture in the front window. The picture was of a young woman, probably in her mid-30s. She had been the wife of the owner, but she was a victim of the train crash that took many lives some 18 years prior. The Friend had admired this picture and read the description next to it many times before, but the quote at the bottom of the description always captured The Friend’s attention and drew her in: “Grief is the price we pay for love.”
Every time she read that description, her heart longed to be loved in such a way. But would she ever know such love? There was a time in her life when she had believed it possible. She and her best friend Sarah had spent many nights as teenagers dreaming of the men they would marry and the lives they would lead. Yet what had transpired since those love-sick days was nothing short of a tragedy. Sarah had found her dream man, only to die with him a week after their wedding. And The Friend had yet to find a love so true. She’d thought it would last with Chip, but that clearly did not pan out as she had hoped. She was beginning to believe no pure love truly existed in this life.
She looked down at her watch to check the time. 8:15. She knew her parents would have gotten home by now from their Christmas Eve service, but she wanted to wait until they were in bed before returning home. Looking into the cafe’s windows, she spied an open table for two near the fire. She hurried inside to place her order, hoping she could get to that table before anyone else.
Walking up to the front counter, she eyed all of the delicious, fresh-baked goodies. The cashier greeted her warmly as she studied the menu. The Bakery Bear was famous for its cinnamon rolls, and though they were quite large, The Friend decided to order one for herself.
“I’ll take a cinnamon roll and a grande vanilla latte, extra hot, please.” She rummaged through her purse to find her wallet as the cashier warmed her cinnamon roll on a plate.
Ringing up her card, the cashier then reached into the microwave to retrieve the gooey roll. “Take a seat anywhere you’d like, and I’ll have that latte out for you in no time.” She thanked the cashier and went to find a seat.
Turning toward the stone fire place, The Friend’s heart sank when she saw that the table was no longer unoccupied. A man sat with his back to her, facing the fireplace and sitting in what should have been her seat! The cashier brought out what looked to be a cappuccino to him. What luck I have! she groaned in irritation.
At that moment a table opened up just beyond the fireplace and she moved to take it. As she passed the table by the fire place, she looked down to see this man who had dared steal her seat. But she stopped in her tracks when she saw him, recognition registering in her mind.
“I know you from somewhere,” she said, her curiosity escaping her lips before she could stop it.
He looked up from his writing, smiling slightly but showing no sign of recognition on his behalf. “I’m sorry, I don’t think we’ve met.”
Immediately upon seeing his eyes, she knew who he was. She’d seen those same sad eyes on the news and in the paper for so many years. He was The Man who had survived the train accident.
“Oh I’m so sorry,” she said quickly. “I just realized who you are. You’re the one who survived…” her voice trailed off at the sadness of her memories, and the words hung in the air.
The Man winced at her recognition. “It’s been a while since a stranger has recognized me.”
Feeling a need to show that she was more than just a curious passerby, she decided to share about her own loss. “My best friend died on that train. She and Nick were returning from their honeymoon.”
The Man shifted in his seat, showing a little more interest in the conversation. “Sarah and Nick? I sat across from them on the train.” He then introduced himself to The Friend, and they exchanged brief introductions. When he heard her name, another connection came to him. “Wait, you’re the one who married Chip Maxwell, right?” He stopped suddenly, remembering the rumors of the bitter divorce that had circulated around the courthouse.
Lowering her eyes, it was The Friend’s turn to wince. She felt the familiar sense of pride rising to the surface of her heart, but for once, she didn’t feel like putting up a bold front. Sighing deeply, she instead replied, “Yes, I’m the one he married…and then the one he divorced. I wouldn’t have wished that on my worst enemy.” They both smiled in shared understanding of her words. Just then, the cashier brought over her latte.
“Should I put it here, ma’am?” she asked, motioning to the empty seat at The Man’s table.
The Friend hesitated in the awkward moment, noticing that the table she had been heading toward earlier was now occupied. The Man did not hesitate. Motioning toward the empty seat, he replied, “Please, if you aren’t meeting someone, I’d love to have some company.”
She thanked the cashier and took the seat. The Man studied her curiously. “I’m surprised we never met if you are a doctor at Grace Memorial…”
“Well, that was intentional,” she replied, pushing her cinnamon roll with a fork. He raised an eyebrow curiously, and she explained. “I wasn’t working the day of the accident, but I was called in to help with the overflow.”
She stopped, closing her eyes, remembering. “I had to identify Sarah. Her body was so badly burned, and she lay on that hospital bed nearly unrecognizable. They couldn’t reach her parents, so they asked me to help.” She looked up at The Man, who was patiently listening, no doubt experiencing his own memories as she talked. “Sarah fell off her bike when we were kids, and she gashed her left leg open pretty badly on a piece of rotted wood. I’d helped her get home, where her parents took her to the doctor. She got 17 stitches that day, but it still left a nasty scar. That’s how I knew it was her.”
The Friend looked away, taking a moment to breathe deeply and steady her racing heart. She hadn’t recounted these details in so long, and the memories brought a fresh wave of grief. She took a sip of her latte, savoring its warmth. She looked back to The Man and continued, “I never was assigned to your room in the ER. Then, when you emerged from your coma and your story came out…well, I was just so angry at God for what happened to my best friend that I lost any desire to meet The Man who’d survived and spoke of God being good. Lame excuse, I know…but that’s how I felt.” She offered a weak smile, taking a small bite of her cinnamon roll to signal she was finished speaking. Her appetite was gone, but she chewed the bite anyway.
The Man was silent, considering her words. “You know,” he began. “I would have liked to have met you then. We had a lot in common. However, my concept of God changed drastically while I was in the hospital.” He rubbed his knee under the table, which always seemed to throb when he dwelt on the subject of the tragedy.
“Being the only survivor has never been easy,” he confessed. “I’ve had a lot of anger over the years…well, anger, sadness, confusion, grief. You name it, I’ve probably been there. But you see, you and I both fall on different sides of the same coin. I fall on the side of believing God’s goodness, and you…you reject that notion.”
The Friend thought how curious it was that she was talking so intimately with this stranger. Yet he, more than any other person, understood the pain of her loss and the confusion of her journey. He also knew the intimate details of Sarah’s last conscious moments of her life, and never before had The Friend realized how desperately she wanted to hear about them.
They talked for a while, huddled at the table by the fire, hovering over the great sadness they shared. Their drinks grew cold, but neither had noticed. Talking about it all was healing for both of them.
After the owner came over to notify them that the cafe was closing for the night, The Man reflected to The Friend: “You know what ultimately kept me from calling on Jesus in those last moments before impact?” The Friend shook her head slowly, leaning in to hear. “Pride.”
She looked in his eyes and saw tears brimming at his eyelids. “To think that I nearly missed out on knowing the One True God, on experiencing a life of joy and peace, a life of knowing my son, because of my pride…” he shook his head, at a loss for words. “What a fool I was.”
His gentle words pierced The Friend’s heart, and she turned away in shame. His story was hers, too, and she knew it. She thought of all the objections she’d had against God throughout the years, and she knew it all came down to pride. She liked being in control; she prided herself in having it all together. But the truth was now there before her, ugly and exposed. She’d never really had it all together, and pride prevented her from calling on the One who could help her and heal her.
She looked up to The Man and gave the only honest answer she could in that moment. “If you only knew what a mess my life is. There is no way a good God could love me.”
His eyes smiled first, and then he replied with compassion in his voice, “Sarah said those same exact words to Laura Anderson. But from what I witnessed, she didn’t die believing that lie.”