Friday, January 25, 2013
COLUMN: A Tree for Rose
These days, it's been hard to recapture that magic. The world's greatest holiday has turned into a three-month exploitation of commercialism and greed. I've got my lights up, but the twinkle just isn't what I remember. I've tried everything, but maybe the Christmas I remember is just that -- a memory.
But this week, I learned the most important lesson of all about Christmas. Holiday magic isn't something you FIND -- it's something that, if you're lucky enough, you're GIVEN. If you don't believe me, just ask McKenzie.
McKenzie is a 9-year-old who lives in Moline with her Grandma Rose and her 8-year-old sister. Rose has full custody of the two girls, and has worked tirelessly on third shift supporting the family.
Rose decided to start 2012 by throwing out her Christmas tree.
"The thing was seventeen years old and showed its age," she explained. "I figured that when it got close to the holidays this year, we'd go out and buy a new tree. But that was before I got sick."
A few months ago, Rose was diagnosed with advanced stage cancer. She doesn't know how much time she has left.
"I wanted to get a new tree, but when it came time, I was too sick," Rose elaborated. "Depression set in and it just got bigger and bigger and louder and louder."
The girls' Aunt Tammie tried to help. "We put a tree up at our house, and I told the girls, 'With Grandma not feeling good, this can be YOUR tree, too."
It was around that time when McKenzie was picked to participate in the annual Kids and Cops Holiday Shop program. Sponsored by the Moline Police and funded through various businesses in town, each year five children from each of Moline's elementary schools get chosen for the day-long celebration that concludes with a food party at the Butterworth Center.
But the centerpiece of the program is a shopping spree at Wal-Mart. Each child receives a $75 budget to spend on gifts for their family and themselves, AND a police escort to accompany them on the trip. McKenzie got paired up with Officer Sean Hoover.
"It was my first time volunteering," explained Officer Hoover, "and I didn't know what to expect. I had to be nagged into doing it, and now I'm so glad to have been a part of it."
The officers I spoke with recounted stories of past years, when some of the kids had to be gently nudged to spend more on their families than themselves. One recalled having to get a child to fess up that their mother in fact probably would NOT like a Transformer for Christmas. That was before Officer Hoover met McKenzie.
"I asked her what she wanted to buy first. She already had it planned out."
McKenzie herself explains it best.
"I knew right away what I was going to do with the money. I was buying a tree."
Officer Hoover did a double take. He reminded her that she could buy anything in the store that she wanted. Did she really want to spend her money on a Christmas tree?
"She told me that her grandma was really sick," he recounted. "She knew her grandma wasn't going to be around much longer, and they hadn't had time to get a tree. She knew it would take up most of her money, but she didn't care."
The two of them walked over to the Christmas trees and Officer Hoover watched as McKenzie picked out a $45 beauty.
"It even came with lights!" McKenzie gushed. "I was psyched."
With the remaining money, McKenzie bought a present for Rose, a present for her sister, a present for the neighbor boy, and a $5 Barbie for herself.
"I kept myself in a budget," she said with a smile. I asked her if it was hard to keep track of her spending while she was shopping. "Nope!"
When McKenzie got home, she burst through the doors.
"I expected to see her walk in with an armful of toys," said Rose. "Instead, she walked in and said, 'Mom, I took all your worries away. I bought you a tree.' I said, 'a WHAT?' The officer told me she was bound and determined to leave with that tree. It was all I could do not to break down crying in front of her."
"Christmas is my favorite holiday," McKenzie tells me at warp speed. "It has lights and decorations and presents and I got to sit by the policeman and it was cool and I got this tree and it's super pretty and I'm not putting any tinsel on it because tinsel is ugly."
The family set the tree up and had it decorated within minutes. It commands a corner of their living room and features a host of ornaments made by the girls and their classmates. But that's not where the story ends.
It didn't take long before the story of McKenzie's tree echoed through the halls of the Moline Police Department. "It was hard not to notice," explains Officer Hoover. "I was the only volunteer leaving Wal-Mart with a tree strapped to their car."
Eventually word got to a generous Moline police officer who didn't want to be interviewed for this story and wishes to remain anonymous ("He likes his reputation as a hard-a**," one officer said to me with a wink.) But when he heard the story, he wanted to help. He began making calls to track the family down, but all he had was her first name. That was when a maintenance worker happened by his desk -- and miraculously, that worker was the girls' Aunt Tammie.
"I wasn't trying to eavesdrop, but I heard him on the phone trying to track down a girl named McKenzie whose grandma had cancer. I was stunned and shouted out, 'That's my niece!'"
The officer, against Tammie's protests, immediately handed her $50 and explained that he and his wife wanted to pay for the tree.
"It was such a generous and gracious gesture," Tammie said. "I told him it really wasn't necessary, but he was insistent."
The only person NOT happy with the gesture -- AT FIRST -- was McKenzie.
"Aunt Tammie called me and said that a police officer wanted to buy the tree," she said. "I said NO! I bought the tree, and no one's gonna buy it back and take our tree away after we decorated it pretty!"
Instead, the family used the money to let the girls buy new dolls for themselves, and without prompting, they wrote letters of thanks to the anonymous officer.
Christmas comes in all shapes and sizes. In one Moline house, this year it comes in the shape of a tree.
"It's the most beautiful thing I've ever seen," says Rose with a smile. I'm pretty sure she's right. That Norway Spruce at Rockefeller Center better look out -- there's a new tree in town. And as far as I'm concerned, this one lights up all the Christmas magic I need this year.