By Matt Reese
Louise was in a snit. And, an ugly snit it was. Regarded as a living saint by all in the small town community, Louise had rarely been known to be in such a state.
Louise had dedicated her life to service to others, most notably her handicapped elder sister Roselyn. Louise was talented, beautiful and extremely intelligent in her youth. She’d had unlimited potential, and she’d lived up to much of it.
She’d had a successful career in business, from which she was now retired. She had tirelessly cared for and supported Roselyn beyond what could be reasonably expected of anyone. And it was said Louise shone the brightest every year in her service to the local church. This level of service reached its pinnacle at the start of Advent. Louise coordinated the magnificent Advent Service each year four weeks prior to Christmas in the beautiful, small town church her family had attended for generations. The service was incredible, by all accounts. It was one time the whole community showed up.
The figurative spotlight was firmly on Louise as the whole town watched. There was a joint choir formed by several area churches. Louise was the conductor. There were magnificent decorations and lights, many hung by Louise herself. The service included the announcement of the recipients of the church’s local outreach ministry and the generosity of attendees was unprecedented throughout the rest of the year — all painstakingly orchestrated by Louise. The crowning moment of the event each year was when Louise climbed a ladder and hung a beautiful handmade wreath above the massive oaken doors of the church at the summit of the ornate stairs spilling down to the street.
The wreath, itself, was no ordinary wreath, either. It was a Roselyn Wreath. Roselyn was born with a host of physical and mental handicaps. She’d always been overweight, uncoordinated and lackluster in every way. When Roselyn was 17, the pastor at the church was looking for a way for her to contribute to the Advent Service and asked her to make the wreath for the church, hoping for the best. Through providence, this turned out to be a miracle. The wreath adorning the church that year was the most beautiful anyone had ever seen.
Roselyn had worked on the wreath until her fingers were bleeding. She furrowed her brow in concentration until beads of sweat formed and dripped down her face. Her fingers ached so much it brought tears to her eyes. She poured her life into that first wreath. And then, the business of making wreaths poured life into Roselyn.
Such was the beauty of the first wreath, that Louise (her younger sister by a year and a half) starting marketing her sibling’s new found talent. This quickly led to a way for Roselyn to support herself. Louise helped gather supplies, coordinate deliveries and sell them for top dollar based on the quality of the work and the story behind Roselyn’s Wreaths. In the few short weeks leading up to Christmas, wreath sales became enough to cover Roselyn’s modest needs throughout the year.
Louise’s dedication to the small business, her other career in business management, the demands of caring for her sister after their parents passed away, and her service in the church dominated her life, leaving little time for other relationships, including marriage. She had certainly had many suitors, and a few relationships, but none that could withstand the rigors of her life. Whether through choice or necessity, Louise had dedicated the entirety of her life to matters other than herself. Well, mostly. Nobody, including Louise, realized the dark shred of selfishness she clung to. It was the few moments that she, alone, stood in the literal spotlight before the whole town when she hung Roselyn’s wreath on the front of the church each year. She loved it. She craved it. She needed it. When she began coordinating the Advent Service years after Roselyn made her first wreath, Louise used church funds to purchase a small spotlight to highlight her sister’s wreath that hung on the front of the church throughout the Advent season. Every year since, Louise took deep satisfaction in climbing the ladder up into that spotlight, just for a moment or two, to hang the Roselyn Wreath.
When the day turned out to be a tough one, which it often would, Louise would think back to those moments in the spotlight and be rejuvenated. During the frantic weeks of wreath season and Advent Service preparation when her tank was running low, she’d dream of how good it would feel to be in the spotlight again. Louise did not realize it, but her whole year (her entire life) revolved around hanging up that wreath on the front of the church and the brief gleam of the spotlight. This was the reason for Louise’s snit, though she hadn’t quite figured it out yet.
Roselyn spoke very few words. That was her way. She’s been talking even less lately because her health, and her days, were very clearly waning. Both sisters knew this would be the last season for Roselyn’s Wreaths, and likely the last season for Roselyn. She had been shut in for months now. After 66 years, Roselyn’s challenges had taken a horrible toll. Her body was swollen and broken. Her arthritic hands were unmercifully twisted. Her breathing was increasingly a struggle and every minute of every day was accompanied by searing pain. She had been disappearing for long hours into her wreath making shop in the back — her only private solace where not even Louise would disturb her — with little wreath output to show for it. Louise was not sure Roselyn would be up to making her largest wreath of the year for the front of the church. Louise was starting to become anxious that last year’s big moment in the spotlight hanging the wreath would be her last.
The time was approaching. All the preparations were done for the Advent Service, but Roselyn had failed to produce a wreath. Still hopeful, Louise knocked on the door of Roselyn’s wreath shop. “Are you ready with the Advent wreath for the church?” she asked as pleasantly as possible.
A husky and low, “No” was the reply from the other side of the door. The sisters had barely talked or seen each other for days now. Louise knew there would be no more said. That was Roselyn’s way.
Louise went out to the street and got in the old truck they’d used for years to haul the massive wreath to the church. As she closed the door to leave for the Advent service, she was suddenly overcome with absolute anguish. She felt trapped, helpless, and so deeply betrayed. How could Roselyn do this to her? Louise had served Roselyn and others so tirelessly for so long and she had asked for so little in return. Louise’s insides churned, she felt nauseous. Her body shook and her mind took the darkest of paths as she dwelt upon her wasted life that had left her with little to show for it but a dying, ungrateful older sister. Then, Louise sobbed.
When Louise finally lifted her head up from the steering wheel and dried her selfish tears, she found the windows of the truck had all fogged up, and a rainy slushy snow had begun to pile up around her. She’d completely lost track of time. She looked at her watch. She’d missed the entire Advent Service!
Rage boiled up inside Louise and she threw open the truck door, flew into the house and flung open the door to Roselyn’s wreath shop with a fury unmatched in all her days. Her jaw dropped.
The room, normally full of greens, ribbons and supplies, was nearly empty. On the table sat numerous towels crumpled and splotched with dried blood. The back door to the shop was open, with the wintery mix blowing in. Louise ran out the door and could see Roselyn’s unmistakable footprints, heavy and clumsy, with a little bit of a drag of the left foot. They led down a dark frozen alley. Louise followed.
After several blocks, Louise’s stomach sank. The tracks in the slush of the potholed alley were heading right for the church. She shivered in the cold, wiped the freezing rain and melting snow off her face and quickened her pace.
The drag of the left foot was getting more pronounced by the time Louise got to the backside of the church, but the footprints continued. Roselyn had not walked this far in the last 20 years! Where was she going?
The snow started falling harder and began to obscure the increasingly erratic footprints Louise followed down that lonely back alley. They continued for several more blocks before taking a sharp left. There were a couple of steps where, based on the marks in the snow, Roselyn had clearly fallen multiple times. Louise now felt every emotion.
Louise did not realize where she was until she looked up and saw a teenage boy standing precariously on a rickety ladder in the swirling snow and icy rain. In the yellow glow of a buzzing, flickering light, the boy was hanging a massive and intricately decorated wreath on the backside of a shabby looking building — the city mission. Two young children without coats or shoes gleefully ran out into the slushy snow and marveled at perfection of the wreath being hung. It was, by far, the most beautiful thing Louise had ever witnessed.
Louise pulled her eyes from the incredible scene and looked for Roselyn, but could only find her tracks leading down the sidewalk to the main street out front. The hour was late and it was the worst kind of weather. No one was out. There were many tracks in the snow on the sidewalk but Roselyn’s were fresh and easy to find. Both feet were dragging now and there were several more places where she had fallen. Louise was running now, soaked and shivering. Roselyn was heading back to the church, long locked up after the Advent Service. Louise shouted at a bundled up stranger to see if he had seen a woman walking. He shook his head and briskly walked the other way. The snow was falling so hard now Louise could barely see 10 feet in front of her. Finally, through the swirling flakes she saw the dark, lumbering form of Roselyn. She was right in front of the church, moving very slowly and staggering with every step. She collapsed in the snow in a little patch of yard in front of the church, motionless in the glow of the spotlight Louise had first put there decades ago. Roselyn’s massive form blocked out the spotlight that had been shining at the empty spot above the church door where her wreaths had hung during Advent for nearly a half-century.
Louise ran to her dying sister face down in the wet, slushy snow. Roselyn’s dress was soaked. Her bare arms and legs were bruised and bleeding from her falls. Her breathing was raspy and inconsistent. With a mighty heave Louise rolled her over and brushed the slush from Roselyn’s eyes and hair. When Roselyn opened her eyes there was determination in them. She groaned and grunted, using her last bit of strength to raise her arm and clumsily drop it on the spotlight beside her. Roselyn turned her head, rolled her eyes back and carefully moved her bleeding, arthritic hand on the light again before her strength failed. Roselyn then turned her eyes back to meet her sister’s and smiled her last smile.
Louise can’t remember how long she sat there staring at her sister, her tears intermingling with the melting snow. She clearly remembers, though, finally looking up to see the old spotlight illuminating the manger in the quaint nativity scene she’d set up in front of the church the day before — surely where it should have been all along.