It has now been many Christmases ago — perhaps 12 or 13, or even 14.
While I have lost count of the Christmases that have come and gone between now and back then, I have never forgotten him. His sweet face lingers in my memory like the scent of a fresh-cut pine that fragrances a room, long after the sparkling lights and ornaments have been hung.
For a few years, I flew to Carson City, Nevada, for a Christmas party that my friends Bill and Virgie hosted. Their lovely home sits high on a hill overlooking the capital city and, at night, presents a gorgeous view of bright lights twinkling below. It is not an overstatement to say that their Christmas parties, which have ceased to be, were the top invitation on Carson City’s social calendar.
But as Miss Virgie says, “Yes, those parties were grand but, remember, we are in Carson City; not New York or Paris. There isn’t much competition to be the grandest.”
The men wore tuxes. The women wore fabulous gowns with rhinestones and feathers. A string trio played. Silver and crystal sparkled. Miss Virgie, a Mississippi native, presented Southern hospitality and food at its best. It was the second Sunday night in December and people marked their calendars for it.
I always went for the weekend, taking a flight that connected through Salt Lake City. Then, I’d board a puddle jumper into Reno where Bill would meet me.
One year, a blizzard trapped me overnight in Salt Lake. The airline shuttled stranded passengers to a faux Tudor inn and gave us a meal voucher. I arrived three hours before the party began and flew out at 10 o’clock the next morning.
The following year, my flight landed in Salt Lake City in yet another blinding snowstorm. As I lugged my carry-on to several departure gates smashed together — for small jets and prop planes — I looked out the floor-to-ceiling windows and sighed. It was a darkly gray day, lightened only by the millions of snowflakes that swirled furiously around, bumping into each other.
“Great,” I thought. “Another night in Utah on a lumpy mattress.”
Seconds later, I saw him. He was about 30, Asian, slightly chunky, and propelling his wheelchair by hand. My eyes met his. I smiled.
“Hello,” I said as we passed. “Merry Christmas!”
There was an eagerness to his reply and the light on his face brightened the dismal day. To quote the world’s best-selling book, “The glory of the Lord shone round about them.”
My flight painfully delayed, I was flipping through a magazine when the young man rolled his wheelchair to a stop next to me.
“Hello, again!” His smile was blinding. “My name is Albert.”
I introduced myself and we chatted. Suddenly, he grew silent. His eyes drilled deeply into mine. He leaned forward then spoke.
“Are you…” he paused, his eyes widening. “Are you an…” he took a breath. “Angel?”
Albert’s voice was filled with wonder yet I gasped, “Oh, goodness, NO!”
“I think you are,” he responded with assurance. “You looked me in the eyes and spoke to me. You made me feel good about myself.” He brushed his cheek against his shoulder and shrugged. “Most people look away when they see my wheelchair.”
I bought us cups of coffee and we settled in for a two-hour chat. He had never walked but had learned to live independently. He was on his way from Denver to his home in Lake Tahoe.
They called his flight before mine so I walked to the gate with him. He showed his boarding pass to the agent and then, before he rolled onto the plane, turned and cheerfully called out: “Goodbye, Ronda, my angel!”
The Bible says, “Be mindful to entertain strangers for some have entertained angels, unaware.”
Was Albert, I have often wondered, truly the angel among us?
Ronda Rich is the best-selling author of several books, including “What Southern Women Know About Faith.” Sign up for her newsletter at www.rondarich.com. Her column publishes weekly.