We had just finished reading to Samuel and heard a knock on the glass outside the NICU that was our home. Walking around to the entrance of the room and taking our scrubs off, we went to one of the nurses who told us someone had left something for us downstairs. I had just put a request out to friends and family who were following Samuel’s journey to donate blood and Children’s Hospital was almost overwhelmed with the amount of people. Some had wanted to meet us or visit us, but we kept to the room with our son because every moment was sacred.
After several hours, and after updating those who followed my blog about Samuel’s progress, we saw it. A small three-foot Christmas tree, adorned and decorated with ornaments and what seemed like hundreds of gift cards awaited us. What was a plastic three-foot Christmas tree doing here?
At first, we didn’t exactly know what to think. I believe Kelly realized the sheer amount of gift cards decorating it first, but as I slowly began to survey all that was on it, we both began to weep. You see, complete strangers who had followed the blog from a church near Yorba Linda traveled to Children’s Hospital and dropped this off. We wanted to run down and meet them, hug them, embrace them, but they had already left. They had waited a few hours for us to come down, but we were transfixed on our son. We never met them during that time, though later one of the people who organized it also had given us a gift to bring Samuel home in. We received that gift the day he went home to be with the Lord. It was such a beautiful, but painful gift. That was Christmas Eve 2010.
Christmas was hard. We wept off and on as our children ripped open their presents. To tell you the truth, I barely remember that day. We were numb. We were broken. Our son had died the day before.
Months went by and I remember seeing that tiny Christmas tree packed away in our garage as I rummaged for a tool. The pain of everything was still too near and so we relegated it to the garage and out of site. I had stopped feverishly writing on the blog and life went on as work ensued in ministry. Something about that tree, however, was powerful to us, and we cherished it, unwilling to let it go.
The following Christmas we visited Samuel’s gravesite, sent our balloons up in the sky, and pulled out our Christmas decorations. Noah helped me put up lights. As we ended our time, and after most of the decorations had been put up on our house, he pulled out a three foot Christmas tree and asked if he could put it in his room. It was almost as if a siren went off and Kelly and I just wept.
The Christmas of 2012 saw a new addition to our family; Christian. But the same old three-foot tree found its home in Noah and Mia’s room again, and Kelly made a powerful decision. “Dan, what if we gave a tree to a family in the hospital who has a baby in the NICU like Samuel?” Selfishly, I do not think I was too excited about the idea, and so provided little support. It was too raw to me; too sacred to try and do the same to someone else. Kelly pressed on, and with the help of family and a few friends, she put together a tree and decorated it with an intense love, staying up late one night to finish it to perfection. She was never more beautiful than in that moment. After she delivered the first tree, she vowed to always try and do one more Christmas tree for families each year.
The next Christmas we both decided to invite more friends into giving trees to families who were hurting. I had come around to embracing the idea but still sort of kept the idea at arms length like some sixth grade dance. After all was said and done that year, I believe we had three trees filled with gift cards and notes of love. The same three-foot Christmas tree we had received had now turned into three Christmas trees, and we both were able to personally hand them to families.
In 2014, Christmas was beginning to seem exciting again. We started earlier with our emails. I even invited people on Facebook to join in, and we were able to put together seven or eight trees. The night before we dropped them off, Kelly worked long into the evening decorating those trees and making sure each one was perfect, like the one we had received. The impact on the families was tangible, powerful, and life-giving, but we realized that we wanted others to experience the joy of giving these trees. That year we vowed to do something different with the trees in the future.
In 2015, I began to tell my world about Samuel and the tree we received. We contacted the lady who first gave us the tree, Natali Rigio, and she re-engaged with us. She had not given a tree to anyone since the one she gave to us five years earlier. We had never met her but had always kept in contact through social media, and she jumped on board with gusto. I contacted businesses, schools, clubs, family, friends, restaurants, supermarkets; anyone. An army mobilized, and we raised enough support for fifty trees. We threw a Christmas tree decorating party. In three cities, we reached into the lives of hurting families and mothers courageous enough to follow through with their pregnancies and celebrated life with them. And, wouldn’t you know it, we met Natali face to face for the first time and she was just as beautiful inside and out as we imagined. She mobilized her own army and gave four trees to the cause.
We know the simplicity of the act of love we are able to give to families is palpable. One lady asked us to be the godparents of their baby. Others just wept. Some praised God and reconnected with Him. One, not believing she was worthy of anything because of her “sin”, experienced God’s love in a redeeming way. Even the families who spent a night or two writing cards out, decorating Christmas trees for delivery, or putting on campaigns in their schools were blessed. There’s something special we are doing with Samuel’s Trees, and it all started with a group of strangers who wanted to do something for someone out of love. Indeed, that three-foot Christmas tree that we always put up in the kid’s room is just that. It is love.