Peter's coat: a Christmas story

On a bitter cold Seattle day an absent son's winter coat, long in storage, takes on new life and meaning.
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Peter Marshall Smith (March 4, 1979 - March 9, 2012)

On a bitter cold Seattle day an absent son's winter coat, long in storage, takes on new life and meaning.

On Nov. 12 the weather was icy, with warnings about frozen pipes and news of homeless shelters adding extra beds. Walking back from the store, I waited at the corner for the light to cross. A man wearing only a sleeveless T-shirt and jeans approached me.

He asked for $3 for the bus. I replied that all I had was quarters, not wanting to give him the $20 bill in my purse. He said that would be fine, so I gave him the 12 quarters. Goose bumps covered his arms and throat. We crossed the street together, and there encountered a lady drinking a hot drink, which she offered to him. He grasped the cup and took a big swallow. It was clear that she, too, had seen how cold he was.

"What you really need is a coat," I said. He didn't respond. I said, "If you wait here, I'll go get you one."

"How can you do that?" he asked.

"Well, my son died two and a half years ago and I have his coat. I live nearby, and if you wait right here, I’ll bring it to you.”

I took off for my apartment, walking briskly. There in the closet was the coat I had sent to the cleaners and put away shortly after Peter’s death. It was still in the cleaner’s plastic wrap.

Peter had loved that coat. It was in as good condition as on the day I bought it for him. He'd felt unworthy of wearing such a nice coat because, as he used to say, he lived in "the ghetto" (a five-person group home for mentally ill men, of whom he was the youngest at 33). I told him he deserved a nice coat and wanted him to wear the one that had caught his eye at the store. It had been altered to fit him perfectly.

Removing it from the plastic bag, I recalled the church's coat drive for the homeless and how I'd been unwilling to part with my son's coat.

I dashed out the front door of my building with the coat in my arms. To my surprise, the man was waiting outside, but at a distance. Evidently he was standing far enough away so as not to scare me even though he had followed me home. I took the coat off the hanger and said, "I think this will fit you.”

"Are you sure you want to give this away?" he asked.

"Oh, yes!” I said. “I know my son would want you to have it.”

"Thank you!" He quickly put it on. He asked for nothing else — not more money, not a chance to come into the building to get warm. He just walked away. The coat fit him.

I turned toward home with tears of love and joy in my eyes. I felt that Peter had engineered the whole thing, as if he was saying, "It's time now to give away my coat. This is the person I want to have it." It seemed like a divine encounter between a stranger, me, the son I miss, and my Lord.

I feel I've already had my Christmas.

Merry Christmas! 

A version of this story appeared in the December issue of Ch?imes, the newsletter of Trinity Parish Episcopal Church.


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