The ANGEL for LOST CHILDREN.
How a simple tale from the heart
offered solace to so many
by: Barbara Sande Dimmitt
I N 1993, (the official beginning of this Web-site.) a slim volume from a first-time author appeared in a scattering of Salt Lake City, Utah stores Entitled “The Christmas Box,” it told the story of a workaholic father who takes his family for granted, especial his daughter. One Christmas season, however, his life is forever altered after he gets to know an old woman whose only child died at a very young age.
Through the years, the old woman had comforted herself by writing letters to her little girl and keeping them in a beautifully carved walnut box depicting a Nativity scene. Overwhelmed by the woman’s grit. And obvious enduring love, the father realizes how very blind had been to the gift of his own family, and vows to become the devoted husband and father they deserve.
When the author, Richard Paul Evans, wrote the last sentence, he assumed he was bringing to a close an intimate story that he hoped would express his love for his daughters. Nothing prepared him for the events that would unfold in the years ahead.
MESSAGE OF LOVE
R IC HARD PAUL EVANS was physically and emotionally spent. It was now November 1992, and the Salt Lake City advertising executive had come off a breakneck few months of 18-hour days. His home life had suffered. The devoted husband and father ached for time lost with his daughters, six-year-old Jenna and four-year-old Allyson. With Christmas near, he wanted to convey how precious his girls were to him. They loved it when he read to them, so a book written by him from the heart seemed the perfect gift.
Evans began to sketch out the story of a father who pours all his energies into his job, selfishly sacrificing his family along the way. But troubling scenes of a mother mourning the death of a child kept intruding on Evans’s thoughts. What did this have to do with his story? he wondered. One night the answer came from a childhood memory. When Rick Evans was four, he’d found his mother, June, quietly weeping one afternoon in her bedroom. He asked her why. “This would have been Sue’s birthday,” she said softly. Two years before, the boy knew, his mother had delivered a stillborn daughter. With a child’s bewildered empathy, Rick reached out and gave her a hug.
The topic of Sue rarely came up in family conversation after that. Rick’s father, with a large family to support, stoically threw himself into running his construction business. If the loss of his daughter weighed on his mind, he never gave the merest hint. But there were times when Rick could tell his mother still mourned. Now, more than 25 years later, the sister he’d never known seemed mystically real. And he understood how this puzzle piece would fit into the twin tragedies of parenthood: the abrupt loss of a child through death and the slower loss of a child through neglect.
The subject seemed dark, de pressing. But Evans, inspired, worked to shape a message of love to his girls and one of healing to his mother. As the book neared completion, he struggled for an image stark enough to portray a parent’s despair at losing a child. He recalled an elderly neighbor’s reminiscence about playing in the city cemetery as a child, and seeing a woman come each day to weep beneath a statue of an angel marking a child’s grave. The poignant devotion of the mother and the tender symbolism of the angel struck Evans. After changing some of the elements, he added similar imagery to his book
The slim volume exceeded Evans hopes at the family’s traditional Christmas Eve celebration. He opened a copy and showed it to his mother, pointing to the dedication: “To Sue.” “Mom, I think she gave me the story for you,” he said. June Evan took her son into her arms and thanked him in an emotion-choked whisper, as Evans’s father, David, stood quietly nearby. Later, with Jenna and Allyson sitting spellbound, Evans read them the story. Then, pleased at its reception, he put the book on a shelf where it would be handy the next time his daughters wanted to hear it.
The Christmas Box, though, seemed bent on pursuing a different destiny. Bound photocopies Evans gave family members were passed along from friend to friend. Strangers called to tell him how much the book meant to them. Soon local book-stores were calling Evans and asking him for copies. Urged by readers, Evans sent The Christmas Box to local publishers, who quickly rejected it. Evans and his wife, Ken, then risked their own savings to self-publish 8,000 copies of it in August 1993. They had no idea the book’s word-of-mouth reputation would rocket it to best-seller lists and draw numerous offers from major New York publishers.
B Y NOVEMBER, 1993, local book sales were accelerating, and Evans was regularly attending book singing . At one event, a sad-eyed woman approached him. “Would you like me to autograph a book?” he asked. She shook her head. “I’ve read it, but you’re not old enough to be the man in the book,” she said. “The story isn’t true.” “No,” he replied. “It’s fiction.” “I wanted to lay a flower at the angel,” she softly murmured. Then she slowly drifted away. Evans was really dumb-struck. He recognized the suffering in her face; at virtually every book signing he’d seen the same look on other people who talked to him about children they’d lost. They always mentioned how healing The Christmas Box was for them. Most found the scene involving the stone angel especially cathartic and comforting. Never had Evans imagined that the absence of a real statue might cause pain.
Troubled, Evans then described his encounter to the book’s distributor. “We get lots of calls wanting to know where the angel is,” one of the distributor’s salesmen said to him. Now Evans himself wanted to know. He asked his elderly neighbor to show him, but they found only low-lying headstones in the part of the cemetery she remembered. Any statue that might have been there 70 years before was long gone.
To Evans, the angel had been a compelling literary device. Perhaps too compelling. As the book’s following grew, people from across the country traveled to Salt Lake City, Utah. Searching for comfort they’d never find. Evans came to think there was only one thing for him to do: erect a new stone angel for those mourners to visit, and find healing. Upon hearing his plan, June Evans was deeply moved. “I’ve never had a place to go to mourn. Sue was never buried; that’s the way things were done. I think other people thought it would be easier for your father and me if we just tried to forget.”
Evans couldn’t fathom how he’d deal with such a loss himself. But he understood that, 30 years before, David Evans would have been more a spectator than a participant in the birthing process. And he’d had to be strong in the face of his daughter’s death.. In debt to his parents, David, the father of seven, had been working on a degree in social work, hoping it would lead to steadier income than he’d found in construction. He probably was so concerned about his wife’s health and the needs of the family that he willed away any grief about the child. Yet June was still hurting. Clearly, silence and isolation could preserve, even heighten, the feeling of loss.
LARGER THAN LIFE
C ERTAIN THAT his mother and countless others needed this healing place, Evans focused on finding a suitable angel. In September, 1994 he met with Ortho Fairbanks, a well-known sculptor, and his wife, Myrna. It turned out the Fairbanks family had a special reason to want to get involved; they, too, had lost a child. The author described his vision of a statue of a child with angel’s wings and the dedication he planned to hold in early December. Fairbanks told Evans that a stone statue could take years. A bronze statue with a stonelike patina was the best bet, but even that would usually take six months to a year. However, deeply moved by Evans’s mission, Fairbanks promised he’d somehow finish the angel on schedule.
The sculptor kept his word. He enlisted the aid of his son, also a sculptor, and the two worked around the clock. Meanwhile Evans and the cemetery sexton identified land where the statue might be erected. Two days before the deadline, the Christmas Box Angel was ready to be lowered into place overlooking Salt Lake City. On the evening of December 6, 1994, more than 400 people trudged through rain--slicked snow to the upper slope of the cemetery. Tiny candles, protected by umbrellas and cupped by palms, flickered in the darkness. Local dignitaries spoke, but few in the audience took their eyes from the angel. She stood slightly larger than life-size atop a granite base. Two spotlights illuminated her outstretched arms from below, casting a glow on her upturned face. Those who looked closely could see the word Hope ~y blended into the feathered texture of her right wing. “Bright angels around my darling shall stand,” sang a choir of children, their sweet, unschooled voices carrying over the hillside. “They will guard thee from harms, thou shalt wake in my arms.
Then came the moment Evans had anticipated for months. His petite mother, holding a rose whiter than the her own hair, approached the angel. She knelt and gently laid the flower at the angel’s base. Looking on, Evans found himself blinking away tears. He watched as she stood and turned, her eyes shining in a face smoothed by relief. Evans took his mother in his arms. “Finally,” she said, “we have a place for Sue.” People now filed past the angel until white flowers cascaded over the base of the statue like a long-trained skirt. Someone placed a rose across the angel’s outstretched palms, and soon the statue’s arms were filled. Parents left tiny toys, pictures and other mementos of their children. Evans stood in the drizzle and watched the angel at work. He had asked Ortho Fairbanks to sculpt an angel with arms raised as if asking to be lifted. But judging by the peaceful expressions on the candle-lit faces around him, this angel was reaching out more to comfort than to be comforted. “Come and lay your burdens here,” she seemed to be saying. And one by one, her visitors did.
Evans surveyed the crowd, and his eyes once more went to his mother. He’d completed his gift to her and felt as if nothing could surpass this moment. But then he glanced beside her and noticed his father. Tears were streaming down David Evans’s cheeks. In the look of astonished anguish on the older man’s face, the son read a tale of suffering long held at bay. Surrounded by strangers drawn close by their common tragedy, Evans’s parents turned to each other and embraced. Above them hovered the angel, glistening in the night rain.
January, 2000, (pgs.66-72)
P.S. More than 7,000,000 copies of “The Christmas Box” have been sold and in 17 different languages. Richard Paul Evans is the best-selling author of four other novels, including “The Looking Glass.” June Evans now shares her experience of loss freely to comfort other parents.
David Evans is the director of a foundation to benefit abused and neglected children that Richard Evans set up with revenues from his writing. AND, the bronze angel is visited by more than 1,200 people a year.
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