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Beyond Ordinary: Tragedy in Trenton can't scar Christmas forever

Published: Friday, Dec. 23 2011 5:00 a.m. MST

Two of my favorite parts of the Christmas season are hearing the various renditions of "The First Noel" and watching the First Presidency Christmas devotional. I was well-pleased earlier this month when the Mormon Tabernacle Choir and the Orchestra at Temple Square preceded President Dieter F. Uchtdorf's devotional message with a powerfully sublime version of the carol.

"The First Noel" always invokes within me deep emotions because it was one of my mother's favorite Christmas hymns. She especially enjoyed Nat King Cole's recording of the song, and one of the last memories I have of my mother is watching and hearing her sing to it on the radio our final Christmas together.

President Uchtdorf's Christmas message touched me deeply as well because it also brought to mind my last Christmas with Mommy. He told of one Christmas, when he was perhaps 4 years old, that, due to his youth and carelessness, his home briefly caught on fire, and he thought he had ruined that Christmas for his family.

I, too, was a young boy when a fire erupted in my home at Christmastime. However, the results of the blaze were much more tragic. The circumstance did ruin Christmas for my family that year and for me for many years to come.

It was Christmas 1964, and I was 6 years old. My parents, sister and two brothers were living in Trenton, N.J. I had just completed my first “semester” of first grade and was happy to have a break from school to once again spend full days with my family. Christmas Day itself wasn’t particularly memorable, although I am sure I received a few of the things on my wish list. After a long day of fun and play, and as Mommy kissed and tucked me and my siblings into bed on the evening of Dec. 28 (Daddy was working late that night), I felt happy and secure in my little world.

Everything changed a few hours later when I awoke to Daddy’s frantic yells and immediately sensed the gripping feeling of thick smoke entering my little lungs. As Daddy quickly appeared in the bedroom where the four of us children were sleeping that night, I grabbed for my little brother Kenny, who was nearest to me, to run down the stairs and out the front door. Daddy screamed for us to go next door to Mr. Woodard’s house for safety, which we did. Once there, "Mr. Woody" instructed us to remain in his home until Daddy came for us.

Disobediently curious, I ventured outside to see what was happening. I saw Daddy struggling with all his might against police officers and a firefighter in an attempt to go back into the burning house.

Not long thereafter, I witnessed some of the firefighters wheel out a sheet-covered stretcher, which I knew contained Mommy. They loaded it into the back of an ambulance as Daddy climbed into the vehicle’s front seat. With its emergency lights engaged, the ambulance then proceeded down the lane, bright and colorfully illuminated by the yuletide-decorated homes on either side, presenting me with a surreal scene I have never forgotten and which haunted me for many years.

Later, a writer from the local newspaper arrived at the Woodard home to interview Daddy and photograph us as a surviving family. The headline below our photo in the Dec. 29, 1964, Trenton Times read, “Fire Takes a Mother’s Life and Scars a Holiday Forever.”

Mommy’s death indeed caused the breakup of our family as my siblings and I moved to Norfolk, Va., to be split among Daddy’s two sisters there while Daddy stayed in Trenton with his job. Less than eight years later, in July 1972, Daddy died of health complications while living in the Trenton home.

Following a memorial service for him in Trenton, I didn’t return to that city for more than 14 years. It was a week or so before Christmas Day 1986, and earlier that afternoon I had just graduated from Naval Justice School in Newport, R.I.

Prior to going to NJS, I had entered active duty as a Navy JAG following my graduation from BYU’s J. Reuben Clark Law School that April. I was en route from Newport to Norfolk, traveling south on the New Jersey Turnpike, when I felt a tremendous pull to stop in Trenton for some reason.

At first I ignored the feeling, but it became more and more intense as I neared the turnpike exit for Trenton. Reluctantly — after the death of my father I vowed I would never again set foot in Trenton — I heeded the prompting and made my way to my former home at 129 New Cedar Lane.

When I arrived at the neighborhood where I used to live, I hardly recognized it or my former home. When I was certain I was at the correct house, I parked across the street and just looked at it for a few moments. Unexpectedly, a grand wave of emotions overtook my being, and tears began to fall down my cheeks. For minutes I just sat there sobbing. No thoughts really went through my mind; I simply cried out years of pain and anguish inside of me since my mother’s death in 1964, and since I was last at the home in 1972.

When I regained my composure, and as I looked down the lane with its homes festively brightened by Christmas lights and decorations, my thoughts turned to that sadly unforgettable Christmas 22 years earlier when we lost Mommy. Yet, surprisingly, I was enveloped by a sweet, comforting spirit that buoyed me up with a sure knowledge that I would see Mommy, and Daddy, again in the next life, for through the Savior’s Atonement all mankind would live once more.

I also was strengthened by an undeniable witness that my parents and I had become a forever family by the power of the holy priesthood and through the sealing ordinance performed in the Provo Temple by me and members of my missionary district while preparing at the Missionary Training Center.

My sorrow turned to appreciation of Heavenly Father’s eternal plan of happiness and my understanding of it. I felt tremendously grateful that I had become a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, that I held the holy priesthood of God and that I was part of an eternal family.

As I took one more glance at the home I associated with such pain and then drove off down the lane, I told myself that the headline in the Trenton Times was wrong. Because of the birth, life and atoning sacrifice of the Savior, Mommy’s death that night did not, and would not, scar my Christmas holiday forever.

In his devotional address, President Uchtdorf said, "Sooner or later, something unpleasant occurs ... and the picture-perfect Christmas we had imagined, the magic we had intended to create, shatters around us. ... But then, if we are only willing to open our hearts and minds to the Spirit of Christmas, we will recognize wonderful things happening around us that will direct or redirect our attention to the sublime ....

"In one way or another, the Spirit touches our hearts, and we see that Christmas, in its essence, is much more sturdy and enduring than the many minor things of life we too often use to adorn it. In these precious moments, we realize what we feel and know in our heart — that Christmas is really about the Christ."

I am so grateful that the Spirit touched my heart that wonderful Christmas 25 years ago. My experience that night in Trenton reinforced within me the true and sublime meaning of Christmas — that on the first Noel what occurred was truly that which the angel proclaimed to the shepherds: Unto us was born that day in the city of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord.

It is my sincere hope that during this holiday season the comforting message of Christ’s birth and mission may resound in your hearts, and especially in the hearts of those who have lost loved ones at this time of the year.

May that message inspire us to more diligently spread peace on earth and good will toward others. And this Christmas and always, may we lift our voices with joy and gratitude to proclaim, as angelic witnesses to those around us, “NoËl, noËl, born is the King of Israel!”

Attorney Keith N. Hamilton, an adjunct professor at BYU law school and former chairman of the Utah Board of Pardons and Parole, served as an LDS bishop in San Francisco. He is author of "Last Laborer: Thoughts and Reflections of a Black Mormon."

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