As we have done for the past 16 years, my wife and I brave the unseasonably cold Austin, Texas weather to attend a ceremony that has now become a tradition, albeit a sad one, in our lives: the Tree of Angels ceremony at a local church.
Every year for the past 20 years, a wonderful organization, People Against Violent Crime, has provided a most reverent and appropriate forum for the families and friends of victims of violent crime, and some of the surviving victims themselves, to join together to place their angels -- each representing a loved one who became a victim of violent crime -- on the Tree of Angels.
The Tree of Angles has become a sacred place for so many of us to remember, to pray, to regain or reinforce our faith.
I say "many of us" because I also place an angel on the Tree in memory of our mother who was suddenly and cruelly taken away from us 22 years ago.
Knowing the sorrow of such a tragedy, as loving, sometimes trembling hands carefully place their angel on the tree in our beautiful church, I always wonder what tragic event, what unspeakable acts have prompted others to place their angel next to mine on this lovely tree.
Some of the angels are very ornate, some simple. There are crystal angels, golden angels and silver angels, large and tiny angels. Some have beautiful poems inscribed on them, some just simple words such as "We love you, Grandma," or "We miss you, Son." But all angels represent the same love, sorrow and almost unbearable sense of loss.
The angels are brought to the tree by men and women, by the young and the old. One little boy placing his angel on the Tree catches my attention. After the ceremony I talk to his mother. She tells me that Jeffrey Rosales' father was killed by a drunk driver, three-and-a-half years ago. Jeffrey is now only six and handling it well. His mother says, "I know Jeffrey's dad would have been so proud of how strong Jeffrey was at the lighting of the Tree of Angels tonight."
After tenderly placing an angel on the tree, tearful eyes look at the angel one more time, remember one more time, and pray and hope one more time before the owner slowly and sorrowfully returns to his or her pew while the choir keeps singing beautiful, haunting melodies that muffle the occasional sob.
And so it goes on for almost an hour. Three years ago a second tree had to be added, there were so many angels. Tonight, both trees are almost full -- hardly a space remains. A sign of the times?
There is a third tree at the other side of the altar, a nicely decorated tree, a "real" Christmas tree. That tree should be a reminder of the "season to be joyous." But this night it is a poignant reminder of yet one more Christmas that many of us will spend without the company, love and joy of a cherished son, daughter, brother, sister, mother or, as in the case of much-too-young Jeffrey, a loved father.
However, partly because of this tree and because of the angels on the tree, those of us who have lost so much, so suddenly and so cruelly, can walk outside into the cold December night and begin to feel a warm glow in our hearts and can dare to hope again.