One of my favorite pictures of my father, Fred Dezotell, was a black and white photo of him standing on a ladder decorating a 20 foot tall Christmas tree.
The tree was put up every year in the grand ballroom of the Student Union at The University of North Dakota. Dad was the maintenance supervisor for the Student Union and decorating that tree was a job he looked forward to every year.
Dad loved Christmas and he loved to decorate the outside and the inside of our house for his favorite holiday. Back in the days when I was growing up the strands of lights people used to decorate with were multi-colored, and the bulbs were quite a bit bigger than the little white lights most people use today.
At night our houses looked like they had been hit by a box of bright Crayola crayons. And those lights would shimmer off the snow in our yards and on our roofs, turning that snow into a sparkling rainbow of color.
Every year, shortly after Thanksgiving, Dad would load us kids up in the car and take us shopping for a Christmas tree. He always made sure we had a real tree for our house, and we all loved the smell of fresh pine in our living room throughout the Christmas season.
I can still see my father standing in the middle of a Christmas tree lot, grabbing a tree, spinning it around, and checking it from every angle. He would shake all the snow and ice off the branches, and smile and say, "Kids, I think we found the perfect tree!"
Every year we had the perfect tree.
As I watched the news coverage this week of the events that unfolded after the school shooting in Connecticut, I heard a reporter talking to a man from Massachusetts. He was with a group that had brought more than 20 Christmas trees to Newtown. They set the trees up along the road leading to Sandy Hook Elementary. There was one tree for each of the shooting victims. Each tree was decorated in a special way for each child and teacher.
They knew that all those children would never see the Christmas tree in their homes again. They would never open the presents that their families had lovingly placed under their trees. And each of those children and adults will be missed greatly every Christmas from here on in by their families and loved ones.
Those Christmas trees standing along the road in Newtown represent the thoughts and prayers of people who care; and I like to think that they represent the thoughts and prayers of a nation that mourns and weeps with a hurting community.
Those Christmas trees are perfect for a time like this, a symbol of love and concern.
On Christmas Eve in 1963, I was as excited as any fourth grade boy could be. We spent the evening at my oldest sister's house eating a Christmas meal and opening the gifts we found under my sister Rita's perfect Christmas tree.
It had been a great evening. When it was time to go home, I had put on my coat and was the first one out the door. As I stood on the landing outside her apartment, I heard shouts and cries from inside and I turned around and ran back in there. Right away I was ushered into a back room with my siblings, my nephews and my grandmother. Something had happened to Dad, but we didn't know what and we were all scared.
We learned later that Christmas Eve, that Dad had died of a massive heart attack.
Christmases changed for us after that, and I know that Christmases have changed for the people of Newtown, Connecticut too.
People surrounded my family with love and support back then, and a caring nation is surrounding a community in mourning today.
A TV reporter covering the news in Newtown asked a Jewish Rabbi what he would say to the people who wondered where God was when tragedy happens to them. His response was, "There's an old Hebrew saying, 'When our heart is breaking, God cries alongside us.'"
God is right there with us, to comfort us, to hold us, and to cry with us.
We don't have a real Christmas tree in our home this year, but it is a nice, pre-lit artificial tree. It has been decorated beautifully by my lovely wife. So, it is the perfect tree for us.
I can't look at that tree without thinking about my dad, though. And now when I look at Christmas trees, I will think of those 26 trees lining the road in Newtown, and the lives they represent.
And yes, I think of that Great God who "cries alongside us."
-- Doug Dezotell is the pastor of Mt. Lebanon UMC and Cannon UMC. He is a former staff writer for the Times-Gazette, and he is a husband, a father, a grandfather, and a friend to many. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.