That Christmas morning I was off duty. Mike listened to the radio for emergency calls. I sat across the road, adorned tree behind me, front window view before me. In the distance a towering storm moved slowly across the Amazon Jungle. Wind lashed treetops. Rain drenched leaf, ground and animal. Monolithic, powerful, and oblivious to the affairs of men, it advanced inexorably to assault the Andes Mountains.
But the affairs of men continued. The distinctive crack of the long propellers fitted on our C-185’s announced Mike’s take-off. I, however, turned as Regina shepherded excited kids to the awaiting gift pile. Always a good time. Always a special time. Always the essence of Christmas — the generosity of giving, the humility of receiving.
Meanwhile, during our fun, a rare giver never made it to the hospital, but died aboard Mike’s airplane. Andrés Mashient succumbed to cancer at 60 having lived among people who rarely reached 50 before accident or spear claimed them. No one recognized the infirmities of old age.
He and I spoke no more than a half-dozen words in the same language. I came from middle-class California. He came from the Atshuar tribe of the Amazon Jungle. I studied science, math, literature and flying in college. He learned nature’s ways, spear making, and the art of ambushing animal and man. I pursued an aviation and business career. He practiced witchcraft and revenge killing. I met Jesus as a hitchhiking hippie. He encountered Jesus in a dream.
The Lord transformed Andrés from fierce warrior to compassionate father. He spent years seeking out those he orphaned, rescuing those he found. He brought them together, raised them as his own, and shepherded them as they married. When they became parents they stayed with him in the village they named after him — Mashient.
To me, Christmas meant star-covered snowy nights, hot chocolate, carols, and lighted trees. Andrés saw snow only as the white peak of a distant volcano. His people’s music had just three notes. He drank chicha made from pre-chewed yucca, ate bananas, giant catfish and tapir. His Christmas differed from mine in all respects — except one.
Andrés possessed nothing to give. Instead, he imitated our Father by becoming a father to the fatherless. He broadcast God’s good will to lost boys and girls. He gave what he could not keep to the powerless who could not repay.
Here on Earth I rejoice that Andrés now delights in the undimmed Father of Christmas. And I do revel in our own celebration, dim shadow though it might be. But I confess that, in this season I still miss my surprising friend and how he taught me the art of giving by giving himself.