This is Woody’s story, my favorite Christmas story.
I told it before and see no harm in repeating it. To me, it’s one of the loveliest of Christmas stories, better than “It’s a Wonderful Life,” Miracle on 34th Street,” or any of the several versions of “A Christmas Carol.” It’s better because this story is true.
I hadn’t been in the news business very long when I met Woody. He was a reporter’s reporter, never seeking promotions, but being bright and glib, he had a well of reliable sources who fed him countless tips for stories. He finished his career as press secretary to then New York State Gov. Mario Cuomo.
He was a practical joker. On one occasion at night he led a horse up a flight of stairs and into an empty newsroom. When the day crew arrived, surprise! On a dare, he swam a river in mid-winter. Perhaps high living and a love for martinis took a toll, for in his early 50s he underwent open heart surgery at the Heart and Vascular Institute of the Cleveland Clinic. Ah, Woody! On returning to the airport for his trip home, he had his driver stop long enough for him to down two martinis.
At work again, he received an assignment to cover a story in New York City, which he did, returning to his hotel by taxi. But when he reached for his wallet to pay the driver, he discovered he it was missing. He prevailed on the hotel doorman to pay the taxi, then mourned for the loss of $1,000.
He didn’t worry long. Within an hour he received a phone call. The soft voice of a woman told him she had his wallet and if he met her at a particular cocktail lounge on New York’s east side. If he had the correct identification, she would return his wallet.
Entering the dimly lit cocktail lounge, he saw a woman, perhaps about 35, sitting at a long bar. She was the one. She had traced Woody through a card in his wallet that identified him as a survivor of open heart surgery.
They chatted, long enough for Woody to prove his ownership of the wallet. Then, with tears in her eyes, she pointed down the bar where the bartender was talking to a customer.
He was her lover, she said, and truly the love of her life. She would marry him in an instant except that he faced open heart surgery and felt it would limit their lives.
Woody didn’t hesitate. He walked behind the bar until he faced a surprised bartender. He started talking as friend, teacher and counselor. Long, softly and persuasively.
Using himself as the best example, he said that because one had open heart surgery, one could still enjoy a full, active life. The bartender kept nodding.
Finally, he walked from behind the bar to where his lover was seated. On one knee, taking her hand in his, he said this: “You are the love of my life and have been for many years. I worship the ground on which you walk. Only the uncertainty of what my life would be like after heart surgery, delayed this moment. Now, this stranger, sent from some higher being, has changed my mind and my life, I’m sure.
“I ask you with all my being, will you be my wife?”
At that, the woman began sobbing. “Yes, yes, of course I will.”
Soon, Woody prepared to leave. He slid a $100 bill to the bartender.
“An early wedding present,” he said.
The couple embraced him. At the door to the bar, he turned, and in his baritone voice, said, “Everyone, let’s make this the best of all Christmases.”