Once upon a time there was a boy. He enjoyed the things that most boys do. Playing with friends. Camping. Chasing fireflies. Catching frogs. Looking for the end of the rainbow.
His mother and father had been saving a gift for him, waiting for the right day to present it. “I don’t know if he’s ready,” the father said.
“Of course he is,” the mother replied. Having thus settled the matter, they went to the boy, who was in the living room building a block tower.
Kneeling down, they presented their son with the gift. They explained what was inside and asked him if he would like to open it. The boy, who had been pulled away from his building project, looked brown paper package.
“Not now,” he replied. The boy picked up the present, carried it to his room, placed it in his closet, and returned to his blocks. The father looked at the mother with an “I-told-you-so” glance.
Sometime later, the mother told the father, “I wish he would open it. It would make all the difference in the world.”
Their boy grew. In springtime, he dug up worms in the backyard. In summertime, he ran under the sprinkler and tracked mud into the house. When the leaves fell in autumn, he raked them into piles with his mother. In winter, he made snow angels while looking up into the clear blue sky.
The years passed. The box sat in the back of the closet. Sometimes the boy would notice it, stuffed behind his Lego boxes and G.I. Joes. Sometimes he would take it out and consider revealing the contents inside. Each time he would place it back in his closet, unopened.
The day arrived that he prepared to leave home. He packed his things. He moved boxes out to his parents’ garage. “I’ll come back for them when I finish college.” His mother kissed him goodbye, with tears in her eyes. His father hugged him, almost too tight. They both saw the moment he placed the package in one of the boxes before carrying it to the garage.
One day he, with his young bride, carried those boxes from his parents’ garage to their new home. The new husband and wife unpacked the boxes together, blending his belongings with hers as they began to blend their lives together.
“What’s this?” she asked of an item in plain wrapping. The boy-now-a-man explained what it was. “You should open it,” she said. “I got the same thing when I was young,” she said. “As the years have passed, it has made all the difference in the world.” He smiled obligingly and placed the box in the back of the closet.
The husband and wife had a boy, and then a girl. Their lives were filled with busyness and joy. The days he spent building block towers as a child had transformed into professional building. He built homes for the rich, the famous, and the lofty dreamers.
The day came that his wife showed him something she had prepared for their children. Two paper packages. “I think they’re ready for this gift,” she said. He shrugged and turned away. They opened their gifts. And they loved them.
More years went by. Their children grew and moved away. The boy-now-a-man nursed his wife through a sickness that he realized wasn’t going away.
He stood, watching a grave being lowered into fresh, dark earth. Before she drew her last breath, his wife had urged him one last time to open the gift. He had only nodded and smiled. What difference does it make? We all end up in the same place in the end, a box lined with plush velvet.
His son was now a father. His daughter now a mother. Both with lovely families that grew and flourished. But he knew his time was short. Why human lives don’t last as long as the buildings we create, he pondered, makes no sense to me.
He followed his doctor’s advice and admitted himself to a private room with a window that overlooked one of his own grand designs. The day was fast approaching and he hated the thought. Placed in a box. Lowered into the dark ground. The end. The highlight of the day was his son visiting.
But today they all came. One by one, they passed through, telling him how much they respected him for all he had built in his lifetime. Last of all, his son entered, alone, and knelt by his bedside. He placed a familiar object on the old man’s beside.
“I found this among your things, dad,” the son said. “It would mean so much to me if you opened it. You know it was mom’s last wish.” The old man saw the pleading in his son’s eyes.
“It’s too late,” the old man said. “I’ve lived my life. I’ve built my castles. See?” He gestured toward the window, beyond which towered a building of glass and stone. “And they last longer than me.”
“It doesn’t have to be that way,” the son replied, salt-drops of tears on his cheeks.
At his son’s urging, the boy-now-an-old-man took the box in his hands. A rush flowed through him, like the day he went surfing and the day he got married and the day he held his newborn son in his arms – all rolled into one. With shaky hands, he opened it.
He held it in his hands, and his heart felt at peace. “You’re right,” the old man said, “It does make all the difference in the world.” And with that, he closed his eyes.