By November local book sales were accelerating, and Evans was regularly attending book signings. At one event, a sad-eyed woman approached him. "Would you like me to autograph a book?, he asked.
She shook her head. "I've read it, but you're not old enough to be the man in the book," she said. "The story isn't true."
"No," he replied. "It's fiction."
"I wanted to lay a flower at the angel," she murmered. Then she drifted away.
Evans was dumb-struck. He recognized the suffering in her face; at virtually every book signing he'd seen the same look on people who talked to him about children they'd lost. They always mentioned how healing The Christmas Angel was for them. Most found the scene involving the stone angel especially cathartic and comforting. Never had Evans imagined that the absence of a real statue might cause pain.
Troubled, Evans then described his encounter to the book's distributor. "We get lots of calls wanting to know where the angel is," one of the distributor's salesmen said to him.
Now Evans himself wanted to know. He asked his elderly neighbor to show him, but they found only low-lying headstones in the part of the cemetery she remembered. Any statue that might have been there 70 years before was long gone.
To Evans, the angel had been a compelling literary device. Perhaps too compelling. As the book's following grew, people from across the country traveled to Salt Lake City, searching for comfort they'd never find. Evans came to think there was only one thing for him to do: to erect a new stone angel for those mourners to visit, and to find healing.
Upon hearing of his plan, June Evans was deeply moved. "I've never had a place to go to mourn. Sue was never buried; that's the way things were done. I think other people thought it would be easier for your father and me if we just tried to forget."
Evans couldn't fathom how he'd deal with such a loss himself. But he understood that, 30 years before, David Evans would have been more a spectator than a participant in the birthing process. And he'd had to be strong in the face of his daughter's death.
In debt to his parents, David, the father of seven, had been working on a degree in social work, hoping it would lead to steadier income than he'd found in construction. He probably was so concerned about his wife's health and the needs of the family that he willed away any grief about the child.
Yet June was still hurting. Clearly, silence and isolation could preserve, even heighten, the feeling of loss.
Larger than Life
Certain that his mother and countless others needed this healing place, Evans focused on finding a suitable angel. In September 1994 he met with Ortho Fairbanks, a well-known sculptor, and his wife, Myrna. It turned out the Fairbanks family had a special reason to want to get involved; they, too, had lost a child.
The author described his vision of a statue of a child with angel's wings and the dedication he planned to hold in early December. Fairbanks told Evans that a stone statue could take years. A bronze statue with a stonelike patina was the best bet, but even that would usually take six months to a year. However, deeply moved by Evans's mission, Fairbanks promised he'd somehow finish the angel on schedule.
The sculptor kept his word. He enlisted the aid of his son, also a sculptor, and the two worked around the clock. Meanwhile Evans and the cemetery sexton identified land where the statue might be erected. Two days before the deadline, the Christmas Box Angel was ready to be lowered into place overlooking Salt Lake City.
On the evening of December 6, 1994, more than 400 people trudged through rain-slicked snow to the upper slope of the cemetery. Tiny candles, protected by umbrellas and cupped by palms, flickered in the darkness. Local dignitaries spoke, but few in the audience took their eyes from the angel.
She stood slightly larger than life-size atop a granite base. Two spotlights illuminated her outstretched arms from below, casting a glow on her upturned face. Those who looked closely could see the word Hope blended into the feathered texture of her right wing.
"Bright angels around my darling shall stand," sang a choir of children, their sweet, unschooled voices carrying over the hillside. "They will guard thee from harms, thou shalt wake in my arms."
Then came the moment Evans had anticipated for months. His petite mother, holding a rose whiter than her own hair, approached the angel. She knelt and gently laid the flower at the angel's base. Looking on, Evans found himself blinking away tears. He watched as she stood and turned, her eyes shining in a face, smoothed by relief. Evans took his mother in his arms. "Finally," she said, "we have a place for Sue."
People now filed past the angel until white flowers cascaded over the base of the statue like a long trained skirt. Someone placed a rose across the angel's outstretched palms, and soon the statue's arms were filled. Parents left tiny toys, pictures and other mementos of their children.
Evans stood in the drizzle and watched the angel at work. He had asked Ortho Fairbanks to sculpt an angel with arms raised as if asking to be lifted. But judging by the peaceful expressions on the candlelit faces around him, this angel was reaching out more to comfort than to be comforted. "Come and lay your burdens here," she seemed to be saying. And one by one, her visitors did.
Evans surveyed the crowd, and his eyes once more went to his mother. He'd completed his gift to her and felt as if nothing could surpass this moment. But then he glanced beside her and noticed his father.
Tears were streaming down David Evans cheeks. In the look of astonished anguish on the older man's face, the son could read a tale of suffering long held at bay. Surrounded by strangers drawn close by their common tragedy, Evan's parents turned to each other and embraced. Above them hovered the angel, glistening in the night rain.
More than seven million copies of "The Christmas Box" have been sold in 17 different languages. Richard Paul Evans is the best-selling author of four other novels, including "The Looking Glass." June Evans now shares her experience of loss freely to comfort other parents. David Evans is the director of a foundation to benefit abused and neglected children that Richard Evans set up with revenues from his writing. And the bronze angel is visited by more than 1200 people a year.