25 Dec 2014

A Tale of Two Christmases

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On a cold Sunday in December two years ago, I walked into the sanctuary of Dawson Memorial Baptist Church, alone in a crushing sea of well-dressed worshippers and adorable young families. An usher stopped me.screen

“How many?” he asked.

“Just me,” I said. I clutched the handkerchief in my pocket, already fighting back a swell of tears.

“Just you?” he replied. “I have one seat left right up front. Come with me!”

He whisked me through the crowd to the front of the church. There was one seat left on the second row, behind the seats reserved for church elders and other very important types, next to a beautiful family with three children, all blond and startlingly well-behaved. “Lucky you!” the usher said, gesturing to my unexpectedly VIP seating. “Enjoy!”

I sat down next to the young blond father of the young blond family who would be my pew-mates for the next two hours. I felt terribly underdressed, in my jeans and ponytail, amongst churchgoers in their Christmas finest. But I let myself off the hook, knowing that it was a Christmas miracle that I was there at all.

I started to lean over to the blond father next to me and whisper, Please forgive me for all the crying I’m going to do. But I stopped myself. There was no one to apologize to for what I was going through.

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Two days before I entered the church for their annual Christmas Candlelight Service, my husband and I had decided to separate. Our timing was terrible. We had wrapped presents for family members under the tree and dear friends coming to stay with us from out of town the next week. For reasons I don’t remember now, it made the most sense at the time to tell no one we were divorcing until after the holidays. So I found myself totally alone, in crushing isolation, facing the scariest transition I’d ever considered, and having to keep it a secret. I knew the coming months would be horrifically dark, and I was clinging to faith that there was light on the other side. My husband and I weren’t angry at each other, which almost made the inevitable loss of him even harder. We were still sharing a bed and still had gifts to give each other, knowing it would be the last time we celebrated a holiday together. I sat in the pew feeling engulfed by a terrifying limbo.

Even as I fought the urge to run out of the church to sit in my car and cry some more–as I had taken to doing on an almost daily basis recently–I knew I needed to be there. Church had stopped being the place I connected with the Divine many years ago, but in this state of raw vulnerability, I needed something familiar. I needed to be surrounded by the wholesome sights and sounds of the holiday season that used to feel so magical and safe when I was small. I needed to hear the comforting story of a baby born in a manger on a dark night, bringing the promise of hope and brighter days ahead. I needed to feel the warmth of a community, even though it wasn’t my community, and to remember that I wasn’t truly alone.

I did cry that night. There in a room full of thousands of strangers, I let the music and the message of hope touch the rawest places of my heart. I whisper-sang along with the Hallelujah Chorus, words and notes I remembered from similar performances in my childhood many years ago, their familiarity a thin balm to the places in me that ached. The blond man next to me was kind in his presence, and did not draw attention to my obvious tears. Perhaps I was projecting, but I swear I even felt compassion radiating from him. I soaked through my handkerchief and, for once, did not judge myself for such an open display of emotion.

The service ended, and families stood and began to maneuver their way out of the beautifully decorated church. I stood off to the side waiting for the crowd to subside. I didn’t have the energy to fight my way to the front of the church just yet, and nowhere in particular to go. I waited in the candlelight and pondered the deep aloneness the coming months would bring.

After some time, the crowd thinned, and I picked up my heavy wool coat and slid one arm into a sleeve. The coat slipped away from me, and I struggled to pick up the other side. Suddenly, the weight of it became lighter. I turned to see an older man behind me, holding the other side of my coat in a gesture of gentlemanly compassion. Our eyes met. He smiled.

“Thank you,” I said, a bit breathless and stunned. My voice sounded rusty, as if I hadn’t spoken to another human being in a long time.

“Merry Christmas,” he said. His hand lingered on my shoulder for a moment. A fleeting look of concern crossed his expression as he no doubt took in the tear stains and red blotches on my face. But then he smiled brighter, his blue eyes shining kindly in the candlelight, as if to say, Whatever it is, you’re going to be okay.

The moment lasted no longer than a breath, but in that brief encounter something cracked in me. I was able to hear the message loud and clear: I wasn’t truly alone, and there are always those who will pick up and help carry my burdens.

In the months that followed, no truth was more clear to me than that. Once I finally shared the reality of my situation, the gaping void left where my husband used to be was filled by friends and family who checked on me daily, brought me food and small gifts, and reminded me that they were there for me. They listened to me when I needed to talk and told me jokes when I needed to laugh. In one act of superhuman friendship, on a particularly dark Saturday night when I wasn’t sure if I could make it to the next morning, my dearest friend Connie actually procured for me the keys to a church so that I could cry gut-wrenching tears in the sanctuary, comforted once again by the familiarity of a house of the Divine. She sat with me until my tears dried and I was able to walk back into the world feeling strong once again.

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Yesterday, on Christmas Eve, I went to the grocery store to buy last minute ingredients for Christmas Day cooking. My family has had a strange year (a post for another day), so I’m hosting my father and brother for the first time. The strangeness of the year and change in usual holiday schedules meant that I was by myself on Christmas Eve for the first time in my life. I thought I’d be sad about it, but I walked into Publix feeling very happy and excited about both an Eve on my own and a Day with two of my favorite people in my home.

This Christmas is very different than that fateful one two years ago in many ways, mostly in that I feel great. I’m happy and grateful for my life and the people in it. I feel strong and excited about my future. I may be going to fewer gatherings this year, but there is much to celebrate.

As I shopped yesterday, one of my favorite Publix employees stopped me to say hello. He’s a older man with kind blue eyes. He always asks me about my day. He’s so sweet and genuinely interested in my life, I’m not even bothered that he calls me “sweetie” and “darlin’”. I’ve wondered if he knows about my divorce. He used to greet my husband and me when we shopped for groceries together. I’m sure he’s noticed that I shop alone now.

“How ya doin’, sweetie? Got any plans tonight?”10264957_10152680526358138_8203940097041948922_n

“I’m good!” I said. “No plans tonight. Just going to enjoy a quiet evening to myself.”

“Just you?” he asked, surprised, a look of concern crossing his face.

“Just me,” I said.

“Well, that’s no good! No one should be alone on Christmas Eve.”

I smiled. “No, it’s okay,” I said, feeling a swell of gratitude for the truth of what I was about to say. “I might be by myself, but I’m never alone.”

Merry Christmas to all my beloved readers, family, and friends. I’m so grateful for all that you bring to my life.

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