Dedicated to all those missing loved ones at Christmas
“I thought I might find you out here,” the older man said by way of greeting. “Are you warm enough?”
“I’m fine,” the younger man replied, standing knee-deep in the snow. His face was red from the cold and crying, and from the exhaustion of having shovelled out the snow around the wooden cross that marked the small grave that he was staring at.
“Of course you are. It’s the women who sent me to ask you,” the older man replied. “They’re worried about you, for sure. They think you’d need at least three parkas tonight.”
“I’m fine – tell them I’m fine.” He barely glanced at the older man and kept his eyes on the little cross. “I’ll be back soon. Is Mary all right?”
“She’s asleep now, snuggled up with Rachel by the wood stove. Julia told them stories.”
“That’s good. What time is it?”
“What does it matter? It’ll be hours before the sun rises. But for what it’s worth, you’ve been out here for at least three hours, and that’s just since we noticed you were gone again.”
The younger man knelt into the snow and did not reply.
“We thought you were going to freeze to death for Christmas,” the older man said bluntly. “The wife told me: ‘Alex Popov, you go find that man before we have to tell his little girl we’re going to bury her papa!’ All the kids were in agreement, save the little girls ‘cause we didn’t want them to hear. So here I am, and here you are.”
“Yep, you found me.” The younger man was nonchalant.
“And I’m not allowed back into the house until I bring you back,” Alex admitted, kneeling beside the younger man in front of the grave.
“I don’t want to go back yet.”
There was a long silence.
“You know, me and Ioanna lost a baby too once. Long time ago, back when everything was normal and things like that weren’t supposed to happen. Seems like yesterday some days, seems like an eternity other days. A boy, too. Would have made our family all even now. We still miss him. I say I have six kids – three girls, two boys, and one boy in Heaven. We had a funeral for him. We had to leave his grave behind out east. Hardest thing for Ioanna to do, of all that we’ve been through.”
“You still miss him?”
“Of course. Sure, Julia and Rachel came along, and we had our first three still, but that doesn’t matter. Rips your heart out, losing a child. Especially when you’re a quiet, tough man who was taught to keep things to yourself. Had to keep strong for Ioanna.”
“At least she cared. Eva didn’t even cry!” A fresh round of tears ran down the young man’s face and his cries echoed off the mountains.
“She hated him! She hates me! She barely looks at Mary!”
“She was barely able to breathe,” Alex pointed out. “Eva hates no one. She’s sick – you know that. She’s been sick for weeks.”
“And I can’t help her! I couldn’t help him, although he was perfect and would have been fine if he’d only been able to eat.”
“That’s not your wife’s fault.”
“I know, I don’t blame her for getting sick. But she doesn’t even want to get well again! Do you know what she said to me just yesterday? She told me that all she wanted for Christmas was to die!”
“That’s much worse than crying,” Alex muttered under his breath.
“I can’t have her leave me! I can’t lose her!” The other man was sobbing. “Not after everything that’s happened to us. We’re so close to making it home! I’d have never thought I’d love her so much. I decided to say that we were married with barely a second thought! Then we really did get married, and even that felt like a formality. But I don’t think I could live anymore if…”
“Noah Mann, you must not think that!” Alex raised his voice sternly, as he had many times as a father. “Are you forgetting your little Mary? She adores you. It’s bad enough she’s lost her little brother – and don’t tell me she didn’t understand! It’s even worse that she might very well still lose her mother. She cried when you weren’t there to tell her a story tonight.”
“I can’t do anything for anyone,” Noah whimpered. “I’m useless. I have never had a worse Christmas – this is even worse than last year.”
“Well, this year, we are nice and warm back at the house. We may be down to just the eleven of us now that the others moved on, but we’ve got food and water and we even found some toys for Rachel and Mary. If we have to be anywhere, this village is a good place. God has blessed us.”
“God…He’s been playing one long joke on me this year.”
“Well, He does like jokes. But I don’t think your son was a joke. Mine wasn’t. His Son definitely wasn’t a joke. Sit down, let’s relax a bit here. I’m sure your Joseph doesn’t want us shouting over him. I brought a blanket.”
He spread the blanket out in front of the cross as though they were going to have a picnic. Noah nearly collapsed onto the flannel and Alex propped him up. Sometimes, they felt like brothers, but tonight, Noah wanted a father again.
“Christmas is a joyful holiday because we are celebrating the birth of God,” Alex began. His life as a priest’s son meant that he still spoke in homilies when he wanted to make a point. “But there is just a little bit of sadness to it, because He was born to die. Then we have Good Friday, which is heart-wrenching, but there is a hint of joy, made real in Easter. All of us have a Christmas, a Good Friday, and an Easter. They’re all at different times. Some of us have Christmas a hundred years before Good Friday, while others have it the same day. We all suffer at Good Friday, and at the Good Friday for any one of us, we feel as though all is lost. Just like the Disciples, just like God’s Mother. They had to rely on each other. We’re all a family now. We would suffer terribly if you or Eva left us, and doubly so if you both did. None more than your little girl. Like God’s Mother, who suffered the most at his death, our little Mary would suffer the most to lose you.”
Noah stared blankly at the grave of his son. The boy had been beautiful. Ellen and Ioanna had cleaned him nicely. But instead of growing, he had hardly eaten of earthly food and had spent most of his short life screaming for it. He had blue eyes and had seemed to be the infant version of Noah himself. Mary had talked to him and tried to calm him, tears in her own eyes because her little brother was suffering so much. All of them had tried to feed him, even the feverish and delirious Eva, but nothing helped him. Finally, Noah had taken him into the bedroom with Eva, locked the door, and waited for something to happen. Either his wife and son would both miraculously get well, or at least one of them would die. Mercifully, the boy went quickly. Eva was still hovering between life and death two months later.
Alex was humming what sounded like a lullaby.
“What song is that?” Noah whispered, still seeing the image of his son’s desperate wailing.
“It’s an old Christmas carol – I don’t know the words. We learned the tune, but not the words, ‘cause they were from the Old Country. It was something about shepherds, I believe. I thought maybe the shepherds were singing a lullaby to Jesus. Or maybe just to their sheep.”
“It’s very nice.”
He kept humming the repetitive tune and Noah joined him quietly on the next verse. The clouds cleared and revealed a sky full of stars, all of which seemed to be singing along with them.
Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!