He walked slowly out of the Imperial Theatre on Broad Street. The Christmas Eve jazz show with renown trombonist, Wycliffe Gordon, killed his pain for two short hours. With head down and shoulders slumped, he wondered what to do next as the chilly, misty fog wrapped around him. It was after all just another dreary day. His sister and her family had left town to spend Christmas with her in-laws. His daughter had invited him to spend Christmas with her and her family in Ohio. He didn’t want to be a bother and was alone.
Things hadn’t been the same since he buried his wife two years ago on that crisp fall afternoon. His empty house echoed the laughter and joy they once shared.
And now this. Christmas Eve. Alone and feeling abandoned. He pulled his jacket up close to his neck. The slight breeze chilled him to the bone. He couldn’t face going home to nothing.
The Christmas lights along Broad Street were shrouded in the dampness sending out eerie shadows along the sidewalk. He watched as couples and families hurried to their cars going home from the concert to continue their Christmas Eve celebration.
He walked alone in the crowd feeling a desire to run - to run away from all the sorrow filling his heart. To run and never look back. To run and never return.
He glanced at his watch. Ten-fifteen. Would this night never end? The seconds seemed like hours. The minutes were days.
He turned left. Up ahead was the Gordon Highway overpass and to the right on Fifth Street was Bill’s Place. It was all lit up. Two cars were parked in front of the liquor store. A pedestrian walked in and shortly came out holding his sack by the bottle’s neck.
Eddie crossed over Broad and headed to Bill’s Place. He fumbled in his wallet looking for a twenty. He knew he had been drinking too much lately. It seemed like the only thing that vanquished his pain. With one hand in his pocket and the other clutching the twenty, he trudged into the parking lot. He bought his fifth and crossed Broad Street again and walked down Fifth Street toward Reynolds and Augusta’s River Walk.
He sat down on a park bench in the cold darkness and opened the bottle. The railroad bridge across the Savannah River loomed before him as surreal as the night. It called for him. “Come and end the pain. It’ll all be over in a moment.”
“The river would make a fine grave,” Eddie said to himself. He put down his bottle after only a sip or two and took a couple of steps toward the trestle. Perhaps from childhood training, he stopped before crossing Reynolds Street and looked both ways into nothingness.
That’s when it caught him. To the left soaring into the bleak sky like the Bethlehem star was the steeple of old St. Paul’s Church. Worshippers streamed in for the 11 o’clock Christmas Eve service. The deserted downtown had life again on Reynolds Street.
He hesitated. Something seemed to be drawing him, pulling him toward the church. He had passed by it many times without giving the old church a second thought. His mind drifted back to a Saturday picnic when his daughter was a child. They played and laughed on the playground by the river, threw rocks into the water, and walked over the bricks from one end to the other stopping to read the historical markers along the way. He saw his wife standing and laughing and watching them play. Always a child at heart, he skipped along with his daughter.
Eddie shook his head like a dog shaking water off his back. The memories pained him. He looked at the bridge. He looked at the church. He stood there frozen like a statue.
He saw shapes in the fog. A couple with little children hurried alongside the old iron fence and entered the church yard through the open gate. His eyes followed them until they disappeared into the sanctuary.
He felt himself moving toward the high, strong steeple powered by a force not his own. He walked alongside the iron fence and came to the open gate and stopped again. The pastor and the choir recessed in from the court yard. The doors closed, the bells in the tower chimed the hour, and the great pipe organ rang out “O Come All Ye Faithful.” Soon the entire congregation could be heard through the silent calm.
Eddie pulled back and crossed over to the opposite side of the church. His gaze focused on the cemetery dotted with headstones in the church yard. “Death in the middle of life?” he queried. “I can’t get away from it.”
He wanted to run again and nervously looked at the trestle. Then his eye caught something on the west side of the church yard. A manger scene. Mary, Joseph, the wise men, shepherds, sheep, cows - all adoring the Baby lying in the manger.
He sat down on the curb of the damp, cold sidewalk and looked. In deep reverie, there sat his mother, father, and sister around the Christmas tree a generation ago. The little homemade manger scene that he and his dad carved sat on the coffee table. It seemed only yesterday. He couldn’t wait for dad to finish reading the Christmas story from Luke. His new Lionel electric train circled the tree. His nine year old sister lovingly held her Tiny Tears doll thatSanta delivered. The smell of the baking Christmas turkey wafted through the house. Such happy times and pleasant memories. Now this.
He looked up and saw the congregation filing out of the church. The pastor all decked out in his clerical robes took his customary place at the door greeting the congregants as they left the service. “Merry Christmas! And Merry Christmas to you little fellow.” Some walked toward their cars parked close to Eddie. He quickly got up hoping not to be noticed and slipped into the shadows of the alley way hiding like some criminal.
The church was quiet again. The tombstones stood as sentinels over loved ones long past. Their gray shroud contrasted to the flood light showering the manger scene with an appearance of the supernatural.
Eddie rubbed his eyes hoping to see clearly what lied across the street from him. Again, images from deep inside his mind played on the screen in front of him.
His precious wife, Anna, and ten year old daughter, Beth (daddy’s girl), sat on the pew beside him. They raised their voices in joyous praise singing “Joy to the World, the Lord Is Come!” A great smile crossed his face. All was well. It didn’t get any better than this. As he sang, he thanked God for the many blessings showered upon him. He thanked God for his family.
His eyes opened again to the scene before him. He could never forget Anna hooked up to all of those machines fighting for life - her color as ashen as the monuments across the street, her struggles for air as cold and forlorn as the murky gusts that enveloped him.
The loneliness and pain followed him everywhere like a stray dog looking for food and love. He had tried to continue on. That’s what Anna would have wanted. He prayed, read his Bible, and went to church like before. But nothing was there. Not any more. Nothing.
His sorrow had turned to anger - anger against God. “Why oh why had He done this to me? How could He let her slip through my fingers? The doctors could have done more. I could have done more. God could have healed her. Didn’t he heal the sick and raise the dead? Is there even a God? If there is, he certainly doesn’t care a hoot about me!”
Heaven turned a deaf ear. His desperate cries came back to him again and again. “Now look at me, God! Look what you’ve done to me! I’m ready to end it all on Christmas Eve.” He had a good mind to go back to where he had left his bottle near the trestle.
But, Eddie found himself unconsciously walking out of the dark alley toward the light of the manger. Why? He didn’t know. He had months ago renounced his faith and had nothing else to do with this God-thing. His Bible was sitting at the bottom of a closet where Anna’s clothes still hung. Yet, he mysteriously was drawn to the manger.
Falling over a grave, he righted himself and stood peering down at the plastic figures. “They’re fake, just like God,” he mumbled shocked at the sound of his voice. He turned around to walk back into the soggy black loneliness encircling him. He looked for a second time - one last look - into the manger. An unexpected desire took him by surprise. He longed to touch the thing.
He bent down and placed his finger on the baby's lifeless face. The face felt warm to his touch. He got on his knees and caressed the face like he once did his baby girl. The eyes opened and a smile broke out on the face of the baby in the cradle. “Have I gone mad? Have I lost my mind?” What’s wrong with me?” The baby reached for him, and he gently picked him up and kissed him. It had been forever since he felt anything. His heart had turned to stone. But now, love welled up in his heart. His eyes moistened. He yearned to hold this baby forever. Gently, Eddie lowered Baby Jesus back into his cradle and wept. He had held the tears and grief for too long. Now, it all flooded out of him. All of the anger, the loneliness, despair, and sorrow poured out of his soul.
Amazed, he turned and slowly walked away. Over the graves, out the gate, along the iron fence, past the bench and the trestle. The cold gray mist gave way to a drenching downpour blown by the winter wind.
But, Eddie didn’t care. It was heaven’s cleansing rain. It was the wind of the Spirit blowing new life into him.
He picked up his gait, straightened his shoulders, and headed into the rain of the early Christmas morn with faith, hope, and love to live again.
Rev. Dan White is a free-lance writer and pastor and founder of North Columbia Church, Appling, GA. Contact him at email@example.com
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