Shirley felt the warmth of Mary's hug, and silently thanked God for her. Mary was the Pastor's wife but had also become Shirley's good friend, especially through the trials of the last months.
"Shirley, are you ok?" Mary's eyes seemed so sincere, as if she felt all the sadness and pain in Shirley's heart.
"I'm surviving, I'll be alright," Shirley replied through a weak smile.
"Are you going to have the family in for Christmas again this year?" Mary continued. "I know how you've always enjoyed all the baking and decorating for everyone."
Shirley looked downcast. "No, not this year. It wouldn't be the same without George."
Mary nodded sweetly in understanding, and Shirley headed for home. Months had past since her husband lost his battle to cancer, but the emptiness seemed to grow during the holidays. Son Jim and daughter Jill had both agreed with her that they would cancel the traditional holiday gathering this year, maybe for good.
Shirley occupied her time with household chores. She cleaned, dusted, polished and arranged until everything was perfect; she kept an immaculate house. Fixing a cup of hot tea she gathered a stack of letters from the mailbox and sat down at the table to read and relax. Aromatic steam rose from the cup as she flipped through the envelopes, sorting the Christmas cards into a special pile to open first.
Suddenly she stopped, her gaze frozen on a particular yellow envelope. Her hand began to tremble as she double-checked the return address, but there was no mistake - it was hers.
Her face paled as she slowly opened the Christmas card, unfolded the letter within and instantly recognized the handwriting. Choking back tears, she began to read:
My dearest Shirley,
I know this will come as a surprise to you, but as I write this I know that I am not doing well and will probably be gone soon. I know the holidays will be the hardest, so I will have a friend send this to you then.
I feel so blessed to have had such a loving wife, and I treasure the wonderful times we have spent together as a family over the years, especially at Christmas. You always made it special, with all the cookies and candies and sparkling lights - you brought it all to life for us.
Always remember what Christmas is: the celebration of life that Jesus brought to us all. I want you to celebrate with me again this year. Although I have taken one further step down the road I will still be celebrating, only this year I can rejoice in His presence while you rejoice there.
So please, string the lights and trim the tree, bake those wonderful candies and cookies and serve up your best feast - and know that I am with you as we all enjoy life together. I love you Shirley and I always will.
From one step ahead in heaven,
Shirley felt joy mixed with grief as she let her tears flow. She rose slowly from the table and walked over to a picture of him on the shelf. Her lips formed a kiss, and she touched them with two fingers then moved them to his face in the picture as if to place it there. She missed him more than anything but she knew he was in the presence of God.
The stillness was suddenly broken as the telephone rang, and she hurried to pick it up.
"Mom?" Jim sounded panicked. "Did you get... anything... in the mail today?" He was choosing his words carefully.
"A letter from your father," she replied calmly.
"I got one too, and so did Jill - I just got off the phone with her." His voice was tense. "What did he tell you?"
She smiled at George's foresight. "He knew we would be struggling, and he told me we needed to celebrate." She paused as she thought a moment then added, "He's right you know. We need to go ahead."
She could hear the smile in Jim's voice. "Sure, Mom, we'll be there. We'll celebrate like always, as a family. I'll call Jill and tell her, and we'll see you Christmas day."
As she hung up the phone she turned back to the photo one more time and through a growing smile mouthed the words "I love you."
Then she turned away, took her apron down off its hook and headed toward the kitchen.
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