It was the same song.
It was the same scent.
The lyrics of “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” twined with the fragrance of fresh-baked pumpkin pie.
It was still the same pain, grinding and tearing at my insides.
I abandoned my basket of groceries by a towering display of cranberry sauce and strode through the lineups of chatty, cheerful shoppers, each loudly proclaiming their holiday plans and achievements.
“Four dozen mincemeat tarts . . .”
“James is flying home the evening of . . .”
“I can’t wait to see Melissa’s face when she opens . . .”
I thought I’d be sick before I reached the safety of my car. Tears of anguish burned my eyes, and I held back a sob. The streets were snow-lined but bare, and soon, I maneuvered into my driveway and sat staring at the joyless house.
Mine was the only house on the block without a rainbow of flickering lights festooning the eaves. No garish plastic sleigh on the snowy lawn. No beribboned wreath on the door.
Shadows greeted me silently. The air was cold and sour, like fermenting, wet towels and neglected trash. Even the houseplants looked tired and withered.
I had not dared to open the boxes of Christmas decorations for two years, not since I’d carelessly crammed delicate glass balls with tangled strings of lights and jammed the crimson tablecloth around cinnamon scented candles.
I’d not roasted a turkey, either, or made egg nog or sugar cookies.
Not since . . .
Not since the youthful police officer had knocked on my door and spoke in sorrowful tones, his mournful eyes glancing at the chubby Santa on the icy step, its gleeful grin suddenly chillingly bizarre.
Not since searing pain had fused itself to the heady scents of a newly cut pine tree and Mandarin oranges, gripping me in paralyzing heartache.
Not since Steven hadn’t come home for Christmas . . .
An eighteen-wheeler slid out of control on the ice, said the child-officer. He was sorry. Sorry for what?
I boiled water, but didn’t bother making a cup of tea. I burrowed into a frayed blanket and clicked through television channels, snapping past a “Rudolph” cartoon, an ancient Perry Como special, and Danny Kaye’s antics at the “White Christmas.” I settled for a documentary on sea kelp, watching blindly, hearing nothing.
I knew I was dreaming when an advertisement for a Christmas DVD came on the screen.
It was Steven. His face, his voice.
“Do you yearn to relive the special memories of Christmas Past? The sights, the sounds, the smells? You it’s possible, with ‘The Journey Home,’ a new DVD with all your favourite melodies, along with stunning videography of your own special remembrances. Sleigh riding at Grampa’s farm, making snow angels, baking gingerbread with your mom, walking at midnight on Christmas Eve with . . .”
Steven’s face faded.
I sat up, the remote control and the blanket slipping to the floor. “Do I what?”
I spoke into the shadows, and the shadows were my own heart.
“Yearn for the past?”
“Yes. No,” I cried, confused. “I don’t want memories. I want Steven. How can I celebrate Christmas without him?”
“It’s still Christmas, no matter.”
“That’s the problem. Christmas goes on, and everything to do with Christmas makes me feel the pain again. For goodness sake, I can’t even buy groceries without pain.”
“Every perfect and precious memory has been multiplied for Steven.”
I had nothing to say.
“So should it be for you. Every lovely and good thing you shared together should be celebrated. Steven went Home for Christmas. Just like he sang to you hours before the accident. It’s ALWAYS Christmas where Steven is. A joyful celebration of Christ’s presence eternally . . . with the biggest, grandest Christmas feast you can imagine. Pumpkin pie, turkey dressing, sweet potatoes, mincemeat tarts. All the things he enjoyed, that you both enjoyed, and yet so much more.”
I was exploding with grief. I cried, gasping raggedly.
“Now. Take a deep breath.”
I did, deeply inhaling the wooly smell of the blanket, my bitter sweat, the faint fragrance of pumpkin pie still clinging to my hair, and something else. Something sweet, yet spicy and warm and rich. More fragrant than pine boughs, headier than mulled cider, and yet more delicate than the tenderest shortbread.
The perfume of peace.
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