Clouds covered the sun, breaking the intense heat of the evening, as Sonia climbed the last of the steep steps, trudged across her porch, and, juggling her bag of groceries, swung open the kitchen door. “Lord, it’s too hot for June. Can’t we save this till July? I can’t take it.”
The front entryway didn’t respond. Though Delmar, her German Shepard, started barking from the backyard.
She plopped the shopping bag on the counter, shoved her personal-bag, which, if one looked closely, resembled her college backpack, off her shoulder, and stomped to the back door. She twisted the handle and yanked.
Delmar sped into the house like a red Mercedes in the right lane.
Falling backward on impact, she smashed her hand against the counter and swore at the devoted animal. “Dammit, Dog, you know better. Trying to kill me? The one who feeds you?”
Contrite, Delmar whined and attempted a sloppy make-up kiss.
Sonia wasn’t in the mood. Amazed at herself, she realized that she wanted to smack the dog. What’s wrong with me?
Not getting anywhere in the reconciliation department, Delma trotted to the metal dishes set beside the refrigerator and inhaled a bowl of tepid water. Next, he crunched the last remaining bits of breakfast, nosing the bowl across the room in the process.
Normally, the dog’s self-involved obsession would set her laughing. But not today.
Her stomach grumbled. The workplace café had undergone new management, and without a sane thought to their long-range business, they decided to hike the daily lunch prices to nearly twice their usual. In protest, and because she honestly couldn’t afford them, Sonia swore off their offerings until they came to their senses.
But that left her no reasonable options at noon. And it was after six now.
She filled a pot with water and set it to boil, then pulled the pasta box from her bag. She lined up all the ingredients for a healthy spaghetti supper: whole tomatoes, onions, peppers, lean ground beef, and a jar of spicy sauce. She even rooted through the highest shelf above the stove, the one where she hid the tempting stuff—chocolate chip cookies and red wine.
She’d make a night of it. Long, impossible days deserved a reward, right?
Something was off with her logic, but she shook her head and pulled the wrapping off the meat, then set it to sizzle in the frying pan. Next, she set chopping board on the counter, and she was on her way. Oh, the wine! She poured a healthy glass, lifted it to her lips, and—
The doorbell buzzed, sending her nerves into fits.
Delmar went into full-frenzy mode. As far as he was concerned, aliens might have landed their spaceship at the door.
A headache sprouting behind her eyes, Sonia took a sip and trotted to the front room. Yanking the dog back, she took a quick look out the window.
Awe, dang-it! Jim and Eva. Grinning like fools.
They saw her, and their hesitant smiles ballooned outlandishly.
Mumbling under her breath, she informed her dog of the real state of her mind. “I thought when I moved in this neighborhood, I’d finally be free of—”
Whining, Delmar looked scandalized. He scratched at the door. Company was waiting!
In defeat, she opened the door.
“Hi!” Twin voices, Jim’ baritone and Eva’s soprano, melded in perfect harmony.
What? They practice on the sly?
Her weak response didn’t hinder them from barging right in, their happiness bouncing along with them.
Eva gushed, “We saw you drive up and waited, but we couldn’t stand it any longer. We just had to stop by and share the news!”
Sonia forced a smile. They were already married, so what…?
Eva’s slim hand caressed her belly.
“We’re expecting!” The two voices harmonized like a well-practiced song.
Forcing a return smile, Sonia itched to slap someone. Instead, she gushed back. “Oh, how wonderful! So happy for you. Great news.” She swallowed the bile rising in her throat and waved toward the kitchen. I was just giving myself a littler reward after a hard day. Want to join me?”
No second invitations needed. The two lovebirds pranced into the kitchen, Eva leading and patting a remarkably sedate dog on the head.
Delmar let them pass like the gentleman he never was.
Sonia sneered. “He usually jumps all over people.”
Eva rubbed the dog under the chin. “Oh, we’re good friends. I see him out in the yard during the day; he seems lonely, so when I have a moment, I call him over, and we have a good chat.” She grinned at the canine. “You’re a great listener, aren’t you, Buddy.”
After mouthing “traitor” at the dog, Sonia pulled two glasses from the shelf and started to pour.
Eva backed off with a look of horror. “Oh, no, not me.” She rubbed her mid-section. “Can’t take a chance with the baby.”
Jim rubbed his wife’s back, his gaze dropping to the floor.
What’s he looking so sheepish about? Going to melt into a puddle all over my clean floor.
Holding herself together with superwoman grit and the better part of the wine and cookie supply, Sonia listened to their happy plans for as long as she could stand it. Then she yawned and exclaimed over the late hour. “I’ve got to get up early tomorrow…”
With a blushing retreat, the blessed couple found their way home.
Sighing in relief, Sonia toddled off to bed. The ingredients of her spaghetti dinner all but forgotten on the counter.
Grateful for the respite on a cloudy, low 80s, August day, Sonia lugged her latest dinner ingredients into the house and onto her counter.
A tecno-snafu had shut the office down early, so she made it home before the clock struck noon. She hummed in the quiet kitchen, enjoying the peaceful opportunity. Then she looked up and frowned Not a sound from Delmar. Where is that dog?
She unlocked the back door and swept her gaze across the backyard. Nothing. Fear clutched her chest.
Then a flash of red caught her eye. There in the back corner, Delmar sat on his haunches while a woman crouched on the other side of the chain-link fence and reached through, patting his smooth fur. Who the—? Sonia squinted and recognition settled her heart to a normal rhythm.
She sauntered over. In a joking tone, she called out, “He’s spoiled enough. He’ll want his meals on golden dishes next.”
Eva glanced up; her face blotched, almost as red as her shirt. She snatched her hand back.
Sonia stumbled. “Oh—hey, just joking. Go ahead and pet him. He’s alone a lot. Loves company.”
With a nod, Eva reached out and stroked the dog’s ears.
Delmar grinned in doggy ecstasy.
Tiny alarm bells ringing, Sonia dragged her memory back to the last time she’d seen Eva. Months ago. When she and Jim came by with the great news. Her stomach clenched at the memory. She steeled herself. Oh, what the heck. “So, how’re you doing?” She titled her head, trying to see. No baby bump yet, that’s for sure.
Swallowing convulsively, Eva’s hand shook even as it went limp.
Delmar seemed to understand. He pushed his face against the mesh and tried to lick his neighbor’s face.
A tiny bubble of laughter (or was it despair?) burbled to the surface. Eva choked.
The alarm bells went from tinkles to gongs, pealing their warning. Sonia crouched closer. “Sorry. I didn’t mean—”
Eva pulled her hands onto her lap. “I’m not so good. We lost the baby.”
Sonia sucked in a pain-filled breath. “I-I’m sorry.” What else could she say?
“So are we. Can’t always get what you want.”
Best foot forward, Sonia chose the encouraging, supportive path. “You can always try again.”
The woman’s convulsive swallow turned into a sob. “We did. Lost ‘em both.”
A meek nod. Eva climbed wearily to her feet. She stared at Delmar. “He’s a good listener.”
Eva finally met her gaze. “I really wanted this baby.” Pain shared. She turned and slogged to her house.
Sonia stood stunned as realization hit her. Their pain was much the same.
Delmar whined and nudged her hand with his wet nose.
Sonia peered down.
The clouds parted, and the hot August son baked her shoulders. All hope of dinner evaporated.
When the doorbell buzzed at sundown, Sonia wasn’t surprised to see Jim’s face staring back at her from the porch window. She let him in without comment.
He paced to the far side of the living room and turned.
Delmar plopped down in the corner with a decided harumph. Clearly, he knew he was not the center of attention.
Sonia pointed to the kitchen. “Can I get you something?”
His face drawn and lined with grief, Jim shook his head. “Thanks. We ate earlier. I just came by to thank you.”
Startled, Sonia narrowed her gaze. Was he joking? A passive aggressive thing?
Jim stepped closer, inviting a moment of intimate conversation. “No one understands. Just because the baby was so young, some people think that it didn’t matter. It wasn’t real. My aunt even teased us about having a burial. Said it was like burying a foot after an amputation. Or a lost tooth.”
Rage writhed inside Sonia, a beast she corralled almost every day of her adult life. “That’s stupid.”
Jim nodded. “Cold really. But you understand. And Eva needed to be heard. So, I just wanted to thank you.”
Flummoxed, Sonia fought impending tears. “I didn’t do anything.” Slashing against scars that had nearly ruined her life, she snipped her words into tiny pieces. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
Jim’s eyes widened, clearly shocked. “Oh, sorry, Eva thought that you’d lost a baby too. That you understood her pain.”
“I never told her that!” Sonia was surprised by her scream. Guttural, ripping her insides out.
Wordlessly, Jim shook his head. His expression spoke for him. You never lost a baby?
“I can’t lose something I never wanted—never admitted!”
Crushed, Jim’s face fell into a chasm of grief. “Oh, yes. You can.” He strode across the room, swung open the door, glanced from Delmar to Sonia’s face, then plunged outside and plummeted down the steps.
Sonia fell to her knees, a sob taking her places she had refused to go for years.
Delmar inched closer and nudged his head under her arm. At some point, she would stop crying, and he’d be there, waiting for her.
Christmas—the birth of God as human being. What a concept!
For my kids’ generation, I have to translate it in terms of an alien coming to Earth, revealing Himself as the seed of human origin. We are more likely to believe in aliens than angels these days. But, be that as it may, the human experience, despite 5000 years of conversations with God and 2000+ Christmases, our life-on-earth journey remains much the same. We are born, we live, and we die.
As I consider this unlikely year 2020, amid all the changes and challenges of our fast-paced technological developments, social and political upheavals, a contracting world amid an expanding universe, pandemics, increasing information, and diminishing trust, I have chosen to focus on what really matters to me.
Family, home, community, my critters, and the little piece of Earth under my care, given by God, offer my life purpose and meaning. Joy even. The happiness of service, becoming a part of more than my petty self, my particular needs, my thin view.
Each day, I attempt to manage my daily-do, taking care of those within my family and community sphere. But the larger world matters, too. In that respect, I have been blessed to interact with three generous stewards of God’s life and love. I am sure there are many others as well.
The mystery of Christmas, for me, is not so much that God became human and offers us Eternal life with Him in Heaven—He being God, that perfection is reasonable, even expected—but that despite our faults and failings, our petty selfishness, we humans can and do respond with generous spirits, in imitation of the God who made us.
To join with fellow human beings who so love the world that we offer our lives, in big and small matters, in monetary offerings, time and talent, heartfelt conversations, prayer, solace, nobility of spirit, courage, anonymous kind acts, speaks to a humanity that can rise and grow beyond our worst tendencies, our weakest links, our nefarious faults.
This Christmas season, I choose not to focus on our many problems or the murky swirl of an uncertain future, but rather, I lift my gaze to God in gratitude for His presence among us and for my fellow human beings who live in generous, noble love. Nowhere do you shine so bright as in these dark days. May your light continue to shine in the coming months and years, and may the Good God who created you for Eternal life, offer you the strength and hope to persevere, come what may.
“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” – John 3:16
“God, how I love my life.” The sun was shining, birds were singing, and the green park with purple and pink flowerbeds, brown benches, and scurrying squirrels, looked as gorgeous as any storybook garden. “So why is my heart so torn and ragged?”
The college buildings rose up before Victoria’s eyes, a U-shaped arrangement of stone structures built in imitation of the grand European universities. A tower with a clock set inside a green cupola bore testimony to stronger eyes. She couldn’t see the hands, much less the numbers. But it didn’t matter. Her son’s campus tour would take three hours, so she had plenty of time before the long trek back home.
Out of five kids, Thomas was the youngest. And now it was his turn to spread his wings and fly away. The older four had fulfilled their destiny—college, good jobs, and two were married now. The second child, the only girl, had had a baby last winter.
Victoria was happy for them. She was thrilled that Thomas had found a college that he really liked and was eager to start classes in the fall. Everything was terrific. Wonderful. Blessed.
So why did an aching depression choke her soul?
A white mini-van pulled into the parking lot, and three kids tumbled out. A toddler scampered forward into the arms of young woman…a big sister? Victoria’s heart clenched. The father, thirtyish with greying temples, and the mother, wearing a long summer dress, joined the clutch around the young woman. Hugs and hellos and comments mixed together into a bright cacophony of delight.
Victoria felt the tear before she realized she was crying. Why on earth was she upset? Couldn’t she be happy for this family reunion? Even though it wasn’t hers…and never would be again?
Terry had passed away four years ago. Despite the agony of loss, she had shouldered her responsibilities and raised the kids as they had always planned. And the kids had surpassed their parents’ every hope and dream.
But she had never looked any further…to a life beyond the kids. Beyond marriage. Beyond her responsibilities. Once Thomas moved into the dorm and out of the house, he would live his own life. Have meals with friends instead of with her. Do his own laundry. Well, most of the time. And have fun elsewhere.
Would home be home anymore?
Certainly, there would be get-togethers. Family dinners. Holidays. But her heart sank at the thought of it all. How her eldest wanted to spend last Christmas with his wife’s family. Of course, it was her turn. And the grandbaby—grandbabies eventually—would have to be shared as well. She couldn’t very well snatch the little ones and relive her happy motherhood.
No. She couldn’t really.
The happy family moved off toward the main entrance, a celebratory look on all their faces, except for one. A teen girl. She moped. In a bad mood probably. Victoria wanted to grab the child and shake her, get into her face and make her listen. You’ve only got a little time. Don’t waste it! Don’t ruin the day for the others. Life is so damn short.
The father took the teen under his wing as they went through the doorway, and the child peered up with adoring eyes. The father glanced away, a cloud passing over his face. He knew. A shadow loomed.
But distant laughter broke the spell, the door shut, and Victoria was left with the birds. She reached into her bag and pulled out a novel. Some mystery or another. Anything to distract her thoughts. To make the hours pass so she could go home again and live…just a while longer…
An old woman toddled near, hobbling with the aid of a cane. She stopped when she saw Victoria.
Matching benches stood across from each other. Victoria looked over. A large splotch of bird poop marred the other one. She grimaced and scooted aside. There was room after all.
The woman nodded in gratitude and inched her way near.
Victoria stood and helped her sit, suddenly terrified that the frail body would slip and break a bone, and she’d have to call 9-1-1 and…
Once settled, the lady chuckled. “I used to be a long distance runner. Never guess it now.”
Victoria eyed the spare figure with new appreciation. “Really? How wonderful! I mean; that must’ve been very exciting.”
“Ronda the Runner…that was my name. I was something of a star here…long years ago. There have all my trophies in their wall cabinet, awards and such. I donated them when I sold my house. No point in keeping them. I know what I did. Memories are glorious…for a while. Then it’s time to let go.”
A sigh erupted from Victoria’s aching heart. She gazed at the flowers. A sudden image of ice and snow—the park covered in frozen death—enveloped her imagination. She heard her voice before she realized she had spoken. “And go where?”
Rhonda turned, her gaze sweeping over Victoria like a buyer at an auction. “Where ever life takes you. If you’re still above ground…make the best of it.”
“But when your heart hurts like it is being ripped in two? What then? When your old life is over and you have no new life to start?”
Rhonda waved a wrinkled hand and peered into the distance. “I remember…the day my sister was killed in a car crash. We were twins. It was like my body had burned with hers in the flames.” She peered at her hands. “When I looked in the mirror, I saw a living being…but vacant eyes. Like I had died with her.” With a grunt, Rhonda straightened. “But it was a lie. I wasn’t dead. Rita was dead. I had to discover how to make a new life. Grow a new identity without my twin.”
Tears flooded Victoria’s eyes, and an ache swelled in her throat. She couldn’t have spoken if the Queen of England implored her to.
A bell tolled three times. Another half hour and Thomas would be ready to leave.
Rhonda patted Victoria’s knee. “Lost everyone…or just someone special?”
“Everyone special, just one at a time.
“That’s how it goes…if you live long enough.”
“I’d rather not.”
“Not your choice. You could try to cheat. But that’d just pass things along down the road. You’re going to face loss and misunderstanding and death…in a million forms before the end.” She chuckled. “You know what they used to say to me during the long practice runs when my whole body ached? ‘No pain, no gain.’” She waved away a passing insect. “Stupid phrase. It isn’t the pain that teaches you…it’s knowing that it won’t last…that it’s just a part of something bigger. Something better. I never expected to win anything. Not after Rita’s death. But I did. I won medal after medal. I learned I could still love my sister…even when I couldn’t see her or feel her. I endured. And now my great grandson is starting his career as a runner. Wonderful boy. I’m happy for him.”
“So you married…and had a family…and they moved on… And your husband?”
“Cancer got him fifteen years ago.”
Victoria stared at the ground.
A sparrow flittered on the grass before them, hopping about, as if doing a happy dance.
Rhonda shrugged. “Well, I best start back now…it’ll take me a while to get to the reception area. They’re having a little party for him.” She wavered to her feet.
Victoria stood and reached out. “You want a hand? I can walk back with you. It’ll be time to pick up my son soon.”
“If you’d like. We can share the path before we go our separate ways. Got to be glad for these little things.”
At the doorway, Thomas waved at his mother.
Victoria let go of Rhonda’s hand and watched the old woman unceremoniously disappear into a bright interior.
Thomas grinned. “Helping old ladies, Mom?”
Victoria took her son’s arm, the dull ache settling into calm acceptance. “The other way around, more like.” She wanted to tell him—”Don’t laugh, my boy. It’ll be your turn, soon enough.” But that would be cruel. Now was his time to smile and be glad.
A fresh wave of love comforted her soul. She was happy for him.
So last evening, I sat on the back porch and watched fireflies twinkle, appearing at different spots in our beautiful garden, like Tolkien-esk-fairies. When I tipped my head back, I could see faint stars turning ever brighter as the blue sky darkened to dusky-purple.
The kids still living at home slumbered in their beds. The dogs and cats stretched out on the porch. The garden rested without chiding me for neglect. Peace and contentment pervaded my little universe, and my heartbeat slowed to the rhythm of a lovely universe.
Then a mosquito bit me. A moth fluttered close and attempted to smack me in the face.
I decided I had tempted fate long enough, and I rose to my feet. I was just about to go inside when the phone rang. It was my daughter who had moved into her own place last week. With a lurch, my heart gripped the phone harder than my hand. It was so good to hear her voice. To chat. To know she was okay. Yeah, I had figured she was fine…but now I knew. Happiness. Even better than contentment.
Later, as I crawled into bed, a soft cool breeze rippled the curtains, sending a chill down my spine. I realized, for the umpteenth time, that I’m in a new period of adjustment. I can name four families without blinking that are going through the same adjustment—transitioning on a weekly, sometimes daily, basis from caring for aged parents to children flying from the nest.
Was there ever a time when life was simple? When the fireflies ruled and the stars stayed still? If there was, it didn’t last long.
One of the things I always loved about Tolkien’s stories was the way he managed to include some kind of retreat. A time-out. Or maybe, a time-in. It was a period where the characters would get off the road, luxuriate in a hot bath, shift into clean clothes, eat honey and homemade bread, and enjoy a bit of peace and quiet.
I’ve been pregnant eleven times, lost a husband to cancer, and raised eight kids over twenty-three years. I could try and list the number of things in the house that I have fixed, but it would be a fake number since I usually have to fix the same blessed thing multiple times. I’ve supervised innumerable gardens, raised chickens, stacked woodpiles, managed accounts, planned and executed educational programs, and done whatever job/task/mission seemed necessary to ensure the health and wellbeing of my family…and my sanity.
Days run together like a stream joining the ocean. Yet, over time, the stream of life changes course. Challenges are met and new missions accepted. Chickenpox, the death of a beloved pet, toppled trees, a shoulder injury, a new electric appliance, a scholarship, college, a new job…
Being a child and loving our parents—difficult as that some times can be—seems easy when you become a parent yourself and look back—I had it easy then. Raising a baby seems heroic until you get to the teen years and wonder how the human race ever survived. Each new challenge seems to play a game of one-up-man-ship with the stage before.
So, that’s why God created fireflies. And starry skies. The real reason behind hot showers and cool breezes. I’ll never actually get to Tom Bombadil’s house, but I can sit on the back porch, nibble a chocolate-zucchini-nut muffin, watch the fireflies twinkle and the stars turn.