December 2006 - Volume 11, Issue 5
Gifts Of Remembrance
...for your Father knows what you need before you ask him (Matthew 6:8)
How thoughtless!" Penny dashed the box to the floor. "How could Marisa give me such a gift?" She closed the den door, hurried back into the kitchen and forced a smile.
"Put that back on," she said and re-buttoned four-year-old Angela's coat.
"We get candles," Angela said. "We take them outside. That's what Payton Marshall and Justine said."
"Fun," Penny said. And seconds later to Marisa, "She'll have fun. Thank you."
Marisa looked expectantly, then smiled. "Join us, Penny. Tonight's a service of hope and comfort."
"No," Penny said. "Angela, careful with your candle."
"We'll help her," said ten-year-old Payton Marshall as he and his twin Justine each took one of Angela's little hands.
"I should have wished the twins Happy Birthday," Penny whispered after she had drawn the deadbolt. "I should have thanked Marisa for her gift, and I should go to church tonight." Memories of last year's service with Brad in their hometown church flooded Penny's mind. Brad had been dead over five months, and Penny couldn't face tonight's service alone.
Penny dropped into a den chair and lifted Marisa's gift onto her lap. Strips of colorful paper crowded the small box. Penny imagined Payton Marshall and Justine sitting at their kitchen table cutting strips from red construction paper as Marisa hovered with her calligraphy pen, cookies baking in the oven, carols playing on the radio.
Penny read the first strip of red paper. A friend to accompany you on a long walk on a Sunday afternoon. Then the second. One afternoon of raking your yard. Then, Two batches of homemade cookies. One night of sick call for you or Angela or both. Four hours of babysitting. And on it went. One afternoon of errands. A listening ear. Dinner at a nice restaurant.
Penny's hands trembled. I don't want Marisa's pity, she thought. I won't accept these gifts. She has beautiful twins and a fantastic husband. She can't imagine the sadness of a widow's first Christmas.
Penny rewrapped the silver wired ribbon around the box. This was one of Marisa's signature ribbons-twisted in the shape of a star with smaller stars cascading from it. Marisa crafted these silver bows on everything.
Penny glanced at her watch. So much to do, but first, she would make herself go to church. She had to. It was Christmas. Short on time, she'd visit the one closest, the one Marisa used to attend.
Fifteen minutes later, Penny pulled into the parking lot behind the church. She studied the adjoining graveyard, lit by a few streetlights and light spilling from the chapel. She listened to Christmas carols from the candlelight choir as she walked past the graveyard and into the chapel.
Penny slipped into a seat on the back pew. She nodded to the man next to her and tried to settle her mind. People had been kind in this town, but no one truly understood. She wished Brad hadn't lost his job in the plant downsizing. She wished they hadn't had to move here. She still wondered if the stress had caused his heart attack. Now, a move back home was too costly. She wondered if God had deserted her.
She continued to roll her candle nervously back and forth in her hands until finally, she struggled to her feet. "Excuse me, excuse me," she said as she slipped out of the pew and down the front steps.
The night's cool air chilled her cheeks as she fumbled with the latch on the graveyard gate. She sped past spires and crosses on the quickest route to her car.
She passed a leafless tree that stood behind an upright grave marker. "I know how you feel," she said in passing. "Stripped naked and vulnerable. Like there's no hope for tomorrow and no hope of ever being our former selves."
Names and dates on markers slipped past, then one familiar name stopped her. Payton Marshall Dunbarton, died ten years ago last month. She studied the marker, then glanced down to see a pot of Christmas holly sitting on the sleeping grass. She was puzzled to see a starry silver signature bow encircling the pot. She knelt and touched the ribbon, then gasped at the marker next to Payton Marshall's.
Marisa Justine Dunbarton. Marisa. Penny gently touched the name. Cheery Marisa who lived next door, the one who gave Penny the gifts. The birth date would match Marisa's age. And of course there was no date of death for this empty grave.
Penny sank to the curbing surrounding the graves. Marisa had been touched by the grief of widowhood, too, just weeks before her twins were born. Suddenly the thought behind Marisa's gifts became apparent.
Who else but another widow knew how long a Sunday afternoon loomed? Who else knew that yard work commanded last place on an endless list of chores? Who else knew there was little time left over for a working mother to bake cookies and little energy to nurse a sick child-perhaps even two? Did it hurt Marisa to remember her own pain as she wrote out those Christmas gifts?
Penny shivered, then looked up at the sky. "You're still here, aren't You?" She quickly glanced around. "We're not alone. You didn't come down as a baby, excite the shepherds and the wise men, spend a few years with us filling our hearts with warm stories of hope and peace then leave us. You never left; you're here working in our lives. You understand what we need. You sent Marisa to me."
Suddenly, she beat her fists on her knees and closed her eyes, ashamed of her thoughts. "I hate death, God." She opened her eyes and glanced around at other graves. "We hate death," she whispered as though she represented the other bereaved families. "We hate the pain and the separation. But You know that, don't you? You understand, don't you? You'll lead us through this, won't you?"
Penny expected no answer. She knew it had already come in human form many years ago. It came from the One who understands our needs long before we do. Tonight the answer she needed was to be reminded that He was still there. Calmed, she stood and wiped the dirt from her black velvet pants.
Penny started walking toward her car. Soon she would let Marisa bring her cookies and they would talk over a cup of warm tea. But not tonight. Tonight she would endure the responsibilities of her first Christmas as a widow. Tonight she would fix dinner and put an excited child to bed. Then she would put one last coat of paint on Angela's new doll house. And later tonight she would send special prayers thanking God for reminding her that not only was He here now, but He had been with her all along.
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