The clack of my heels striking the sidewalk echoes round and hollow through the frigid night. Whorls of steam curl from my nose, and the cold air leaves an alkaline taste at the back of my tongue on every breath. An occasional car glides down the street, headlights boring cones of light through the dark, but I alone have braved the elements on foot this December evening.
I stop in front of a large brick church and gaze up at the facade, windows glowing warm and inviting amidst an otherwise austere exterior. I expect more people to be streaming through the entrance and wonder if I'm in the right place. I pull a rumpled piece of paper from my purse and look at the note I've scrawled to myself: "Blue Xmas, 700 Commonwealth Ave. 6:00 p.m. Wednesday." This is it.
When I saw an advertisement for the service in the local paper a week ago, two thoughts surfaced in quick succession. The first, a memory: bouncing along in the back seat of the family station wagon as a child, sweaty thighs sticking to the Naugahyde seats—this was Christmastime in Florida, after all—singing along with my dad to Elvis Presley's Blue Christmas as it crackled through the radio. I was 10 or 11, and my family was out for a drive to take in the holiday lights, all of us gamely adopting the trappings of the season, sipping hot cocoa in the stewing Florida heat as beads of sweat rolled down our backs.
Then, eclipsing this happy recollection, a darker thought: I need to go. I hadn't heard of a Blue Christmas service before, but the ad in the paper billed it as "helping hurting people cope with the holidays." This was the second Christmas since Luke died. I had muscled through the first, focusing on the growing baby inside me and the need to preserve some sense of normalcy for three-year-old Hannah. But the second year had been harder. The grief would rise up unannounced and wash over me like a tsunami: I might be walking down a sunny sidewalk at lunchtime, turkey sandwich in hand, when I'd suddenly double over as if punched in the stomach, a physical reaction to the realization that my child was dead.
Everything felt pent up, roiling inside me. Driving home from work one inky, wet night just before Thanksgiving, I had an overpowering urge to peel off from the snaking traffic into the middle of an empty roadside field. I wanted to climb out of the car, fall to my knees in the sodden grass, and scream to the heavens, to empty my heart of the anguish that was constantly pressing outward, threatening to turn me inside out. I needed a release from the pain, and also a witness to it. I was tired of crying in my car, in the shower, in the bathroom stall at work. The books I had read on grief guided the mourner through the first year and then ended, the last chapter offering some vague advice about the passage of time, as if the pain would simply dissolve like internal stitches after some minor surgery, leaving only a tiny, unseeable scar behind. Not mine. This grief was sharp and fresh. But I can't say I didn't welcome it. In some oblique way, I could understand the self-destructive pull of cutting, the desire to feel the tang of pain. To choose suffering over feeling nothing at all.
Atop a tower of cement steps, I grab the cold, brass handle of the church door and tug it open just enough to slip inside, as if trying to sneak away from the blackness of the night. It's like sliding into a warm bath. The sanctuary lights glow soft and golden, and gentle music floats through the air carrying hints of a seasonal carol. A handful of people dot the pews, which seem to stretch out, empty and waiting in every direction. A woman at the front of the church—the minister, I presume, because of how comfortable and in command she looks standing in the pulpit—spots me and gives an encouraging nod, then leans back into conversation with a man holding a guitar that is as shiny and black as a beetle. An usher pushes a program into my hands. I mumble my thanks and take a seat in a nearby pew, flanked on either side by boxes of Kleenex.
It's two minutes past the top of the hour when the service begins. I count seven other sad and lonely souls in the pews around me as the minister steps to the lectern and clears her throat.
"Christmastime is often considered a season of merriment and glad tidings. We can get lost in the bustle of gift-giving and celebration. But for those of us who have suffered a loss—of a loved one, of a job, of faith—these long winter nights can seem especially dark." She looks around the room as she speaks, resting her gaze briefly on each of us seated in the pews before her. When her eyes find mine, I want to look away, but I can't. It is a searing luxury to have another person so unabashedly bear witness to my suffering. Something is dislodged inside me and a small sob, shrieky and far away like a gull on an empty beach, erupts from the back of my throat. Mercifully, no one turns around. Everyone here is lost in their own ocean of grief.
I am not much of a regular churchgoer. I can't say that I have turned either to or away from religion the way I have seen others do in the wake of life's tragedies. I believe in God, yes, and I believe Luke is in heaven, whatever shape that may take. As hard as heaven is for me to conceive, it's harder to imagine the alternative, that my son was here, wiggling, breathing, filling my heart and my life, and then he was gone; that there was a Luke-shaped space in the universe, and now there simply is not.
Beyond these two unshakable beliefs, my religious tenets are fairly mutable. Nonetheless, I have sought and found refuge in the quiet, contemplative spaces churches provide. Indeed, I've become a sort of chronic visitor to churches around town, often slipping in the back just as the service is starting and escaping before the minister makes it to the rear of the sanctuary to grasp my hand and ask my name at the end. I sit through most of the services, eyes leaking salty tears, and think of Luke. I'm not sad, really, just . . . overwhelmed. With love. With longing for my son. With wonder about how I survived his loss and gratitude that I have. Perhaps that's why I seek out these sublime and sacred spaces; they seem a fitting place in which to be overwhelmed.
And so I sit here on this cold December night, hot tears sliding down my cheeks, as the kind and gentle minister ministers to us, her small and transitory flock of wounded sheep. I will return to this Blue Christmas service many more times in the coming years. After one, the minister will find me at the back of the church. She will grasp my hand and ask my name, and I will tell her my story. The next year, when she looks out and sees me sitting in the pews as she begins the homily, her voice will crack with emotion and her eyes will pool with tears and I will wonder if she is thinking about her own young children, tucked safe and warm in bed at home.
At the end of each service, we, the handful of people brave or sad or desperate enough to come out on this longest night, will light a candle to signify our loss and together, in voices wobbly with grief, we will sing Silent Night. And I will close my eyes and think of another baby boy, laying not in a manger but in a crib in his quiet, cozy room, sleeping in heavenly peace.