Souls in Stillness
A Christmas Meditation
Christmas Eve, 1917
Columbus, Ohio and Chicago, Illinois
She misses the tree.
Always, growing up, there was a tree, cut down by her father just after Thanksgiving. They would string cranberries and popcorn, and with her brother Jimmy she would make paper chains. There would be candles and warm pressed cider, and in their stockings, a single orange for a treat.
Now there is only the scent of pipe smoke, the touch of hands that are a little too rough. There is no stocking yet because there is no child; there is no tree because her father never taught her how properly to cut one. Charles has settled with her downtown, near the university, a stone's throw from the Olentangy, which at this time of year is frozen in on both sides so that it is barely a trickle. Yesterday, she put on her boots and a coat and walked out to see the children as they played and slid precariously on the ice.
She longs for a child, but she worries, too. Worries that, as her father always warned her, she won't be woman enough to raise him well; worries that that the child's father will treat him as he treats her. Her friends told her how wonderful it was to be wed; how their husbands cared for them, how they enjoyed going to bed with them. But she is happier like this, when Charles is gone most of the day, and she is free to go as she pleases, to stare out the drawing room window into the hurling snow. After December, Charles is to be sent to Germany to join the war, and while she thinks she will cope well with his absence, it occurs to her that this may be their only Christmas together. It's not that she doesn't love him; she does. In a way he reminds her of Jimmy with the way he tucks his chin into his coat against the cold Ohio winter and with his infectious laugh. And sometimes the hands are gentle, and his stubble against her lips is soothing instead of rough.
But only sometimes.
So as the sun begins to set, she can see the figures moving down the street, a few automobiles moving slowly in the accumulated snow. Bells toll, calling the people in their coats to church; children throw snowballs, stumbling and laughing. And she presses her forehead to the window, her caramel hair sticking to the cold glass as she waits.
In the darkness, a doctor glides among his patients. Hospitals do not stop their work for Christmas, and he, having no family, faithfully volunteers for the Christmas Eve shift. The patients greet him cheerfully as he takes temperatures, listens for irregular heartbeats, brings water and blankets—normally the purview of the nurses, but tonight many are home preparing gifts for their children, and so he takes on these smaller duties with pride.
They send as many patients home as they can, but there are always a few who must remain. Some have stockings hung at the foot of their beds, courtesy of the ladies' aid. Some have been visited by their families, some are too ill to recognize their families any longer.
The ward at night is lit by electric lamplight, and he finds himself imagining that the warm glows are produced by the candles and gas lamps that lit hundreds of Christmases in his past. The light washes over his pale skin, making it glow yellow-red, as though blood flows through his veins, and as he tends to his patients, he gazes at his arms, trying fervently to remember when this color was once their natural hue.
There is a calm here in the hospital, a quiet that passes understanding, and the doctor moves prayerfully among the beds, grateful for the presence of those whose lives which, in their way, sustain his own. They are a gift to him more precious than anything that will be opened in the whole city in the morning, for they give him purpose and direction.
Yet as he makes his rounds, he watches as a wife leaves her husband's side, kissing his forehead and promising to return in the morning. A small pile of gifts sits on the nightstand next to a sleeping boy.
No one will be kissing the doctor; no one will celebrate this night at his side. There will be no gifts on his nightstand, and he has no one to bestow any upon. He will pass this night attending his patients, and in the morning will slide away, unnoticed, before the first rays of dawn.
And though Carlisle finds peace in this place, his stilled heart aches.
All Souls Episcopal Church has a candlelight service, which his mother still calls a Midnight Mass. Elizabeth Masen was born Elizabeth O'Hallohan, and the Irish Catholicism clings to her like so much that defines her. When he was younger, it was Edward Jr. who clung to her, his body wrapped around hers in the pew as he tried desperately to stay awake to see Santa Claus. But he never managed to keep his eyes open all the way to the candle lighting at midnight, and his father would carry him home in the snow.
It's easier for him to stay awake now, although tonight he's drowsier than usual because his father allowed him a large snifter of bourbon after dinner. He pretends to be alert because he wants to hold his liquor like a grown man. But he is an inexperienced drinker and skinny for sixteen, and more than a sip or two of alcohol sends him hurtling toward slumber.
He tries not to let his head loll onto his mother's shoulder, but it's difficult and his eyelids droop. The organ music swells, and his eyes close briefly as his father's deep voice croons the Christmas hymns.
The anticipation is somehow still here, the fluttery feeling in the pit of his stomach that used to accompany the knowledge that he would be carried to bed and would wake to a home full of new toys. Edward wants little these days, except to grow up more quickly. He sees a life before him that is just out of his reach—as a decorated soldier, as an accomplished pianist. As a father, as a husband—the dreams his parents have for him and which he, also, holds for himself. Christmas means the new year, an older age, a step closer to these things he dreams. So though at sixteen, he awaits neither toys nor Santa, he is tonight as giddy as he is content.
This Christmas night, three hearts wait in stillness. In a house on the river, a mother leans against the freezing glass. In a darkened hospital, a father works alone. And in the warmth of a pew, his face bathed in candlelight, the child awaited, this son beloved, closes his eyes and succumbs to sleep.
I've been turning this piece over in my mind for over a year, but it took a short deadline and a tiny word-count limit in a contest on ADF to force me to put it down on paper. Please consider it a Christmas gift; reviews are not expected. Thank you so much for your continued readership, and may you have a joyous holiday.