The Manger Is Empty – Part 2 —by Walter Wangerin, Jr.
On Tuesday, the 22nd of December, Odessa Williams died.
It had been a long time coming, but it was quick when it came. She died in her sleep and went to God without her dentures.
Quick when it came, I say: Odessa left us little time to mourn for her. Gaines Funeral Home had less than a day to prepare her body, because the wake would take place on Wednesday evening. The funeral itself had to be scheduled for Thursday morning. There was no alternative. Friday was Christmas Day; Saturday and Sunday were the weekend; Gaines would be closed for three days straight, and Monday was too far away to make Odessa wait for burial. She would be buried, then, on Christmas Eve Day.
And I, for my own part, was terribly distracted by a hectic week. This was the very crush of the season, you see, with a children’s pageant and extra services to prepare. My pastoral duty was already doubled; Odessa’s funeral tripled it. So I rushed from labor to labor, more pastor than father, more worker than wise.
Not brutally, but somewhat busily at lunch on Wednesday, I mentioned to my children that Miz Williams had died. They were eating soup. This was not an unusual piece of news in our household, for the congregation had its share of elderly.
I scarcely noticed, then, that Mary stopped eating and stared at her bowl of soup.
I wiped my mouth and rose from the table.
I was trying to remember what time the children should be at church to rehearse the Christmas program. Timing was everything. I wanted to give them a last instruction before I left.
One thirty! “Listen – Mom will drive you to church a 1:15. Can you all be ready then?”
“Mary, what?” She was still staring at the soup, large eyes lost behind her hair.
“Is it going to snow tomorrow?” she said.
“What? I don’t know. How would I know that?”
“It shouldn’t snow,” she said.
“You always wanted snow at Christmas.”
In a tiny voice she whispered, “I want to go to the funeral.”
Well, then, that was it: She was considering what to wear against the weather. I said, “Fine,” and left.
Thursday came gray and hard and cold and windless. It grudged the earth a little light and made no shadow. The sky was sullen, draining color from the grass and the naked trees. I walked to church in the morning.
We have a custom in our congregation: Always, before a funeral service begins, we set the casket immediately in front of the chancel and leave it open about an hour. People come for a final viewing of the body, friends who couldn’t attend the wake, acquaintances on their way to work, strangers out of the past, memories, stories, that will never be told. The dead one lies the same for all who gaze at her, infinitely patient. So people enter the church, and they creep up the aisle, and they look, and they think, and they leave again.
Soon some of the mourners remain. They keep their coats on, but they sit in the pews and wait.
And then, ten minutes before the service, I robe myself and stand in the back of the church to meet the greater flow of mourners. Last of all the family will arrive in limousines. I keep peeping out the door to see whether the silent cars have slid to their places at the curb.
And so it was that on Christmas Eve at 11 in the morning I discovered Mary outside the door. In fact, she was standing on the sidewalk while her mother parked the car. She was staring at the sullen sky.
“Mary?” I said. “Are you coming in?”
She glanced at me. Then she whispered, “Dad?” as though the news were dreadful. “It’s going to snow.”
It looked very likely to snow. The air was still, the whole world bleak and waiting. I could have agreed with her.
“Dad?” she repeated more urgently, probing me with large eyes—but what was I supposed to do? “It’s going to snow!” she said.
“Come in, Mary. We don’t have time to talk. Come in.”
She entered the church ahead of me and climbed the steps in the narthex, then started up the aisle toward the casket. She was determined. Though robed and ready to preach, and though people sat face-forward on either side, I followed her.
Mary hesitated as she neared the chancel, but then took a final step and stopped.
She looked down into the casket. “Oh, no,” she murmured, and I looked to see what she was seeing.
Odessa’s eyes seemed closed with glue, her lips too pale, her color another shade than her own, a false, woody color. Her skin seemed pressed into its patience. And the bridge of her nose suffered a set of glasses. Had Odessa worn glasses? Yes, sometimes. But these were perched on her face a little askew, so that one became aware of them for the first time. Someone else had put them thee. What belonged to the lady anymore, and what did not?
These were my speculations.
Mary had her own.
The child was reaching her hand toward the tips of Odessa’s fingers, fingers like sticks of chalk, but she paused and didn’t touch them. Suddenly she bent down and pressed her cheek to the fingers, then pulled back and stood erect.
“Dad!” she hissed. Mary turned and looked at me and did not blink but began to cry. “Dad!” she wept. “They can’t put Miz Williams in the grave today. It’s going to snow on her grave. It’s going to snow on Miz Williams.”
All at once Mary stepped forward and buried her face in my robes. I felt the pressure of her forehead against my chest—and I was her father again, no pastor, and my own throat grew thick.
“Dad,” sobbed Mary. “Dad, Dad, it’s Christmas Eve!”
These were the tears. These were the tears my daughter cried at Christmas. What do I say to these tears? It is death my Mary met. It’s the end of things. It’s the knowledge that things have an end. Good things, kind and blessed things, things new and rare and precious, and their goodness doesn’t save them; that love has an end; that people have an end; that Odessa Williams, that fierce old lady who seized the heart of my Mary and possessed it just four days ago, who was so real in dim light, waving her arms to the music of the children, that she has an end, has ended, is gone, is dead.
How do I comfort these tears? What do I say?
I said nothing.
I knelt down. I took my Mary’s face between my hands, but couldn’t hold her gaze. I gathered her to myself and hugged her tightly, hugged her hard, hugged her until the sobbing passed from her body, and then I released her.
I watched her go back down the aisle like a poker soldier. She turned in a pew and sat with her mother. I saw that her lips were pinched into a terrible knot. No crying anymore. No questions anymore. Why should she ask questions when there were no answers given?
So: the funeral. And so: the sermon. And so I was the pastor again.
This was the text: “But there will be no gloom for her that was in anguish.” The prophet Isaiah. It had seemed a perfect text, both for the season and for Odessa. “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light,” I read. That prophecy had come true in Jesus. It would become a truth again for the fierce old woman whose memorial this was. And for us, too, since we were mourning now, but we would be celebrating tonight. I read: “For to us a child is born, to us a son is given.” Christmas! I said somewhere in my sermon. Light is shining everywhere across the world, as light is shining first and perfectly in heaven. None who die in the Lord do die in darkness.
But what were Isaiah and prophecy and all the sustaining truths of Christendom to my daughter Mary? She sat through the sermon with pinched lips and a sidelong stare. What was heaven to her? Nothing. Odessa had been something to her. You could touch and love Odessa. But Odessa was dead. The casket was closed. Death was something to her now, and maybe the only thing.
Later, at Oakhill Cemetery, the people stood in great coats round the casket, shivering. My breath made ghosts in the air as I read of dust and ashes returning to dust and ashes. Mary said not a word nor held her mother’s hand nor looked at me—except once.
When we turned form the grave she hissed, “Dad!” Her blue eyes flashing, she pointed at the ground. Then she pointed at the sky. At the roots of the grasses was a fine, white powder; in heaven was a darker powder coming down. It was snowing.