Image: Christ the Redeemer Statue at the Assyrian Genocide Memorial at Chicago’s Montrose Cemetery at 5400 N Pulaski Road. Photo taken by author.
Author's note: I wrote this in April, and then later on in July. I wanted to write something about grief and loss in the light of Christmas, and what we've lost in the world since COVID. I've also always been fascinated with how God might view and understand time, thus the slight sci-fi angle of the story. This is a story of God's faithfulness and goodness in spite of us and the things we do to each other. Admittedly, this is the most religious story I've written up to this point. I feel the best place for it is here. I hope your holiday season is full of blessings and time well spent. May your 2022 be full of laughter and joy.
(Sorry for the goofy formatting - blame Weebly.)
Fragile is the Dust
A Christmas Story
To Big Steve
For teaching me to think critically about my faith and politics thirteen years ago,
And encouraging me to hold on to the character and story of Jesus.
You are missed, and I hope I'm doing you proud.
I'll see you in the dust, friend.
"I am with you always."
Gary looked at his wife Natalie's eyes through the iPad screen. He never dreamed the last conversation with his wife would be through the internet. He felt COVID robbed him of a special moment he had every right to have. There he was, with everything about to change forever and she wasn't there with him to hold his hand.
Natalie told him differently, but he knew when he woke up in a few days she wouldn't be there either in person or virtually.
"I want to believe you'll be with me," he whispered.
"Then believe," she replied.
Gary brushed the snow off of his wife's tombstone.
"Hey, honey," he said. "It's the first Christmas Eve without you."
The cold wind blew around Gary. He sighed and dug his hands into his pockets.
"I've been going to mass every Sunday like I promised you. I don't believe a word of what they say, but I've been going. It reminds me of you and how you used to always nag on me about that stuff."
Gary's lower lip trembled.
"You know me. Feelings never made sense. 'You're too much of a scientist,' you would say. 'People aren't experiments.' But this hurts like hell."
A tear started to steak down Gary's cheek.
"It's been hard without you. The way you left was so brutal, and today is especially hard."
Gary took out a jewelry box and placed it on her tombstone.
"I bought this a week before you died. I don't know what to do with it. I figure it's as good as time as any to give it to you. I think you would've loved it."
"This world is a darker place without you in it."
Gary continued to stare at the tombstone stoically.
Gary lay awake and stared at his ceiling. All he had to do was make it just another hour or two before he could get dressed and see family. If he could make it an hour, he could make it a day.
He turned on his side and looked at the empty spot next to him. On his wife's nightstand was her Bible and coffee cup. He hadn't touched either of them since the day she died.
His cell phone rang, breaking the nostalgic silence.
He looked down and saw it was the lab. He sighed and answered it.
"Gary?" said a voice on the other end of the line.
"It's Christmas Eve," responded Gary. "Someone better be injured."
"The computer malfunctioned again."
"Can you get someone else to look at it? I know it's a computer at a quantum science lab and it's important, but maybe I'm not the best person for this at this moment?"
The voice on the other end of the line laughed, "I'll make it worth your time if you can come in and just check on it. Everyone else is out of town."
"Alright," Gary sighed.
"You don't think there's a divine plan in all of this?" asked Natalie as they sat on their couch.
They just purchased their first home. Gary accepted the job offer soon after college. Their futures looked positive.
Gary brushed a hair off her cheek, "No… not at all."
Natalie chuckled, "Good thing I have enough faith for the both of us then."
"I knew when I saw you that God put you in my life for something."
"I knew when I saw you I wanted to get you in bed."
Natalie burst out laughing, "Gary! You are terrible."
"I know," Gary smiled.
"But I wouldn't have it any other way."
Gary passed the security gate and sipped his coffee.
"Hey Gary," said the guard. "It's Christmas Eve, you grumpy old fart. Don't you have better things to do?"
"Apparently not," laughed Gary. "Anything weird happen?"
"Not that we've seen."
"I love being called down for flukes. I absolutely love it."
"Well, we love seeing you," the security guard blew Gary a kiss.
"Aw shucks," laughed Gary.
Gary waved his security card over the scanner. As the door unlocked, he stepped inside and heard the machine whirring softly.
He took off his coat and threw it on the table and rolled up his sleeves.
On the drive home from work, Gary and Natalie were silent. She worked late nights at the diner as he slaved for hours on end to finish a project.
"I can't do this any more," said Natalie.
"What do you mean?" asked Gary.
"The late nights at work you're doing, the fact that we haven't even had a serious conversation in months…"
"It won't be like this forever."
"You always say that."
"I know. But someday it will be better."
Silence grew between them.
"There's someone else," said Natalie.
Gary sighed, "I know."
"When will you be here?" asked Gary's brother on the other end of the line.
"In about thirty minutes," replied Gary. "Something happened at work."
"Have you been at work all day?"
"No. I went and saw Natalie this morning."
After a short pause, Gary's brother said: "I'm glad to hear you're visiting her, and I look forward to seeing you come over tonight."
"I'm looking forward to it too."
"Your nephews and nieces are excited to see you. Don't teach them anything explosive though?"
Gary chuckled, "Well, that's what uncles are for."
Gary's brother laughed, "I'll see you when you get here."
"Alright. Sounds good."
Gary ended the call and put his cell back in his pocket.
Gary slicked back his hair and knocked on the door.
"Gary?" asked Natalie. "What are you doing here?"
"I guess I was just in the neighborhood."
Natalie sighed, "I've been thinking a lot about that night…"
"Me too," Gary smiled.
"We used to be so in love."
"They were some great times."
"I want to give us a second chance," Natalie said. "But…"
Gary looked at her eyes, "Look, I don't know what needs to happen. All I know is that I miss my best friend. I will find a way to be happy with or without you, but I want you to know that I choose you if you choose me. And I guess we'll have to keep choosing each other until the day one of us dies or quits. But I'm not ready to call it quits."
"How do we know if we'll last?"
"We don't. I guess that's what's so insane about the whole thing. All we know is the time we have now."
"This goes against everything I thought marriage was going to be."
"Welcome to marriage, I guess," Gary chuckled. "This shit isn't Disney, but it can be great."
Natalie rolled her eyes and let out a soft laugh.
The smell of perfume suddenly filled the room. Gary turned around and saw dust dancing around in the sunlight near the table. His hands trembled as he remembered the smell of the perfume distinctly. It was the perfume Natalie wore at their wedding.
The dust suddenly made a familiar face appear and stared back at Gary.
He remembered the homilies about being made from dust, and he remembered how Natalie always preached to him about how humanity was created with intention. He didn't want to believe it, and he didn't want to believe what was in front of him. But if it was his chance to reach Natalie, even a remote chance, he knew he would always regret not seizing the opportunity.
"Honey?" he asked. "Is that you?"
The face stared back at him, looking at him with sorrow and love.
Gary grabbed a chair and sat across from the face.
"I don't really know what to say," his voice quivered. "I've been trying to move on, but it's so hard."
The face continued to stare at him, listening attentively.
"Am I alone in this world, Natalie? I guess that's all I need to know for now. Am I alone? Does any of this matter? Does my life, my pain…. matter? We had no kids, all your family is dead, and all that's left is my memories of you. Did any of it matter?"
Gary didn't know if he was trusting his senses or not looking at this face, but he needed to get it all off his chest before he left.
"I love you, Natalie. I always will."
The face smiled at him before dissipating into the air.
Gary walked over to where the dust was, and saw a tiny pile.
He crouched down and started tracing into it with his fingers.
A single tear streaked down his face.
Natalie and Gary danced slowly in the kitchen.
Three years passed since the affair, and they were doing better than ever.
"Hon?" asked Natalie.
"Yeah?" Gary cleared his throat.
"I know you don't agree with me," she said. "But I see so much of God's work in you."
"I'll try to take that as a compliment."
"Don't try," she said. "Just take it. Stop thinking so much."
Gary chuckled, "Yes, dear."
"God is with you more than you realize. You just have to pay attention and stop thinking so damn much."
As Gary drove into the driveway of his brother's house, he sighed.
For all of his education, he couldn't account for what he saw.
Was it just dust or something more?
What happened in that lab to make this happen?
Gary looked at the passenger seat next to him and felt his heart sink at the sight of the empty seat.
"She's gone," he said. "That's all you need to know."
He opened his door and stepped outside. He looked at the sky as the snow fell and then closed his eyes.
That's when that familiar scent surrounded him again.
Gary opened his eyes and turned around.
On the fogged windows was a handprint.
Gary touched it and felt a familiar warmth he hadn't felt in months. The print was smaller than his hand, yet it fit perfectly in a way that only he understood.
There was no explaining this away.
"Okay," Gary sniffled. "You win."
The next morning, Gary made himself coffee. He was still at his brother's house and the night before was too much to process for him. He dragged his feet to the kitchen table.
Gary looked across the table to see an empty chair. Memories of Natalie laughing and playing with his family flooded his mind. He remembered her telling them all about this carpenter that loved them so much that he'd rather die than be without them.
"All those monsters you're scared of and nightmares you have?" Natalie smiled. "Jesus defeated them with love and overcame death. He had the final say."
"What's He like?" his nephews would ask.
"He's like the warmest feeling you can ever feel, times a million. He's like a light at the end of a dark tunnel and you know once you see it that you don't need to be alone ever again."
But in all the years of their marriage, he never once entertained the possibility that God was somehow in all of the mess.
Gary didn't want to believe in any of that. He had words to say to God about the way Natalie was taken from him. He imagined himself approaching God and yelling at Him, telling Him exactly what his wrongs were. After last night, Gary realized that God maybe didn't need to be told what's what.
If Natalie was right, then God was there all along anyway.
Maybe He was crying too.
Gary listened attentively to the words the priest had to say.
It was the same story about that carpenter.
But it wasn't the words so much that moved Gary as the memory of Natalie's face in the dust.
As he sat in church, he reflected on multiverses and time travel. He reflected on what it meant to love. When he stared at the crucifix behind the priest, he realized that perhaps all he needed to know about the night before was that he caught a glimpse of things to come - a day where there would be no more sorrow and no more pain. Natalie's sympathetic eyes told Gary that life wasn't over, and that there was beauty and redemption to be found still.
The worst thing was not the last thing, and God was at work in the world. The empty tomb means that hope continues still. And in that negative, hollow space, God mysteriously overcame the brokenness of the world.
For him, that was enough.
"Can you believe we're all just bits of stardust floating around in the universe?" Gary asked.
It was their first date after the affair.
"This is a weird conversation," Natalie laughed.
"I know, but can you believe it?"
They laid out in an open field in the middle of the night. They felt like their lives were ahead of them for the first time in years.
She snuggled up next to him, "When I looked at the sky as a kid, I thought it was God's way of showing off. Like He took a handful of shining sand and just hit the sky with it. I don't know about stardust, but when I look at that sky I think to myself: 'I am so blessed and lucky to be here right now. Every moment of life is so fragile and sacred. Even the bad moments.'"
Gary looked at her and smiled, "You know what? I think that too when I look at the sky, but I'm thinking that even more as I'm looking at you. I don't understand love. But with you, I know I don't have to. I'm grateful for our bad moments just as much as our good ones because they led me here."
Natalie kissed his cheek as he pulled her in closer.
“God weeps with us so that we may one day laugh with him.”
- Jurgen Moltmann