Read: At the Heart | A Christmas Story by Jessica Schaub

Here's something a bit different: in anticipation of Christmas, FAITH Magazine, the official publication of the Diocese of Lansing, commissioned the popular local Catholic writer, Jessica Schaub, to write a seasonal short story. The result, At the Heart, is reproduced below. Enjoy!

At the Heart by Jessica Schaub

Christmas would be very different this year. The entire family felt the stinging loss, but like good soldiers, they kept moving forward with their traditions. The tree was up and decorated. The warm oven released the smells of baked goods that cluttered the kitchen. Christmas music played in the background – not silly songs about Santa, but the hymns they sang at church. Everything looked the same as last year, but David’s death loomed over everything. Tomorrow was Christmas and no one felt cheerful.

Father opened the front door and asked Mark for help with a massive wooden board. “What are we doing?” Mark asked. His father patted the board. “Something new. Well, it’s actually something old. I am resurrecting my grandmother’s Christmas table tradition. Something different to help…” he didn’t finish his sentence. He didn’t have to. Mark knew that it was to help them not think of David all the time.

They lay the heavy board on top of the dining room table. It covered it completely and hung over the edge on all sides by several inches. “It’s massive!” his mother said as she ran her fingers along the smooth wood. “And beautiful. This is the same board your grandmother used?” Father pointed to a stain. “This is where my father spilled some of the grease from the ham. It stained the table. No matter how much we scrubbed it each year, this spot has remained.”

Martha joined them in the dining room and watched as their father poured small piles of sand on the table. He gave them each an old towel and showed them how to scrub the wood to clean it. “Go with the grain of the wood. Push down as hard as you can.”

“Why are we doing this?” Mark asked.

“It cleans the raw wood. That’s what my grandmother used to say. She didn’t have sandpaper, so this is how we cleaned the table. The sand will get all over the floor, but don’t worry about that. Sometimes we have to make a mess to clean up a mess. Grandma used to say that, too.”

After the table was scrubbed and the sand swept, they followed their father to the backyard and helped him saw off a few branches from a cedar tree. He placed those boughs on the table. “Every year grandma would do this. She set cedar boughs in the shape of a circle. The circle has no beginning and no end, just like God.”

“Now, the fun part.” Father clapped his hands and turned to his family. “When I was a boy, everyone would bring something to set on the wreath, something that reminded them of God. It can be anything, but you must explain how you see the connection to God.” He reached into his pocket and pulled out an acorn. “My grandfather always put an acorn on the wreath, saying that even though our family was a small part of the community, we would grow strong. Like an oak tree that stretched its branches toward the heavens, we would continue to grow into strong stewards of God’s faith. At dinner tonight, we will each put something on the wreath.”

All day, the family searched the house and the yard for something to bring to the wreath. Mark struggled with the task. Everything he saw reminded him of David, of the fact that he was gone. All Mark had in his heart was sadness and he wondered if it would ever go away. He didn’t want to find something for the wreath. He wanted his brother back. He knew he wasn’t alone in that struggle.

At dinner, the family stood around the table, each holding something. Each eager to share. “Youngest first,” Father said. “Martha?”

She set a small house built of Legos on the wreath. “David built this house and I kept it. I don’t remember the exact words, but Jesus said, don’t be troubled. Believe. In my Father’s house are many rooms; if it weren't true, would I have told you that I am preparing a place for you? And when I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself that where I am you may be also.” She paused. “I know Jesus loves David and helped him. I know that promise is true, even though I’m – we all – are so sad, I still love Jesus.”

Mark placed a plastic anchor from his old toy ship on the wreath. “Ever since David died, I have felt heavy. Like I’m drowning. I didn’t want to do anything for Christmas this year. Today I realized I feel like I’m anchored to my sadness. I realized that I’m also anchored to our family. That feels good. Our family is anchored in Christ and even though we have been through a storm, we are still together and not completely lost. It’s weird, but I feel like I have witnessed something that will make a difference. That losing David gives me a different perspective. About everything.”

Mother placed her rosary on the wreath. “Meditating on the sorrows of Our Lady has really helped me these last months. I never understood how extraordinary the prayers of our faith were until I was too sad to pray. When I had no words for God, I still had the rosary and Mary prayed right along with me. I am trying to do as she did, to ponder these things in my heart.”

Father added a stone to the wreath. “This was David’s geode.” He revealed the shimmering purple crystals inside. “We didn’t know what it would look like inside, and it was harder than we thought to break open but look how beautiful it is. I have been feeling broken. Our family has been broken since David. But I have seen beauty, too. Even though we are sad, we still have hope.”

“One more thing,” Mother said. She placed the crèche in the center. “I’ve heard the words, 'Keep Jesus at the heart of all you do' my whole life. Now I understand what that means. We will get through this. Together.”