The mood in the church was somber for the twenty-third of December. Mourners filed out, heads down, and drew their coats closer as they made their way to their cars. Inside, the new widow cradled the urn containing her husband's ashes and fought back her tears.
"Come home with us, Laura," the widow's mother offered. "Brian wouldn't want you to spend Christmas alone."
Laura grimaced. She realized that from now on, people were apt to tell her what Brian would or would not want, and she could no longer check with him to see if they were right. She shook her head.
"No thanks, Mom," she said. "Besides, I won't really be alone, you know."
The older woman looked at the urn and frowned. "Well, let us know if you change your mind."
Laura struggled to find a smile, but could not. She drew in her breath. "Thanks, Mom, but I'll be okay."
“I’ll call you then,” her mother said.
“No, please don’t,” Laura said with more vehemence than she intended. When she saw her mother’s expression, she softened, saying, “I’ll call you, okay?”
The mother squeezed her daughter's arm and nodded before taking her husband's elbow and leaving the church.
Laura took the urn to the home she and Brian had shared for a decade and a half. She placed it on the mantle and poured a glass of wine.
"To us, darling," she said, raising the glass and placing it on the mantelpiece.
Laura had known this day would come, and thought she was better prepared. She shook her head, blinking back her tears. After lighting a fire in the fireplace, she collapsed in a chair, losing herself in the scent of smoke, the spikes of flame, and the popping of the wood. Her mind drifted to the past few months.
It had been a wonderful summer. Brian quit smoking, yet lost weight without even trying. He looked more like the twenty-five-year old Laura had married than the man of forty that he was.
They stole away for a week's vacation on Nantucket where they had honeymooned. They spent their days on the beach, dined on lobster, and made love like newlyweds. It was as if the fifteen years of marriage, building careers, enduring miscarriages, and surrendering to childlessness all melted away. At midlife, they felt the joys of youth and health and vigor.
When they left the island, they did what they had done fifteen years before: they each threw a penny into the water as they passed the lighthouse at Brant Point.
"Now we're sure to come back," Brian said, citing the old legend he had read about as a boy. "If you toss a coin into the water as you pass Brant Point, you are certain to return."
Then, shortly after Labor Day, Brian complained of a dull ache in his upper abdomen that radiated to his back. The doctors ran several tests before giving them the diagnosis: pancreatic cancer. Only five percent of victims survive five years, they said, and Brian would not be among them. His cancer was advanced. He had only three to six months.
At first, Brian continued to work, but the pain worsened. Once a week, he went in for chemotherapy. It could not cure his cancer, but it helped relieve his pain.
In October, he went on disability, and Laura took a leave of absence. They tried to make the most of the days and hours they had left. On good days, they would go for a drive to admire the fall colors, buy apples at a nearby orchard, or pick their own pumpkins at a local farm. On bad days, Laura held his head as he vomited, read to him, and watched him sleep.
By mid-November, Brian looked as sick as he was. He was jaundiced and thin. They celebrated their last Thanksgiving at home, grateful they could spend it together. By the first week of December, they knew that Brian would not make it to six months. They needed to finalize their plans.
"I'd like my ashes spread on Nantucket," Brian said, then added with a grin, "I wouldn’t want to waste that perfectly good penny I threw overboard."
Then, on the first day of winter, the darkest day of the year, Brian died. It was Laura's turn to feel the pain in her abdomen, as if someone reached in and pulled out something vital.
Laura went through the motions of carrying out Brian's final arrangements. The cremation, the funeral, all went according to plan.
"But now what?" Laura asked the urn. "You weren't supposed to die so soon. How am I supposed to celebrate Christmas without you?" She thought she had used up all her tears, but there were more.
Sleep that night did not come easily. Rising early, Laura went to her computer and made a few arrangements. She threw a suitcase in the car, put the urn in a shoulder bag, and buckled it into the passenger seat. Then she headed east.
Christmas Eve traffic clogged the interstates and choked the tollbooths. The brooding sky gave way to occasional fits of rain, then sleet, slowing her progress. Laura pushed on with only the thwap-thwap of windshield wipers for company. After nightfall, she reached Hyannis. Parking at the Steamship Authority, she bought a ticket for the ferry. Two hours later, she could see Brant Point Light.
Disembarking at Nantucket, Laura grabbed her bags and walked up the dark, empty street. A cold wind whipped through her coat and stirred the dusting of snow that had settled among the cobblestones. All the shops were closed, some for the season, but a few scattered homes were aglow with Christmas lights. She trudged on to the door of the guest house where she and Brian had stayed twice before. The sound of voices singing Christmas carols wafted from within. She braced herself, and opened the door.
The singing stopped, and five pairs of smiling eyes turned toward her. "Merry Christmas!" someone shouted. Laura nodded.
"Welcome back," the proprietor said, reaching for registration forms. "I was beginning to wonder if you were going to make it. Where’s your husband?" He looked up and caught his breath. "Oh, uh . . . sorry," he said when he saw what Laura carried.
A strained silence hung over the gathering until Laura found her room. As she closed the door, she heard the music begin again, but it was more subdued. She readied herself for bed, laid the urn on the pillow next to her, and fell asleep.
Laura woke at dawn, and pushed the curtains away from windows etched with frost. White clouds skidded across a deep blue, New England sky, and the sun glinted off a thin coating of snow. A white Christmas.
Laura joined her fellow lodgers at breakfast. She bypassed the coffee pot and took her orange juice and muffin to the sun porch. From there she could see the old whaling town decked out like a miniature Christmas village. Why had she and Brian never come in the winter before?
After breakfast, Laura returned to her room. She put the bag with the urn over her shoulder and went out.
She strolled to the beach, now a blend of snow and sand. Standing on the deserted shore, she spoke to the waves.
"Here we are again, Brian," she began. "You said we would come back here someday." She wiped tears from her eyes, and blamed them on the wind. "You said you wanted your ashes spread on Nantucket, but you didn't say where. I think this is the place." She paused, as if waiting for a response.
She looked at the urn and nodded, then walked to the water's edge. She opened the container and sprinkled Brian's ashes into the receding waves. "I love you, Brian," she whispered as she watched the ashes mix with sea and sand and tears, and fade from view.
She stood a moment, looking out to sea. Then, she felt a fluttering, like a butterfly in her abdomen. She placed her hand below her belt and waited to see if it would happen again.
Her grandmother would call it "quickening"—the first small sensation of the life growing within her.
Four and a half months. She had never had a pregnancy last this long. This proof of life was a gift, she thought. It was Brian's last Christmas gift to her. For the first time in days, she smiled. Their string of tragedy had ended. This child, Brian's child, would live.
Laura had wanted to tell everyone about the pregnancy, but Brian said no—not until they were sure that, this time, it was not a prelude to sadness. Finally, she was sure.
Laura caught the noon ferry back to the mainland. As the boat left the dock, she pulled out her cell phone and called her mother.
"Merry Christmas, Mom," she began. "Yes, I'm fine.... No, Mom," she said, her hand on her belly. "I'm not alone.... Mom, I have some good news to tell you and Dad."
She smiled and reached into her pocket. And, as they passed Brant Point Light, she tossed two pennies overboard.
This story originally appeared in A CHRISTMAS SAMPLER: SWEET, FUNNY, AND STRANGE HOLIDAY TALES (2009). It also appeared as the featured story on BETHLEHEM WRITERS ROUNDTABLE (Nov., 2011). Both are publications of The Bethlehem Writers Group, LLC.