Almost three years ago, Paul Oyler lost his wife. She became very sick in December, but Mr. Oyler had to take her to an emergency room three times before a doctor offered the diagnosis: cancer.
"We didn't know anything was wrong, and then a month later she was gone," he said. "That first Christmas, even though it was eight or 10 months later, it just devastated me. Just the emptiness of being alone at the holidays, it overwhelmed me.''
Mr. Oyler has since remarried and is finishing studies for the ministry. As a leader in The Gathering Church of the Nazarene west of Butler, he has organized a series of "Blue Christmas" gatherings in the little white chapel at 177 North Road. They're intended for anyone who is grieving or simply craving company during the holidays.
I attended the first session last Monday night, with additional gatherings to be held the next two Mondays. I went partly because I'd seen no future minister in Mr. Oyler when I knew him 30 years ago.
Back then, he and I were among the summer habitues of the right-field stands in a minor-league Salem, Va., ballpark, drinking beer and jeering the visiting club and laughing so hard that our section earned the nickname Rowdy Ridge.
By his own admission, Mr. Oyler drank and smoked too much in his youth, sampling "everything the '70s had to offer.'' But he found God in the mid-'80s, and his faith remains strong despite hard going since. Among the foursome I met at a small round table in an otherwise empty chapel Monday, faith and hard-won endurance were common attributes. We talked as pop Christmas tunes played.
Colleen Baker, the church's lead pastor, recalled the morning two days after Thanksgiving eight years ago, when a state trooper came to her door to tell her that her husband Ron had been killed in a car accident.
In the surreal days that followed, nobody knew what to say to her, but they said it anyway. She boiled silently, thinking, "Oh, please, recite another Hallmark greeting.'' On one of the first hard nights, she lay on the bathroom floor repeatedly saying the Lord's Prayer as her 6-year-old daughter slept.
Her mother advised her, "You can be angry and bitter the rest of your life ... or you can draw on your faith and have Jesus pull you through."
Rev. Baker has a ready laugh now. She has remarried and is expecting another daughter around Valentine's Day, but she can still remember with head-shaking bitterness that within two months of her first husband's death, a clueless friend was telling her, "Get over it.''
Vicki Schiffer understood. She also lost her husband to brain cancer more than 11 years ago. She remarried the following year, discovering that "You can have hurt and joy at the same time. My way of coping is laughter.''
Mr. Oyler's wife, Debbie, has a life story similar to his: a divorce, a remarriage, and then the death of her husband Ron four years ago. She spoke of a friend who lost her husband in May.
A couple of months ago, she and Mrs. Schiffer took a friend who was recently widowed to Panera Bread, where the conversation whipped from sadness to laughter and back again. A woman at a nearby table fell into their conversation and they invited her over, and she told them she'd lost her husband in a shooting 20 years ago and had raised three children alone.
The woman said she hadn't hugged anyone but her children in 20 years, but she hugged everyone at the table.
"We know what hurting people need because people did it for us," Mrs. Oyler said.
Each member of this quartet shared a story of fellow church members making extraordinary gifts of time, goods and money to get them through tough times, yet this gathering had as much in common with group therapy as it did with Christianity. We never said a formal prayer in the hour-plus we talked. The idea for succeeding Mondays is to have the buffet and gab from 6 p.m. to 7:30, followed by a Christian service.
Rev. Baker wasn't surprised at all the empty chairs. When she was first widowed, "I wouldn't have left the house." But the "Blue Christmas" group hopes someone reading this will seek out their haven from the societal demand to "be all holly jolly,'' as Mr. Oyler put it.
I left wondering how much courage it might take for an isolated person to reach out this time of year. In that old Beatles song "Eleanor Rigby,'' the title character and the equally lonely Father Mackenzie meet only at her gravesite.
Brian O'Neill: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1947.