Over the years, Christmas has become my Day of the Dead celebration. I've had a few conversations recently with friends who experience something similar to this. When the family gets together, the missing faces seem more noticeable than other times and gatherings. Older and frailer relatives have tended to pass around this time of year, with a few timing their deaths just right to coincide with a major snowstorm or other weather event (bonus points in family lore).
Over a dozen years ago, on what would turn out to be the last Christmas Eve I spent with my Grandmother, I was returning home to Jersey from Brooklyn with my folks when we passed a fatal accident scene. Something about that moment really caught me off-guard and wrenched at me in a way that wouldn't allow me any semblance of peace for hours. At some point in the wee hours of Christmas morning, I grabbed an envelope and wrote the following poem:
Harlem River Drive, December 24, 1994
Hark, the herald angels sing! ...for now they have more company.
The twisted wrecks are pushed aside so we can all proceed.
The traffic jam that slowed us down, has lost its power to annoy;
For now we see what held us up this cloudy Christmas Eve.
A face! at least, the remnants of...a mouth that could've smiled before,
Two eyes amid the windshield marks stare blankly at the sky.
The wind has pulled aside the sheet that would have let me feel detached.
And now I cannot help but stare, and think of how she died.
The warmth I felt mere hours ago has vanished irreplaceably.
I've lost the thrill of seeing my young cousins with their toys.
A stranger has embarked upon the first of many silent nights.
And now I feel such emptiness, depleted of my joys.
I'm sorry little Baby J, your birthday party wasn't fun.
Perhaps I shouldn't tell you that, but this is how I feel.
So hark, the harrowed angels cry, for harrowing this is, indeed.
Her last Noel has turned to hell, with one turn of the wheel.
I don't bust this poem out at the open mike very often, having observed its power to drag down a room, but this was the most cathartic moment I have experienced in my life. A handful of words flowed through me, I put them to paper and I felt peaceful. For most of the intervening years, I have made the scene of the accident a part of a Christmas Eve ritual.
I drive into Brooklyn and do a slow loop around Park Slope. It has always been the place where Christmas Eve takes place in my mind and heart. Most of the family has moved out of the old neighborhood by now, but the place is alive with ghosts and memories for me. Generations of my Mom's side of the family have used a six-block long stretch of Prospect Park West as the runway for their lifes' sojourns. We are born, baptized at Holy Name R.C. Church (perhaps a communion, confirmation, and/or marriage thrown in for good measure), stop in for a beer and a shot at Farrell's, make our way through this funny world and come to rest at the funeral home directly across the street from Holy Name.
Following my drive-by nod to the ancestors, I stop at a 24-hour bodega (usually, but not always, on Flatbush Avenue) and buy a snack and a small bunch of roses. I drive back over the Brooklyn Bridge (always the Brooklyn Bridge, there's no other way) up the FDR Drive to the Harlem River Drive, remove the cellophane from the roses, and roll down the passenger window. I toss the roses through the open window like a dart before bearing left for the GWB to New Jersey.
Christmas Eve was all fun and excitement when I was a child. Consumerism and disillusionment stripped the holiday of its meaning, obscuring it at the very least in a drive to eclipse it entirely. In the face of all that, it has become important to me to spend a little time in Brooklyn with the ghosts of Christmases past. Somehow, the fate of a complete stranger became entwined in this ritual. I don't know why for sure, but my best guess is this: Over the years, the family grew until we would spill out into the hall from Grandma's small apartment. Even so, there was always some more room and a plate of food for a friend, an unexpected visitor or the widow down the hall. I feel like maybe this unfortunate motorist became the last unexpected visitor. Every year, somewhere over Brooklyn's night sky, she drops in unexpectedly at Grandma's cramped flat. She eats her fill and gets guilted into eating yet another spoonful of something out of a steaming crock-pot. She is welcomed. She is loved. She has a better time than she did in 1994.
I like to think it's something like that.
- El Navidad De Los Muertos