A COVID CHRISTMAS
Although today's events would change Dan's life forever, the day started out the same as always. Long since retired with no reason to have to wake early, years of early rising were nevertheless ingrained, and Dan's eyes popped open as they always did a few minutes past seven. He stretched, mainly because those bones no longer functioned as they once had, and required a little limbering up.
Then, as he had every evening and every morning for the past forty-seven years, he leaned over and kissed Keira. Of course, for the last nine months, all he kissed was her pillow, but it brought back such wonderfully warm memories all the same. Dan was also comforted by the fact that the saying was true. As time went by, his tears of sadness did increasingly turn to tears of joy and remembrance.
He got up, stretched a little more to work out the kinks, and lumbered over to the window to see what kind of day beckoned. Dan smiled at the sunshine. It was going to be, as the weathermen said, an unseasonably mild day for mid-autumn.
Looking down the driveway out of habit, something untoward hit his eye. Could an errant newspaper have been tossed on his pavement? He had long cancelled the paper. The coverage seemed so superficial, especially as compared to what he could glean from the internet, so stopping the News was an easy decision. Moreover in any event, the news was entirely too depressing to have to immerse oneself in pages of the muck each morning.
The very fabric of the country seemed to be fraying. Chief cause was this damnable pandemic, which had already claimed hundreds of thousands of lives with no end in sight.
Curative vaccines were not expected until well into the next year. As a result of the contagion, businesses were forced to shutter, unemployment thus rising to Great Depression levels, and recreational outlets were gone. Even the churches were closed, God seemingly having opted to social distance Himself. The medical experts' best advice was to self-quarantine, so people only made necessary forays out. Even on those limited supermarket visits, the best and the brightests' sole recommendation was wearing a cloth mask. The flimsy facial covering was apt symbolism for the nation's political leaders, who were so dysfunctional that they had visited untold factionalism upon the land. "Thank goodness this was not a bio terror attack," Dan thought. The leaders clearly had no clue how to deal with the crisis, other than to politicize it for their own aggrandizement.
Be that as it may, Dan squinted to see what had been tossed onto the driveway. He did not have his glasses on yet, so squinting was the only way a near-sighted could function. As Dan studied, he saw that it was not a thing that had been put on the blacktop, but a drawing of some sort. From this distance and with this eyesight, he couldn't make it out. "Graffiti!" he muttered. That seemed odd. Halloween and Gate Night were comfortably in the rear view mirror. You could tell from the number of advertisements heralding the upcoming Hallmark and Lifetime TV countdowns to Christmas. Though truth be told, Dan didn't feel much like celebrating the holidays, this first year since Keira's passing.
The "good news", if you could call it that, was that the graffiti some kid likely had scrawled did not seem to have any profanities, like swastikas or curse words. It looked like nothing more than a chalked message. Dan figured he'd be able to wash it away with a simple dumping of a bucket of water. "Better do it soon. Don't want the neighbors to be offended by any hateful words," he reasoned. It was a small neighborhood of 43 homes, well set off from the major roads. Even though Dan lived on a cul-de-sac, the self-contained nature of the development encouraged a number of walkers and bikers, who would undoubtedly happen by the offending message. Interestingly, with so little else to do given the pandemic, hiking and biking was on the rise, especially in the morning and early evening hours.
Dan was one of them. Sort of. That is, Dan was not a recent convert. He had been an exercise aficionado ever since his dad had succumbed to a heart attack, well before his time. Even now at his advanced age, Dan jogged, thankfully his knees still weathered the burden. Of course when he ran he was a little stooped and never a threat to any speed record. "But at least I do it," he quipped to friends. "It makes up for years of running to the ice box." So he put on his sweats and his New Balance, did a little more stretching, and filled a pail with water to douse the offending message before his run.
What did Dan's wondering eyes behold (it was the early secular Christmas season, remember?) but a message that was not at all offensive. Dan set the bucket aside as he walked around the chalked message, read, and re-read the strange words.
"Your Angel Is Watching Out For You."
"Well if that isn't the nicest graffiti I've ever seen," Dan said to himself. He found himself smiling. He also made one of those executive decisions homeowners can make on the spot: "I'm gonna' leave the message. Bring smiles to all who see it."
With that, Dan set off on his sub-ten minute mile pace, still smiling as he did so. "What a nice way to start the day," he reflected as he looked back once more at the angelic greeting, basked in the early morning sun, and felt that aliveness one gets from even mild fresh air-and-exercise. After the half hour run, Dan again grinned when the message greeted him on his return. Shaking his head and thinking, "What nice kids," because he assumed the art work was that of children.
Dan headed into the house for a shower and some breakfast. His home was a little set back, and when Dan was halfway to the house, he had that strange feeling you sometimes get that someone was watching. He turned, peering around the front of his yard and into the cul de sac. There were a number of shrubs and bushes, so he looked carefully to see if someone was hiding. Nothing.
Dan resumed his trek, only to be twice more interrupted by that same strange feeling. The second time he did one of those super quick jerks where you try to catch a hidden observer unawares. For a second, he thought he detected something, just the briefest of glimpses. Something small and maybe blonde? But when he looked closer, there was nothing there. Dan shrugged it off and went inside.
Dan's day passed uneventfully, which is not to say unenjoyably. He read. Dan was a prodigious reader. Currently two books were on his night table. The last of the great Dickens' novels he had yet to read, A Tale of Two Cities. And the Bible. Dan was a churchgoer, that is, he was when the houses of worship were open. Since only snippets of the sacred scriptures were offered each Sunday, Dan had taken it on himself to read the entire Bible, cover to cover. He was fascinated to find some rather lurid sex accounts in Genesis, and remarked to friends that it was surprising these were expunged from the liturgical readings. "Sex sells," he observed jokingly, "and if they included these in the Sunday church readings, it might boost attendance."
Aside from reading, Dan busied himself with the garden. This would be the last time to cut the grass. Already leaves were fluttering down, and the next great task would involve much raking.
Dan was also reconditioning his bicycle. It was a Schwinn racer he had gotten for his twelfth birthday. Dan never knew if the bike had lasted well over a half century because things were made better in "the old days" or if kids then took better care of their things. In any event, the old bike functioned perfectly. The frame was showing signs of wear. Rust on the tire rims, paint chipped and the like. Since it would soon be too cold to ride the bike around the neighborhood, which Dan did most afternoons, he had taken on the task of painstakingly refurbishing the Schwinn.
Later in the day, each of his children called. Because Dan was old-fashioned, the telephone worked so much better than zoom or face time that the kids knew their mechanically challenged father balked at. They were good children and made sure to touch base even though they were at least half a continent away. Dan's son worked in Michigan, his daughter in southern Cal. Since Keira's passing, both children called religiously each day to check in on their father. Each was devastated by their mother's death, but at least they had their own growing families to help fill the emotional void. They were also worried about Dan being left alone. This year would be worst of all due to the health crisis. As much as each child wanted to fly or drive home to spend the holidays with their father, or at the least to pay for his airfare to visit them, the quarantine put the kai-bosh on such plans. The best way for families to show their love for one another this Thanksgiving and Christmas 2020 was to stay away. Hard, but sometimes love calls for that extra effort.
Dan enjoyed the calls and hearing about his grandchildren. He assured his son and daughter, for like the thousandth time, that he understood the need to maintain distance and stay out of the air, inasmuch as planes even in good times were traveling germ incubators. He said he would be fine cooking a small turkey breast and some stuffing. It would just be him, after all. During their chat, Dan shared the oddity about the angelic message.
"Maybe the angels really are watching over you, Dad," Denise said. "They better. You're the best dad ever."
Dan laughed and said she was the best girl in the whole world. Then he remarked, "It's funny, kind of a sad commentary. My first thought was that some kid had splashed some nasty graffiti on the driveway, when all it turned out to be was a very innocent message." He sighed. "I hope I'm not getting too cantankerous in my old age, over simple childish pranks."
Denise said, "It's not you, Dad. What it is is what the world's become. Violence and vandalism are all around us. It's become the new normal. Sometimes the world's not a great place to raise children. Not like the atmosphere you and Mom always surrounded us in."
"I guess," Dan said. "It's sure not like when I was growing up. The fifties may have had its faults, but it was an innocent time, a wholesome time to grow up in. We didn't even lock the house or the car when we went out."
Denise switched subjects, asking what was on her father's Christmas wish list. Denise was an early Christmas shopper. No doubt she'd be done and have everything wrapped before Thanksgiving.
Dan assured her there was nothing he wanted. "At my age, I've got everything I need. All's I really want are not material things, but important stuff that we can't have, like to have your Mom here again, and to be with you guys, but that'll have to wait 'til after Christmas." After the call, Dan chewed it over and thought about what he'd like for Christmas that was feasible. "What I'd really like is to feel some of that innocence once more." But he shrugged, because that seemed just as unlikely.
The next morning when Dan awoke and looked out the window, he received the next surprise. Apparently the angel's message from the day before was not an isolated incident. Just beside it was another message. Dan hurried out to read, "Your Angel Is Always With You." This time, a picture of an angel in flowing robes accompanied the greeting. Once again, Dan found himself grinning. He also looked all about, but could see no sign of the well-intentioned sidewalk artist.
He did see one noteworthy development as he ran slowly through the neighborhood. A number of driveways and walkways sported similar messages of angelic greeting. Dan chuckled as he ran. "Isn't that nice," he mused, "that some little child is going out of his or her way to brighten our lives." Throughout the day, Dan would peek out the window from time to time, just to see the message yet again. "That was such a nice gesture," he thought. "I'd like to thank the little one responsible." And that gave him a thought.
He realized the artist/messenger had to draw in the daylight. Given that Dan was himself an early riser, he figured the child had to get up even earlier. Since he rose at seven and daylight was around six am, that left a small window for the artist. "How can a little one be up and about that early?" Dan wondered. "What kind of parents..." but then he realized the school buses came pretty early, some just before he woke. That was early for a child indeed, but there was compensation inasmuch as the kids were home from school by two in the afternoon. Then Dan had another thought. "There is no school now. Everything is virtual because of the pandemic. So how in the heck?" He went about his day's tasks much as every day, though he pondered the mini-mystery intermittently. That night Dan did something he had not in years. He set his alarm clock. For six am.
Next morning he was none the worse for wear at losing an hour's sleep. If anything, Dan felt exhilarated at the expectation of finding the benign culprit. He placed a comfy folding chair behind one of the cluster of shrubs abutting his walkway, watching and thinking about nothing in particular. After a short spell, Dan's attention must have wandered. He thought he had been looking at the road before his home and a second earlier there had been nothing there. Yet somehow, right on the driveway, a child had indeed just appeared, and was drawing intently. Dan could only see the profile, and made out that the girl's tongue stuck out sideways as she thought out her message. It was a small blonde girl, Dan wondered if that was who he had captured a glimpse of the other day. He figured her to be seven years old. He sat calmly as she drew. This time there was drawn a bevy of angels peering through clouds, and the message: "Your Angel's Wings Are Hope And Faith."
The little one got up and put the chalk in her pocket. She looked over her artistry, seemingly pleased, and turned to go. That's when Dan stepped out from behind the bush.
"I've got'cha!" he said calmly with a wide smile. The little one looked...surprised?...scared?... Dan felt bad and quickly assured her, "I'm not mad. I wanted to thank you for your lovely messages."
The girl looked instantly relieved. "You weren't sposed to see me, but I guess it can't be helped."
"No, I guess not," Dan laughed. "So, what exactly are you doing?" he asked.
The sweet girl shrugged. "Just trying to spread a little Christmas cheer. It's such a hard time for so many people these days."
Dan sighed. "You can say that again."
The girl looked puzzled, but began to say, "It's such a hard time..."
Dan cut her off as he again laughed. "No, no, no. It's just a saying. I didn't mean you had to repeat it."
"Good," she said sweetly, "'Cause I didn't want to think you were a crazy person or something."
"That would not be good," Dan agreed. He held out his hand. "My name is Dan."
She looked at the proffered appendage. "Shouldn't I call you Mr. Hollings?"
Dan was taken aback. "You know my name?"
He said, "If you don't think your parents would mind, you can call me Dan."
Now she took his hand and shook exaggeratedly. "Emily Collins."
"Well, Emily, I really do appreciate your kind messages. Say, can I offer you some hot chocolate? I mean, if you don't think your parents would mind. I know you shouldn't be alone with strangers."
"Oh, but you're not a stranger. I know you quite well."
Dan was puzzled. "We've never met. Do you...do you live here?"
Emily knitted her brow in thought. Then she answered, "My parents live down there (she pointed). Fifty-two Continental. And I asked my father, who said it would be okay if I went inside your home." She looked skyward when she spoke. Dan wondered when she'd asked her father, but before he could ask, Emily said, "I have to leave a few more messages for people. Would it be all right if I came back for that hot cocoa later?" Dan said of course, and she was on her way. When Dan was at his front door he paused to look back, but Emily was already gone from sight.
Today on his morning jog, Dan was more observant than usual. He noticed a number of Emily's angel messages. She had shared with him that she was leaving other signs. What surprised Dan was the sheer number. Emily and he had just parted. How did she manage to draw so many in so short a time? Most of the heavenly renderings were fairly intricate.
Later in the afternoon, Dan's doorbell rang. He was in his stocking feet when he answered. It was Emily. He happily welcomed her and invited her to the kitchen where he would make the cocoa.
"You know you don't have any shoes on," she said.
Dan smiled. "I thought I'd take advantage of the forced down time the pandemic has brought for some personal improvement. Something I could never do but always thought it looked cool. I'm trying to learn how to do the moonwalk."
Emily giggled. "Aren't you kind of old for that sort of thing?"
Dan looked at her kindly, but seriously. "Living life to the fullest is not a matter of age." Emily gave one of those "Yeah, that kind of makes sense" looks children often display to the adults in their lives.
Dan added, "It's not all that different from you embarking on your sidewalk art project. How did you come up with the idea anyway?" as he handed her a mug, filled to the brim and topped with whipped cream, the way God intended.
Emily took a genteel slurp and proclaimed, "Very excellent. Thank you," through darkened lips. Then she said, "I got the idea from the angels."
"Oh," Dan surmised, "You read about the idea in a book about angels?"
"Oh no. They discussed it with me."
Dan just looked at her. Then he realized little children inhabited a fantasy world all their own, with make believe friends, pets and, he supposed, even angels. Before he could pursue it, Emily looked to the side, to the wedding photo Dan always displayed, and looked at often, longingly. "She's very pretty," Emily noticed.
"Yes. She was." Dan's tone was wistful.
"She still is."
Dan's eyes narrowed. "I guess. Yes, I suppose you're right, that our loved ones are still...somewhere...and they probably look like they did in their prime. At least, I hope so."
"You miss her," Emily said.
Dan shook his head yes. "I do. A lot."
"You know she's still here with you."
"Why, aren't you the precocious one," Dan said, impressed at her insight.
Emily matter of factly tossed out, "Mommy always said I was old beyond my years."
"How old are you?" Dan figured seven or eight.
Dan laughed. He remembered the old Art Linkletter saying, "Kids say the darnedest things." What he did say was to ask Emily, "What else did the angels say to you?"
She made a shrugging motion. "This and that."
"I see," as he suppressed a smile. He was going to say something but stopped. Who was he to burst her fantasy balloon?
Almost as if she could hear his thoughts, Emily said, "I'm not gullible, you know. I know there's no Santa Clause or Tooth Fairy. But the angels, they are real."
Dan sure hoped so. As noted, he was faintly religious in that he attended church services regularly, BC (before coronavirus). But there were times he doubted some of the larger religious concepts, like the hereafter, and certainly the nuances, like the existence of angels.
"Another thing," Emily spoke in her little girl way of speaking, "Your wife does care about you."
"Well, that's nice to know, but how do you know?" he asked good naturedly.
"She told me."
Dan's eyes widened. Was the girl delusional? Or could it be? He had heard that children sometimes perceived things the rest of us didn't. He swallowed and bravely asked Emily if she could share more about...Keira.
Emily put her cup down. "I'm not sposed to tell a lot. But if you listen in the quiet, you'll feel her."
"What does that mean? Listening in the quiet?"
"There's too much noise and bother in the world, especially the adult world. So you aren't attuned to these things. But let me ask you, hasn't anything strange happened that made you wonder?"
Dan nodded. "Shortly after Keira...died...in the morning for the first few days, I felt something brush against my cheek."
Emily shook her head. "That was her, telling you she was all right, and that she would always be right beside you."
It was a nice thought, but Dan shifted topics. Partly because his eyes were filling with tears and he didn't want to alarm the child by crying in front of her. And partly because he was frankly uncomfortable having any sort of metaphysical discussion with a seven year old, even if she portrayed herself to be nineteen. Actually, it was Emily who changed the discussion. "Can I come visit again?"
"Of course you can. Any time."
"Good. There's other people I have to see now."
Dan was inwardly amused. "I'm sure you have very important engagements. But don't you have friends your own age to play with?"
"Of course. But I set out a little time each day for those in need."
What a charming child! Dan told her, "I'm not really needy. I mean, I appreciate getting to know you and your angel drawings, but you don't have to spend time with me. I'm okay."
"No you're not. You're sad, and a little lonely, and...and looking for something important to do. Just 'cause you're retired doesn't mean you have nothing to offer. So if it's all the same to you, I'd like to stop by some more."
Dan was modestly flabbergasted at her insight. "I could never refuse your visits," he said quietly.
"Good!" she exclaimed. "Then it's a deal!" With that, she placed her mug in the sink, thanked Dan and was off.
Dan just sat on the family room sofa a while, thinking nothing specific, except that children were the best medicine. He had such an inexplicable feeling of peace inside.
The next day, Dan resumed his normal wake up regimen. He was happy when he looked outside to see another Emily message. On this one the artwork was more intricate, a couple of cherubs reminiscent of a Titian or Sassoferrato. Dan marveled at the craftsmanship. "Incredibly talented for a seven-year old." He did not see Emily that day, which he thought nothing untoward of. She must have friends and family and school and be otherwise occupied. While Emily didn't visit every day, she did pop in regularly. Pop in was the operative phrase. Whenever Dan spotted her, it was as if she had suddenly materialized. Sometimes he was mildly startled to suddenly see her standing there.
One such day was when Dan was raking the leaves that had largely fallen from the many trees. His home abutted a small forest, and the wind ensured that those leaves found a resting place in Dan's back yard. He raked, gathered and brought them to the front roadway, since the town highway department came by to vacuum up loose leaves at the end of the fall foliage season.
This day as Dan was raking, he jumped at the sight of Emily. "How do you do that?" he asked, laughing. "Appearing so stealthily."
"It's just a knack I have." Then she commented, "You know, you can hire someone to do this."
Dan wiped at his brow. "I could, but I choose not to. You see, after a career of working behind a desk using my head, I find it a nice change of pace to do physical work. Besides, it's good exercise, and it's peaceful. Leaf raking and snow shoveling are my favorite manual tasks."
From her expression, Dan could tell it didn't make much sense to her. She looked out and indicated with a sweep of her arm, "Why don't you rake that?"
Emily shook her head yes.
"That's crazy. Why would anyone rake the woods?"
"Why would an older anyone rake a yard instead of hiring a kid? Besides, if you want peace and exercise, there's a lot waiting for you right there."
Dan admitted she had a point. "I guess it's a question of magnitude." He could see from her wrinkled brow she didn't understand, so Dan explained. "It's one thing to rake a yard. Quite another to rake something that large. There's only so much stamina I have."
Suddenly Emily giggled. "Silly," she said, "I didn't mean the entire woods. Just the trail."
Dan looked at the clusters of trees. "I don't see any trail."
Emily sighed exaggeratedly. "I guess your eyesight gets bad when you get old." Dan smiled. She continued. "Look at how the trees are formed." She took him by the hand and began walking into the forest. She led Dan on a loop, actually a semicircle, that started at one end of his yard, went through the wooded area and looped back to the far end of his yard. "You see," she said, a triumphant note in her voice, "The way the trees have grown, there is space to walk between them."
"But there's no trail."
Emily put her hands on her hips. "That's because you haven't raked it. If you did, you'd have a perfect trail."
Dan looked and could visualize it. That didn't mean he should do it. "What would I do with a trail in the forest?"
"You could walk on it. It'd be so peaceful. Like when you went to the national parks."
Dan did not recall telling Emily about past family vacations, but he must have. In fact, when Denise and Jason were younger, his and Keira's favorite trips were to the great national parks out west, where the entire family got into hiking in the serenity. Emily interrupted his reverie, "You know, I'd love to be able to run through a trail like this. Yours is one of the few houses in the neighborhood with all these trees in your backyard to make a trail. I'll help you, if you want."
There was such a hopeful look on Emily's face, Dan didn't have the heart to deny her. "Okay," he said. "We'll make a trail."
"Goody!" She ran to the front of the house and came back instantly with a child size rake.
"You pack your own tools?" Dan said laughingly.
"You never know when they might come in handy."
Dan took a break from the yard as he and the little girl started raking about a three-foot wide swath through the trees. After a while, Emily announced it was break time. "Thank you, Madam Foreman," Dan smiled.
Emily told him, "Oh, you can do more if you want. I have to go now. I have another appointment. I'll be back tomorrow." She left the rake and ran off. Dan did a little more on the trail-to-be, then resumed attacking the yard.
The next day, he finished the yard work. Just before taking in the outdoor furniture for winter storage, he sat on the back deck and relaxed, pulling out his old Hohner Marine Band and playing Will the Circle be Unbroken. Dan was mid-song when his little friend appeared.
"That sounded pretty," she told him. "The Lord likes it when we play music in His honor. Like when David plays."
"David?" Dan wondered. What modern entertainer was she referring to?
"No, silly," Emily giggled in that way she had. "You know, King David. The Lord is my shepherd David. That guy."
"I have heard of him. Didn't know he played musical instruments."
"Mm-hmm," Emily nodded her head enthusiastically. "He plays the lyre. It's like a harp."
"Oh, I see," Dan said, bemused.
"You haven't made a lot of progress on our trail," she said, looking at the partially raked stretch from the prior day. "Come on."
"Yes boss," Dan said in fake weariness. The two raked in companionable silence. That day they got about half way. When they turned, even with the foliage gone, it was hard to see the house. Emily said they would pick it up tomorrow.
The next day, and the day after, they finished. The old man and the girl walked along the path through the woods, curving back to Dan's yard. He had to admit, there was an overwhelming feeling of peace to it. Whether it was the trail or his young friend or some combination, Dan couldn't tell.
"We're done!" he told Emily as he put his rake back in the garage for storage until next autumn.
"N-no," Emily said, with the little child frown Dan knew meant she was deep in thought. "Something's missing," she said.
Dan looked back along the area they had worked. "The only thing missing is the leaves and that's what we set out to do. It does look...special."
"No, it's not right. It needs something." Then Emily snapped her fingers. Tried to anyway. She couldn't get the knack of it. Her face brightened as she looked at Dan. "Rocks!" she cried out with a look of pure joy.
"What about them?"
"We need to line each side of the trail with stones. It'll give it definition. Make it look more like an official trail."
"What's wrong with an unofficial trail? This was enough work as it is."
"Oh, don't be silly," Emily replied.
"Well, do you realize how long this trail is? Hundreds of yards!" Well, where are we going to get that many rocks?"
"Sometimes I wonder about you grown ups," Emily said. "You do realize there is a reason they call this Rockland County?"
Dan acknowledged there were a lot of stones in the soil.
"Look!" Emily gestured to the woods. Sure enough, when Dan looked more closely, there were stray rocks of all sizes all over the forest floor.
"That's still a massive undertaking," Dan pointed out.
"We've got time. You have any more pressing business?" she asked. "Besides, I'll help you. Think about how it'll look when we're done." Dan had seen rock gardens and natural rock trails on some of those family trips out west mentioned earlier. So yes, he could visualize what Emily had in mind. But was it worth it? "Who would ever enjoy this?" he asked.
"At least you and me," she chirped. "And I think lots more. You'll see."
Dan agreed that tomorrow they'd begin gathering stone and lining their path.
It took days, with a break for Thanksgiving. Dan had his own quiet feast, the highlight being extra long telephonic chats with his two children and grandchildren. The kids had also sent him one of his favorite treats, a gigantic box of cashews from Sunnyland Farms in Georgia. Out of habit, Dan had the TV tuned to the Macy's Parade, which ended with Santa ushering in the Christmas season. The retailers seemingly moved the holiday earlier and earlier. "Pretty soon, we're going to lap ourselves," he quipped to his son. Truth was Dan didn't mind the early start. If anything, he bemoaned the fact that as soon as the clock struck midnight on December 26th, it seemed like it all evaporated. "Since when did the Twelve Days of Christmas morph into twelve seconds?" he wondered. Yes, Dan loved the season, though this year he knew it would be difficult, without Keira. Even though he had decided to scale back this year, he still enjoyed signs of the trappings. Thanksgiving night he even watched one of the old holiday DVD's that had become a family staple. A Christmas Carol, the musical version derived from the play that had graced the Madison Square Garden theater for a decade back in the nineties.
The day after turkey day Dan offered Emily some left over dessert. Over pumpkin bread that she proclaimed "surprisingly delicious", Dan asked if she had enjoyed the day with her family. Emily looked at him strangely for a second, before answering that she did.
"I'd like to meet your parents," he said.
"You will," she responded confidently.
"It's funny I've never seen them yet," he mused.
"They just moved in about six months ago. And they're in the opposite direction from where your jogging route goes."
"I suppose," Dan replied. He added, "It's sort of a shame. It's a nice neighborhood and from a distance people seem friendly, but we don't really know each other. You know, it's not close knit. Not like when I was a kid and we'd have neighborhood block parties. Especially around the holidays, like the Fourth of July."
Emily just looked at him. Then she spoke. "It is a nice place to live, and you're right the neighbors are nice people. But they are having a tough time right now."
"The pandemic?" Dan said.
Emily nodded. "Uh-huh. Almost half are out of work, hoping they've saved enough to get by. They'll have to scrimp for Christmas. Not a lot of big presents for the children. Others have been hit health wise."
"Any deaths?" Dan wondered.
"Not in this neighborhood, but almost everyone knows someone, another family member or a dear friend who has. And a number of people who live right around you have been pretty sick."
Dan was surprised by how grown up Emily's observations were. "Your parents talk about this a lot?" he surmised.
"Uh-huh. You know," she said, "a lot of holiday rituals are going to be disrupted. Like going to the City (when anyone in Rockland County referred to "the city" it of course meant Manhattan). The Rockettes' show is closed. Lots of the lighted displays and store windows that people like to stroll past aren't going to be up. And even those few that are still lit, people're scared to go 'cause of the health risk. And travel, well you know as well as anyone that that's not an option. Lots of people won't even be able to go to church, which is bad 'cause lot of 'em only go once a year even in good times. It's all kinda' sad."
That resonated with Dan, who dearly missed the anticipation of his children and grandchildren visiting for the holidays, this year especially since there was no Keira. He also would miss the other trappings of the season Emily had alluded to.
"We have to do something to help these poor people," Emily said with a look of fierce resolve, as they set out to gather stones for their task. They worked in the quiet, picking up stones of various shapes and sizes and hauling them (rolling the larger ones) over to line the path.
When Dan saw Emily was tiring (not that he wasn't) he suggested they break for the day.
"Some hot cocoa would sure hit the spot," Emily suggested.
"Are you inviting yourself in?" Dan laughed.
"Well, you do make the bestest hot chocolate."
As they sipped, Dan asked if Emily would stop by tomorrow to continue paving. She said, "Of course, but in the meantime I have a homework assignment for you." Dan was amused and he beckoned her to continue. "Think about how we can help make this a better Christmas. This neighborhood desperately needs it."
Dan's heart went out to her, but what could they do?
As if she could hear his thoughts, Emily said, "There's lots of things we can do. What's important is we show some old-fashioned Christmas kindness. You should like that. The old-fashioned part, I mean."
Dan laughed. "I do indeed. But is it our place to insinuate ourselves in other people's lives?"
"You mean 'Are there no prisons? Are there no workhouses?'"
Now Dan frowned. "That's not exactly what I meant."
"But it is what happens if everyone abdicates responsibility."
"Is it our responsibility?" Dan asked.
"It's everyone's responsibility to do good. It's the Christmas thing to do."
"How about when it's not Christmas?" Dan asked. "No need to do unto others then?"
Emily pursed her lips. "You're supposed to observe the spirit of Christmas all the year round. Aren't you reading Dickens? And the Bible?"
Dan held up his hands in mock surrender. "Okay, you got me. I'll think on it, though right now I don't see how just the two of us can ease a public health crisis. But yes, I shall consider it."
"Good!" Emily said as she held out her hand and they shook once, forcefully, on it.
Dan did reflect on it throughout the later afternoon. He did hit upon an idea. Framed it out in his mind. When he felt he had the details worked out, he decided to put the plan in place. What a nice surprise for Emily when next he saw her.
That evening Dan drove to the rectory. He hadn't made an appointment, but with the church effectively shuttered he assumed he'd have no problem seeing the pastor. Of course he wore his face mask.
Father Joe was happy to see him. There had been a dearth of parishioners visiting, along with a precipitous drop in the collection basket. The church had to make do with streaming the 9 am Sunday Mass.
Dan explained. "Father, this community desperately needs some ray of light out of all this darkness and gloom. It's bad enough that the secular world has made Christmas to be about bright lights, tinsel and shopping, and lost sight of the focal point. This year it'll be so much worse, when people cannot even attend services."
The padre was nodding. "There is a very restrictive limit on how many people we can have in the church building. It's a shame. Praise God that we can at least stream."
"Yes, but the mysticism loses something in the streaming. What if...what if we hold Mass outdoors? The state health department's restrictions are much less onerous for outdoor gatherings. Suppose you use the parking lot. I've walked it off. With six feet between people, we can fit several hundred worshippers there. We can also chalk off specific areas, to keep people safely apart. We can rig a loudspeaker so you can be heard. And people can park by the school or in the cemetery."
Father Joe said it would be quite cold that time of the year.
"No more so than outside football stadia, but no one seems to mind tailgating. People'll come dressed appropriately, they can bring folding chairs and blankets. It could be a festive atmosphere and most importantly, a real shot in the arm for a people besieged."
Dan looked at the cleric expectantly. The priest was mulling it over. Then he said, "I think it'll be too tall an order to get it done in time. Maybe for Easter we can revisit it. I don't know the bishop would take kindly to so radical a proposal. But I do very much appreciate your thinking of the Church. Thank you."
Dan was not crestfallen. He had half expected the reaction. This was a church, after all, that had only come to terms with Galileo 350 years after the fact. It was an institution that did not exactly move fast.
He returned home and pondered some more. He had yet to open the day's mail, so he did so now. The bank statement had come. Virtually unchanged from last month. Dan's pension and social security covered his living expenses. There was a small nest egg he and Keira had amassed for travel. They had always hoped to visit Italy in retirement, but sadly that was not to be. When the time came and the house would be sold, that would leave a tidy sum for Denise and Jason. Dan sat in his easy chair, tapping the bank statement against his thigh. Then he had a brainstorm! He couldn't wait to share it with Emily. He would tell Denise and Jason as well, since it impacted them to an extent.
Next day when Emily showed, before they set to dragging more stones around the wooded area, Dan shared his idea. He first told Emily about his visit to the parish office. When he finished, she shook her head. "The road to hell is lined with the skulls of bishops," she murmured.
"What?" Dan was taken aback. By now he knew Emily was precocious, but where did this observation come from?
"It's a quote from St. Athanasius," she explained. "Sunday school," she added, thereby cutting off further inquiry.
"Boy, I am getting old," Dan thought to himself. "Sunday school was never that advanced when I went. All we learned was the 'Our Father' and 'Hail Mary', the commandments and the seven sacraments." Emily shrugged noncommittally.
"But then I had a better idea!" Dan continued. He asked Emily if her parents had mentioned how many people in their neighborhood were out of work.
"Eighteen of the 43 families are suffering."
Dan nodded. "I could swing it."
"What?" Emily asked. "It's kind of late for baseball."
He explained about the nest egg he and Keira had saved up. Now that he had no use for it, he thought he could leave a thousand dollars for each distressed family, to tide them over and allow for a Christmas present.
"That's very generous. You'd be giving up almost twenty thousand dollars. But the people might be reluctant to accept charity," she pointed out.
"What if we did it anonymously?" Dan suggested.
Emily agreed that could work and she offered to help distribute the funds on the QT. Then they went back to lining the trail with stones. This day they finished, and it really did look good. They sat sipping cocoa, Dan seeing his cute friend deep in thought. He asked her what was brewing?
Emily put her mug down. "Your suggestion is very generous, but we still need to do something personal for all the people."
"You mean instead of giving out money?"
"No. I mean in addition to giving out money. Something that will bring Christmas spirit to all their hearts."
"Okay," Dan said, "What do you have in mind?"
"I don't know," she harrumphed. "Must I think of everything?"
"Why don't we both put our thinking caps on?" Dan suggested.
"We might think better with another mug of hot chocolate." Dan smiled and poured another cup. Emily was frowning in deep contemplation as she drank. Then she said, thinking out loud, "We need to make people feel Christmassy, show them a beautiful sight, where people'll be happy tonight."
Dan chuckled. "You sound like a walking Christmas carol."
Emily looked up, brow wrinkled. "Huh?"
"You know," he explained, "A beautiful sight, we're happy tonight, walking in a winter wonderland."
She brightened immediately. "For an old guy you have great ideas!"
Dan said, "I plead guilty to the old part, but I haven't come up with an idea."
"Of course you just did."
Dan looked at her blankly.
"Silly!" Emily blurted. "Come here," she beckoned him closer and when he was inches away she leaned in and whispered in his ear.
"Oh, I don't know," he was shaking his head negatively. "I can get the supplies for sure, but I could never reach that high. And you're right about me being old. I can't climb anymore."
"You don't have to," she said in almost a sing-song way. "I have a friend who has a bucket truck." She looked at the advent calendar on Dan's kitchen counter. "We have six days 'til Christmas. Easy peasy. I'll have my friend here tomorrow."
The next day, Dan heard a slight rumbling in the driveway. He looked out to see Emily waving out of the passenger window. When she hopped out, she introduced her friend, Mike. He was curly headed, on the youngish side, and looked quite fit. As he drove the truck over the driveway and into the back yard, Dan grabbed the boxes of supplies he had purchased from the garage. Mike did the heavy lifting, Dan worked the electrical connections, and Emily served as artistic consultant, bossing the two older men back and forth. It took about four hours; Dan marveled at how fast this Mike guy worked. He fairly flew back and forth, as if he had wings.
At last, Emily brushed her hands together, palm to palm and announced, "We're done!" She reached up and Dan leaned down to accept her hug around his neck. They thanked Mike and he was off.
The next day, Emily and Dan sat in his study. "We have to make up invitations," she announced. They struggled over the wording, wanting to get it just right. Dan wondered the best way to deliver them, and Emily said, "Leave that to me. I'm the one that sneaks up on them all and leaves messages anyway, so this'll be a snap!"
The next day, which was December 22nd, the entire neighborhood opened their mailboxes to be greeted by a word processor message on heavy bond ivory paper, with an illustration of a cherub on the letterhead. The letters signed by Dan read:
"Dear Neighbor, this has been such a difficult time, but at this time of year it seems appropriate to heed the words of the child whose birth we are about to celebrate when He was grown, "Let not your hearts be troubled." Please, please come to my house tomorrow evening at 8 pm for a small bit of Christmas magic. Wear masks, social distance, and we will be outdoors so it will be incredibly safe. Above all, be sure to bring your children and any guests, as well as your childhood spirit."
There was some buzz when people read the strange message. Most figured it would be the neighborly thing to do to stop by briefly. Others thought it bizarre and resolved to stay in the comfort of their homes, but the former group prevailed upon them. "What's so comfortable about staying home? Haven't you done enough of that the last eight months?"
So it was that in the early evening of Christmas Eve Eve, clusters of 43 families made their way to Dan's house. He and Emily had been scurrying to and fro the few hours before, setting things up. When the first families arrived, a sign on the driveway beckoned them to the back yard, and then onto the trail. A few were initially reluctant, so Dan beaming welcomed all and handed out small maglites so they could see their way in the darkened woods. He also reminded everyone to keep apart once on the trail. One of the families introduced themselves and asked if it was all right they had brought a guest. The woman's brother was a priest, visiting for the day. Dan was of course welcoming.
A few of the fathers groused how weird this was when all of a sudden music came from the speakers Dan had hooked up on his back deck. The sound was cranked up so all could hear, even deep in the forest. "Angels We Have Heard On High."
Then Dan handed Emily his portable microphone, and she counted down, "Three! Two! One!" With that she flipped the switch...and the forest was lit by thousands of white Christmas lights all about. You could hear gasps and shouts of joy echoing all about. People walked slowly along the now lit trail, craning their necks back and forth, taking in the magnificent scene. "It's so beautiful," one of the out-of-work mothers sobbed. Children were all beside themselves.
It took a while for the guests to make their way through the "winter wonderland", many taking pictures with their phones, and many traversing the trail second and third times. As people started to gather back in the yard, Emily asked Dan for the second set of envelopes he had prepared. He had gone to the bank earlier in the day, filling each of 18 envelopes with one thousand dollars, that Emily would anonymously leave in the mailboxes of those most in need. Just before she set out, Dan asked if she would be back. "Eventually," she said cryptically, "for the homecoming." Then she flung her arms around his neck and hugged Dan fiercely. Dan would have pursued it, but a neighbor came up just then, and Emily fled into the night. When Dan next turned, he could see her no more.
Anyway, Dan told the first neighbor, and the message was passed along, that on the folding tables set out beside the deck were hot chocolate, candy canes, and two holiday desserts Dan always baked, rum cake and ginger pastries known overseas as pfefferneusse. People were good about maintaining distance. The holiday joy was infectious. Laughter and excited chatter could be heard everywhere. When "Silent Night" came over the loudspeakers, the entire crowd, some 130 people, broke into spontaneous song. With the forest lighting the way, many tears could be seen.
The small family who had brought the priestly guest approached Dan. The cleric said, "Would you mind...it just seems so right...if I offered Mass here?" Dan was overjoyed, quickly set up a table and candles, procured a crucifix, pita bread and red wine from inside, and turned down the stereo as Father Tom began with the Sign of the Cross. Over a hundred people quietly knelt for what for many was the most meaningful liturgy they had ever experienced. Even the Rosenbergs from down the street told Dan how moved they were by it all.
After the liturgy, people of all sorts introduced themselves to Dan, thanked him, lauded his efforts. One neighbor told him, "You've made this so special for all of us. We'll never forget it!"
"No, I am the one who's been blessed," Dan said quietly. "I feel so...peaceful, like I haven't in a long time."
Of course those neighbors most in need did find balm for their souls this day, as well as balm for their physical well-being when they returned home to see balloons and ribbons festooning their mail boxes, which bore the shocking, anonymous, and well-received monetary gifts.
The celebration went on until after eleven, when people helped Dan clean and then drifted off, but not before promising to return and renew acquaintances.
Dan kept searching for Emily, but she was nowhere to be found. The last couple to take their leave came up and tearfully thanked Dan for all he had done. "We have not enjoyed Christmas in years," the man who looked worn beyond his years said. "Thank you, thank you so much!" And pandemic or not, he grasped Dan's hands in both of his and shook. The woman followed suit, hugging Dan dearly. Something about her looked familiar, but Dan couldn't place it.
As they turned to go, Dan asked, "By the way, who are you?"
"Oh," the woman said. "We live down the street at 52 Continental. We're the Collinses."
"Oh!" Dan cried out. "Your daughter is absolutely wonderful! I couldn't have done this without her! You must be so proud of Emily!" he beamed.
Mrs. Collins's eyes filled with tears, and Mr. Collins said, "You must be confusing us with someone else."
"No!" Dan said. "Your daughter Emily. We've become....well I guess you could say friends these last few weeks. But I don't see her now. She should have been back."
"Dan," Mr. Collins spoke quietly, "Emily died a long time ago, when she was seven. She had leukemia." Mrs. Collins quietly sobbed.
Dan fell back and grabbed a table for support. "Do you...do you...have a picture of your daughter?"
Mr. Collins said of course and he pulled out his wallet and offered it to Dan. Sure enough, smiling happily and looking right at Dan from the photograph...was Emily. Mrs. Collins, who had recovered said, amid sniffles, "If she was alive, she'd be..."
"Nineteen," Dan whispered, to the shocked couple. He looked carefully at them and put his arms gently around their shoulders. "I think we'd better talk." And he led them inside.
Five months later...
People outside were speaking in hushed tones about that wonderful Christmas, and what Dan had done. After that December day, neighbors kept coming back the rest of the season (Dan kept the lights up until the end of the Twelve Days). In fact, word traveled and people outside the neighborhood from far and wide came to see the spectacle. The common consensus was that it was the bright spot that had done so much to bring joy to so many that dreadful year. A number of the afflicted wondered where the generous stipend left in their mailboxes came from. Rumors abounded, some attributing it to Dan, but he held his peace. And of course the neighborhood became much more tightly knit thereafter. Several fun runs, pot luck suppers, even block parties ensued. One of the older residents commented, "It's like the fifties come alive again!"
Fortunately the horrid virus abated, thanks to the eventual development and distribution of vaccines, but it did take time. There were some changes to be sure, but slowly, the neighborhood, indeed the country, came back to a new normal.
Today these scattered mutterings could be heard. But the congregants were not here for the holidays (it was May, after all) or to re-live that one memorable Covid Christmas. This was a much more somber occasion.
It was sunny and delightful out, so Father Joe after donning his vestments waited outdoors for the group. While he looked up at the glories of creation, a little blonde girl chirped out, "Good morning, Father!"
"Why, good morning," the priest replied. "What brings you here?"
"I'm a friend of Dan's," she said.
Father Joe chuckled. "Aren't you a little young to be his friend?"
She got a serious look and said, "Living life to the fullest is not a matter of age."
The priest said that was true, and said he supposed she was going to attend the service.
"Not exactly," she said. "I'm here to bring Dan home."
The cleric again chuckled and said, "Isn't that what I'm supposed to do?"
She looked skyward a moment, then responded, "The Lord says you can help."
"Well thank you," he laughed.
She then walked up to Denise and Jason, Dan's children. Denise had a tissue and was wiping at her eyes. Her brother was consoling her, while her husband was keeping the little ones under control. "I'm very sorry for your loss," Emily said.
Denise, and Jason, were touched, so much so that Denise had to wipe at her eyes again. "You knew our father?" Jason asked.
"Oh yes, we're friends. Don't be too sad," Emily said. "Your loss is heaven's gain." Denise had to smile at that and thanked her for coming.
Father Joe watched the exchange and watched as the peculiar girl, there was something about her, made for the church entrance. He asked where she would be sitting. "With my parents," she replied nonchalantly, and walked down the aisle. The pastor saw her gently nudge her way in where the Collinses were sitting. He knew they had befriended Dan, but somehow had forgotten they had a daughter. He gave a small rap to his noggin. "I must be getting forgetful in my old age," he thought. His attention was diverted then when the hearse pulled up.
When the funeral home personnel were in place and the congregants all inside the church, the organist started up, and the priest and immediate family followed the casket into the church. Father Joe's attention was momentarily diverted as they processed down the aisle. There, in the second row, front right, sat the Collinses. No one visible was with them, however. But the priest did observe something strange. Mrs. Collins had her arm extended, as if wrapped around something, and she was making some gentle back and forth motion with her hand. It almost looked like she was rubbing at her sweater.
That's what it looked like to the priest, because despite being a good man, he did not yet have angel vision. What was really there was this. Emily was nestled into the crook of her mother's arm, and Mom was lightly caressing her invisible daughter's hair. Mrs. Collins leaned into her husband and whispered, "I'm not sad, for some reason I feel very happy." Her husband smiled and whispered that was because their friend Dan was indeed going to a better place. Mr. Collins looked up a moment, just past his wife and thought he saw something. He blinked and shook his head and when he looked again, there was nothing there. That is, nothing he could see. Despite his inability to see, right next to the woman he loved so dearly sat their daughter. And to Emily's right sat Dan and Keira, who held hands and smiled at each other and at Emily as the proceedings began.