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."