I used to drive an ambulance, and we always drew straws for Christmas duty; I drew short twice. Terrible accidents occur around the holidays. There’s lots of drunk driving, but you also see relapses, suicides, overdoses, domestic abuse. We tried to counter the gloom with small gestures. EMTs would wear Santa hats. The crew chiefs would wire wreaths to the ambulances’ grills (I used to imagine rear-ending someone with two tons of cheer). On Christmas Eve the crew roasted a turkey in the kitchenette's oven. But then a call would come in, 10 minutes before midnight, and it would be an old man, alone in his house, who fractured his ankle going down the basement stairs. The house would be dark. Neighbors would come out when they saw the flashing lights. Before breaking the door in, the police officer at the scene would ask if anyone had a spare set of keys; they didn’t; we didn’t even know someone lived there.
This year my wife’s and my Christmas tree is a six-foot Douglas Fir I bought off a sidewalk salesman from Vermont. Every New York corner features racks of trees in December: Vendors commute down from Quebec and New England after Thanksgiving and set up commando holiday posts from Coney Island to the Bronx. With all the trees lined up, the encampments resemble missile silos.
In addition to wreaths, garlands, and syrup, my tree man was selling a barn. The flyer showed a traditional red New England barn, sitting on a few acres deep in the woods against a hill. I carried my tree home thinking about leaving Brooklyn to grow Christmas trees in Vermontoddly enough an occupation shared by one of the characters in a novel I’m working on. But a few minutes later the fancy passed; my wife is a warm-weather breed, I don’t even like Vermont, and the character in the book is an asshole.
Being a cook, at night I’ve twice baked cookies and then sent them all to my wife’s office the next morning. The shopping’s almost done, our plane tickets are purchased. Tonight I’ll burn eight custom CDs for half a dozen relatives, and then tomorrow there’s the office holiday party, and soon afterwards a Christmas dinner with my family, and then after that
This year I can’t get it over with soon enough. There’s too much work and too many deadlines, and all this extra workthis Yuletide battle campaignis getting in the way. My nerves are frayed. I buy a carton of eggnog, drink half of it and feel sick to my stomach, then throw it away. Late at night one evening I bully my wife into decorating the tree just after she walks in from a 13-hour workday. I’ve become a Grinch, though I believe a few of my complaints are justified. Watching holiday commercials on TV, haven’t we all bought enough electric shavers?
Then bad news arrives about a friend’s death and I’m ready to fast-forward to April.
I used to have a Christmas problem. Around Thanksgiving I’d start having difficulty falling asleep I was so excited. Even into college, I’d need some sort of pacifier to knock me out on Christmas Eve: first Tintin books, later Scotch. I remember always looking forward to December 13th because then the 12 Days of Christmas became literal. Our family had reels of holiday traditions and I was a precocious stickler on making sure they were properly observed.
Now married, my wife and I have started making our own traditions, but they’re young and slightly hollow. This year Christmas seems empty. The commercial aspects are repulsive to me, the Christian ceremonies are alien. I’m ready to disappear off the grid, except I miss what I had as a child, even if it was only frosting.
Re-reading that paragraph, I wonder, maybe I’m not in touch yet with the bad news.
Last Sunday I joined my wife and a friend to see the Alvin Ailey Dance Company at City Center. The friend had never seen Ailey perform. She was shivering with anticipation. My wife and I have seen them every December for three years in a row and it’s probably our best new tradition. The choreography has nothing to do with Christmas or Hanukah, but by virtue of scheduling, it’s a holiday treat.
The evening’s bill included Caught, performed by Clifton Brown. Caught is a David Parsons piece featuring a single dancer and two strobe lights. The stage is black except when the lights explode at intervals to catch the dancer in mid-air; with precisely timed leaps, he’s able to appear like he’s floating. I’ve seen it three times with Ailey and I still laugh with astonishment. Our friend couldn’t stop saying, Oh my God, and then we decided not to talk about it, because it’s one of those things that’s ruined when you put it into words.
Writing a letter of condolences last night, I couldn’t figure out what to say. Words didn’t connect for me like they normally do; I tried to grasp whatever I was feeling and couldn’t find it.
There’s a terrific joke James Thurber wrote in a letter to TIME after they ran an article about him filled with mistakes: This is a little like finding out that the injury you suffered in the Cornell-Pennsylvania game was actually syphilis.
I don’t understand how death affects me. I’ll be humming along working, calm and steady, and then suddenly plunge. Watching Buster Keaton, I knew why all the jokes and goofs were funny, but I didn’t laughI wasn’t able to receive them. Christmas is all around me, but it takes a dancer magically flying through the air to make me feel like a kid again.
In another letter, this time addressed to a friend whose child had died, Thurber wrote, There is and will be no day or hour of our life that you cannot call on us for anything whenever you feel that you want to. You are precious and important to Helen and me. I know that the four of us belong to those that stick through everything. You have our everlasting love.
I clipped that out when I read it a few years ago in a newspaper. I looked it up again in my files last night because I have a bad tendency to bury any feelings of anger or sadness, which are grief’s components, plus love.
Rest in peace, Leslie.