Christmas and memories thereof are always a mixture of inspired joy and lingering sorrow for me. There are many reasons why both responses fit unyieldingly into the holiday equation but the following is one I will have to honor and meditate upon for the rest of my life:
If they, my niece April and her son Justin, had been victims of terrorism or the casualty of a war fought in the name of keeping the world safe for democracy, some measure of healing might have come more rapidly to the hearts of those left to grieve the destruction of their young lives. As it was, the private shock and public trauma of their deaths gave way to a chilled numbness as my family attempted to return to its daily routines, knowing that the word normal would never apply to us again.
We were all left, in the middle of November 2002, to cope with a gnawing disbelief in the police department’s rapid conclusions about the case and with the frightening implications of the possibility that hands other than April’s had caused her and her son’s deaths. Yet, frustration over the question of how and why April and Justin had died was less tormenting than the ceaseless agony of their absence, a peculiar thing like a lake once teeming with fish and flora suddenly scorched sterile by the detonation of a hydrogen bomb. In place of the once abundant life stretches a poisonous barrenness radiating despair beyond comprehension.
The Thanksgiving holiday arrived two weeks later and far too early for those of us still reeling from the mindblast of murder. It was difficult to think in terms of gratitude. It was not, however, difficult to embrace humility. We reminded ourselves that the year 2002 had not yet ended and time enough remained for additional sorrow.
April with son Justin.
Then it struck me that more than a murder had taken place in the case of April and Justin. A perverse form of robbery had also occurred. A mother had been robbed of her daughter and grandson. A young woman had been robbed of her hopes and dreams for a new beginning. A child had been robbed of all the glittering potentials of freshly unfolding life. These robberies, to me, were as viciously sad as the unexpected loss of life itself.
I suddenly became outraged at the thought that my nephew had been cheated out of what would have been his second Christmas. I decided that this was too unfair. To help balance the cruelty of the injustice, and to help maintain a spirit of celebration in his honor, during the second week of December I started looking for a live Christmas tree that I would name after him: Justin. I was surprised, however, to learn that many places were already sold out of Christmas trees and those that still had some charged $60 or more per tree, $30 more than my budget could afford.
Following a tip from a visiting homecare assistant who helped me in the care of my mother–April’s grandmother and Justin’s great grandmother WillieMae –I drove to the south side of Savannah and found for $24 a tree wrapped in mesh netting. The tag on the tree described it as a seven-foot-tall Douglas Fir, which meant it was at least a foot shorter than what I wanted but the fact that it was affordable convinced me to dismiss the height as insignificant. But once I got it home, I was stunned to see the top of the tree reached our nine-and-a-half-foot ceiling. I was further amazed when I cut the mesh netting from around it and the limbs unfolded to reveal thick lush green branches that slowly fanned out into one of the most spectacular Christmas trees I had ever seen. Its strong evergreen aroma filled the house like a whisper of grace seeping into and healing hidden wounds.
Nevertheless, Christmas was as solemn as I had thought it might be. My family did not gather at a single location as in previous years. Various members drifted sadly in and out of the house throughout the day as they came to wish my mother, the then 80-year-old matriarch of the family and progenitor of our five generations, a merry Christmas. They all noted the giant Christmas tree that I had named Justin and decorated with an abundance of large red bows and golden and silver tinsel that made the tree shine like a sunrise. For me, the tree became Justin himself and each morning I wished him a glorious holiday season just as every evening I wished him a peaceful night and promised to see him the next day. I acknowledged that I would soon have to let him go but for now insisted that he enjoy the holiday of which he had almost been robbed.
Normally, I take the Christmas tree down on New Year’s Day and I had bought a giant ten-foot plastic bag to dispose of this one, which I stopped calling Justin as I made a greater peace with the reality of his absence. The reality of his death. Still, something caused me to hesitate as I began to open the giant bag. It might have been the telephone call from Claudia in Philadelphia saying she had dreamed of holding Justin and woke up to the joy of feeling him repeatedly kiss her face, calling out "Ma-Ma, Ma-Ma," with no sense of pain or regret whatsoever. Or it might have been my own dream of meeting April outside a grocery store and weeping at the unexpected thrill of seeing her so beautiful and so alive, somewhat slimmer than she’d been in the material world, her face like that of a golden-hued Polynesian princess. Whatever it was, I let the Christmas tree remain and told myself I would take it down the next day.
A week later, on a Tuesday, I again told myself to take the tree down and stood in front of it to do so. Only I still could not. And I really didn’t know why. Although all nine-plus feet of it stood directly in front of me, it seemed at the same time like a vision hovering behind a veil that I was not supposed to disturb for any reason. So once more I left it alone, staring for hours at the multi-colored blinking lights and breathing the fresh perfume of the green branches, so abundant with life and vitality.
The next morning, as was my custom, I went through the house opening the curtains and blinds to let the morning sunlight shine in, starting with the windows in the kitchen at the back of the house then going to the living room up front and traveling in a loop to the dining room where the Christmas tree stood. When I opened the window blinds next to the Christmas tree, I jumped. What was I looking at?
There, protruding from the ends of the branches on the lower half of the tree, were tiny bright green blossoms like miniature lime-colored chrysanthemums. I looked around the room, as if suspecting someone of a perverse prank, because I had never seen blossoms on a Christmas tree before and had not known the trees could blossom. It was clear, just then, that they must blossom all the time growing in the wild but I had remained clueless for 45 years and was astonished to the point of fear to see it happen inside my home. For long seemingly endless minutes I stared at the bright green blossoms and gently touched some of them with the tips of my fingers. They felt like tiny clusters of feathers. Excited, I brought my mother in her wheelchair out of her room and rolled her close enough to see the blossoms.
"Oh my God," she said, "I’ve never seen that before."
And neither, evidently, had anyone else in our little corner of the world. For the next two weeks, as different people visited the house, I pointed to the miracle of the blossoming Christmas tree named Justin and asked if anyone had ever seen anything like it. They all answered "no," and stared with open mouths at the tiny blossoms of brilliant green wonder. The homecare assistants who came daily to help my mother prepare for the day suggested that I contact local television news stations and let them film a story about the amazing Christmas tree blossoms. For some reason, I didn’t feel like that would be appropriate, as if publicizing the event would somehow diminish its authenticity. But I did agree that something so rare should be documented in some way and got my oldest brother Wallace to take a variety of photographs–close-ups of the blossoms, long shots of the entire tree–with his digital camera.
Having studied for years the nature of exceptional occurrences sometimes referred to as omens or miracles, I knew such experiences were often difficult to communicate to others. They were, in fact, often impossible to do so without sounding like one was suffering from delusion or indulging too heavily in a favorite recreational substance. I was therefore mesmerized that something so visible and solid had manifested under my own roof and that every day throughout the rest of the month of January, visitors would discover it and reverently proclaim its numinous distinction.
from "Thorns of Sorrow and Blossoms of Grace"
The American Poet Who Went Home Again