GriefNet Library: Coping with Grief during Holidays

Christmas Spirit
by John M. Briley, Jr.

 

"Tis the season to be jolly!" Joy. Happiness. Shades of...death. The carol on the Boston radio station was an obscenity. Only part of Owen noticed the snow which fell silently to caress the earth; only part of him took dull note of the freezing night air which assaulted him through the yawning window. [God does not interfere; God does not intervene; God does not care.] He sighed in the midst of his thoughts. [A white Christmas -- Mary and Amy would have liked that. I always counted on them to give me the Christmas spirit.]

A new carol offered a change of pace: "Silent Night, Holy Night..." Across the street a last-minute shopper, his good humor awakened by the joy of the season, skidded home on snow made into dirty slush by the touch of the city. A warm apartment awaited him. Family awaited HIM.

Mer-r-ry Chr-rr-r-istmas!" Owen howled into the night, followed by an obscenity he screamed into the darkness while waving a bottle of whiskey in sarcastic salute. He cursed again as it slipped from his grip and spun with a crash to the pavement far below. Neighbors returning home looked up and frowned, but they didn't act surprised.

"...slee-eep in heavenly peace." The words knifed through Owen's booze-fogged psyche. Yes, it was a sign, a commandment. It was time for the "final sleep." Christmas, once the happiest time of his year, was now torture. The ghosts of Christmas Past had been clawing at his soul until it had no more life to give. Earth in reality is purgatory, he thought; and now he could understand those depressed souls who had embraced the "final solution." They simply had to flee the almost foul gaiety of the season. He found another near-empty bottle of whiskey and took a sloppy swig. [Best damn whiskey police disability can buy.] Bourbon sloshed onto his half-buttoned, filthy, plaid flannel shirt. Perversely reliving Christmas Eve a year ago, his mind chastised him: Why do you torture yourself, again?

**********************

"Watch it, she's going to jump!" warned the hollow voice of the bullhorn. Owen climbed out the window onto the icy sixth-floor ledge.

"That's right; don't come any closer or, or, I will jump!" "Jump! Go ahead and jump!" voices jeered from the street. "Too bad so few have gotten Christ's message," Owen thought. And on Christmas Eve, Too. God help us, every one.

"Don't you listen to them, Miss." Owen edged toward the girl. [Slowly, Owen, slowly.] "They don't really mean what they're saying, and that's a fact." The petite brunette shivered, unconvinced. Her lightweight blue jacket, no protection against the freezing Boston night air, underscored her vulnerability. Snow licked at the trembling young girl's pace face. She stared at the newcomer who had invaded her perch.

["She can't be much older than sixteen -- seventeen tops," thought Owen.] In the flashing neon light from a nearby hotel her face reflected both terror and determination. "Careful, Miss!"

While backing away from him, her foot slipped. She screamed and hugged the building. [Good, she still fears death.]

"You stay there, or I'll jump. Really. I'll jump!"

"Come on darlin'," Owen pleaded in theatrical Irish brogue. "Sure an' if I don't stop you, me wife will never forgive me, and that's a fact." [Ah, a shade of a smile?] More often than not Owen's unorthodox humor succeeded in stopping what his Precinct Captain called "jumpers."

"Why should you care? Why should anyone care? Even God doesn't care."

[Yes, about sixteen all right.] "He tell you that Himself, did He, Lass? Never believe that. What's the real problem? Cut your bridges behind you and can't go back to your parents, perhaps?"

"How...how did you know?" Flashing neon highlighted the puzzlement on her young brow.

[Pretty little thing. Long brown hair framed a dainty, alabaster face. The holly design on her red Christmas scarf belied her grief. Those green eyes will be devastating someday. But right now they are only windows to the pain of her youthful disillusionment.]

"Well, let's just say I've been up here before. You're what, sixteen?"

"Fifteen and a half-almost sixteen."

[She's listening now.] Wind howled in an icy blast. They both clung tighter to the building. "A bad night to commit suicide, eh lass? Look, I've been around long enough to learn a little something. So hear me out, all right?" The girl edged a little closer, her eyes challenging grudging assent.

[Aching for sympathy? No--empathy. She doesn't really want to jump.] "First, mind if I smoke my pipe?" Wide-eyed at the unexpected request, the girl nodded. Owen;s pipe--while difficult to light up on a windy ledge--projected Owen's gentle calmness. The girl paused, listened. "Okay, child. Look, I can't keep calling you 'child,' now can I? You must have a name. Mine's Owen. Not 'Office owen,' just Owen."

"My name's Laura. You have a family?" Laura's face looked wistful.

[Ah, an opening.] "Sure, Laura, Lass. And when you go home with me you'll meed my nine-year-old, Amy, and the War Department. (The kids Owen had saved usually ended up at his house for varying periods of time. Mary would have it no other way. "Owen's Orphans," the precinct fondly called them.)

"The...war department?!"

"My wife, Mary." Owen grinned. "Mind you, I don't tell her that."

"She's probably very nice," the girl said, her voice less strident.

"You're right there, Lass. Just a little joke. Er, you won't tell her I call her that?" Owen spiced his entreaty with exaggerated concern.

"I promise." Laura offered a flicker of a smile.

[Okay, Owen, Lad, here comes the difficult part.] "Speaking of family, why did you leave yours? Talk to me, Laura."

Hesitation gave way to the need for trust. The girl wanted to talk. A common story of family miscommunication and a lonely, vulnerable and abused runaway once again broke Owen's heart. After a half hour of gentle probing and empathy, Owen's expertise had turned the would-be jumper.

"I guess maybe if I gave Mom and Dad a chance. But I don't suppose..."

"Laura, Lass, they're waiting for your call. You will make their Christmas, and that's a fact. Another thing, :ass: We all learn from our mistakes. Don't turn against life because of a few rotten people. In the whole world there must be at least one or two decent folks, right?"

"You certainly are," Laura said softly.

"Another thing: Once I also thought life was written on rock, unchanging. But Laura, Lass, life always changes. And sooner or later it changes for the better. Develop any good purpose in life and you can't be unhappy, and that's a fact, too."

Laura examined Owen's eyes intently for a minute, and came to her decision. "Okay, you win," she said shyly. "How do we get off this ledge?"

"You take my hand and I get you over to the window.

"I can't reach you." With her mind changed, the trip back was harder. And the cynical discourse from the audience below didn't help.

"Don't panic!!" Owen edged his left foot toward her. "Just grab my hand and..." The icy ledge, weakened by the freezing weather, gave way with a jarring crack. As Owen windmilled, Laura grabbed at his hand--to save him. They both toppled. The sidewalk was six stories down.

As Owen fell, he maneuvered himself between the screaming girl and the up-rushing pavement. And he thought about the irony of how he had gotten into this mess:

**********************

On the way home to enjoy Christmas Eve with his family, he was stopped at the precinct desk. A young "jumper" was on an apartment ledge. And, as the Captain pointed out, Owen was the best at talking these kids down. When Owen phoned Mary the bad news, she had sighed, "Well, we'll leave the tree lights on for you. Wait. Amy wants to talk." Mary always understood--or at least acted as if she did, which was much the same. His little daughter's voice was breathless with excitement: "Daddy, leave the tree lights on for Santa, promise?" [Dammit, I was supposed to have had Christmas Eve off!]

************************

Suddenly he heard a splintering snap and an astounding pain knifed his back and right leg. Above him, a broken flag pole cartwheeled into the snowy darkness. Owen felt his body ripping through a green canopy and smashing to the sidewalk, the girl on top of him. His right leg was wrenched under him at an impossible angle, and he passed out.

"Officer Owen! Officer Owen!" Laura's voice lanced through his protective insensibility, bringing him painful wakefulness. He gritted his teeth. My God, the pain! AA red light was flashing, and a voice crackled over a radio. An ambulance.

"He's regaining consciousness." The concerned voice belonged to a young doctor with a blood-splattered white jacket. Whose blood?

"Officer, I'm going to give you something for pain." Owen felt a sharp jab in his arm.

"Please, can't I talk to him...thank him?" Laura's voice sounded weak. With effort, Owen raised his head and saw her by the ambulance door at the foot of his stretcher. A bloody bandage swathed her head.

"What happened to you, Lass?" He fought back pain and nausea.

"I'll be okay. I just banged my head. You protected me during the fall. Thank you! And I...won't ever try a stunt like that again."

"Phone your family, Child. Your family is everything."

"I'll call my family tonight. And I'll..." She grabbed her head and winced. "I'll...come and see you tomorrow. I promise. Thanks...for caring."

"That's the spirit, Child. I'll look forward to seeing you. And you'll meet my family. You'll see some real Christmas spirit then, and that's a fact."

Laura pulled herself into the ambulance and hugged Owen. He could feel hot tears on his face and could smell her perfume: "Midnight Cereus"? He remembered the fragrance from a vacation in Jamaica years ago.

"Who let her off the stretcher? Until we get a cranial CT scan, she stays immobilized. Cone on, Miss. It's to the hospital for you, too."

"Go with them, Laura. We can talk later. And Merry Christmas, Lass."

"Merry Christmas. Good-bye." Then she was gone. The medication induced sleep, and he gave in. His world blacked out.

A hospital paging system squawked in the background, making Owen aware that his hearing had returned before his vision. Memories of the night before -- or was it hours or days before? -- played through his mind like a crazily spliced film.

"Who's going to tell him?" It was the Captain's voice, and Cleary sounded upset. A voice Owen didn't recognize answered, "Well, I'll tell him about his leg. Are you sure he won't take a desk job?"

Cleary snorted. "You don't know Owen, Doc. He tried desk work once. Drove him nuts. He's best working the streets. Behind a desk? He'll fold."

Well, what about all the rest of it? Someone's got to tell him. Who's closest to him? After all, I'm not his regular physician." Owen tried to force his eyes open, tried to speak. Nothing.

"Look, Doc. You sure he's gotta be told? I mean,. as soon as possible? It couldn't wait a little bit?"

"Captain Cleary, you cannot withhold that kind of information, for whatever reason. He must be told. Dammit, I'm not happy about it either."

[Laura. Something has happened to Laura. That bloody bandage...]

"Then I suppose it'll be up to me. what a shock! First his leg, and then as if that weren't enough...and on Christmas Eve. The whole department knew and loved them both."

Eyes suddenly open, Owen spoke. "Both of who? What happened, Cleary?" Owen's racing mind outpaced his groggy voice.

"Easy, Owen."

"Captain, what's going on!" Owen tried to sit up. A burning pain chewed his right leg. When he regained consciousness he asked, "Cleary, where are Mary and Amy? Are they here yet? Have they been told? Be easy with them.

"Owen, I don't know how to tell you..."

"Cleary!"

"There was a terrible accident. Last night...an electrical short burned your tree; they your apartment. They...died."

"They...burned...to death?"

"They both died, but not by fire," the captain hurried on. "Smoke inhalation. Not much consolation, I know. But they died in their sleep..." The captain, eyes narrowed in concern, squeezed Owen's arm.

[Mary said she'd leave the tree lights on so that it 'would be nice' for me when I got home. It's my fault--God help me, it's my fault.]

For the rest of the day Owen didn't speak, didn't eat. Cleary gave him some time to grieve, and he returned later that evening. Finally Owen asked the captain, "What happened to the girl?" "What girl?"

"That girl on the ledge -- Laura. She said she'd drop by."

Cleary sighed and then said, "I don't know. She was taken to another hospital. Cerney, I think. It doesn't matter. She'll be okay, Owen."

"It matters to me. I'll call Carney Hospital."

"You rest. I'll call." Cleary picked up the princess phone. "Carney Hospital? Captain Cleary--3rd precinct. Sent you a kid last night. First name, Laura. Head trauma. Any word? Uh, huh. Okay, thanks. Sorry, Owen. Signed herself out. No forward address. But, don't worry. She'll be okay."

"But she promised she'd come see me. If it weren't for her...If I had been home..." Owen felt he was both the betrayed -- and the betrayer.

************************

Dragging his crippled leg,. Owen shuffled over to the bathroom of his dingy, tiny apartment. A full bottle of Jim Beam waited for him to finish his maudlin self-indulgence. With shaky hand, he groped for the bottle of sleeping pills in the pocket of his dirty shirt. Twenty or so tablets and a quart of whiskey should do it. As he wrestled with the top of the vial, the cap flew off and pills scattered all over the bathroom. Damned tamper-proof vials! When Owen slowly bent to pick them up, a pain seared his right leg. [The pain won't be bothering you much longer now, Lad.]

Owen put the last of the pills back into the vial and stared at his reflection in the mirror. "You look awful!" Red-tinged eyes, dirty and tousled hair -- uncut for months -- and a face which had been unshaven for weeks, made him look like a derelict. [Mary would be shocked.] He pushed the thought aside. [Doesn't make any difference anymore, does it?]

He grasped the whiskey bottle. [Well, Lad, I guess it's time.] From the radio in the living room he heard: "Have yourself a merry little Christmas; let your heart be light. From now on our troubles will be out of sight..." But just as he poured the blue sleeping pills into a shaking palm, the doorbell rang.

Startled, Owen fumbled the tablets into the vial and shoved the container back into his pocket. Hiding the Jim Beam in the bathtub, he jerked the shower curtain closed. With a metallic scrape, it unfolded to reveal cavorting dolphins and mermaids. [I got that curtain for Amy.] Limping painfully to the door, Owen wrestled with the lock and pulled it open. I'll get rid of this annoyance, fast. Instead, his jaw slacked.

"Hello, Owen. May I come in?" She looked exactly as she had a year ago: same green eyes, alabaster face, and long brown hair. Even the same colorful Christmas scarf. "Owen, I've been trying to find you. Your captain told me what happened, and I knew you'd need company this Christmas Eve. Here, I brought you a present." She showed him a wooden cane. It was unlike any he had ever seen. "It came from a branch beneath an ash tree in my grandmother's yard. I varnished it, put a rubber tip on it and..." She stopped and watched his reaction quizzically. "Please, it's for you."

The gnarled hilt of the left-handed cane fit his hand perfectly. Its length and heft were equally perfect. Its perfection radiated...warmth.

"What happened to you last Christmas, Laura? You promised. You promised..." Owen collapsed, sobbing. A child, seeking comfort. Laura knelt down and hugged him. Her cheek felt cool on his, and he could smell the remembered fragrance: "Midnight Cereus."

"Poor Owen. I'm here, now" I couldn't come to you last Christmas. Don't ask me why, but it was a good reason. I'm so sorry about Mary and Amy. They are in Good Hands now; but I imagine that's little comfort."

"Laura, Lass. It was my fault that they..."

"I know what you're thinking, Owen. But it wasn't your fault."

"Yes it was, if I..."

"If you had been home, you would have died with them. Is that why you feel guilty? Because you're alive and they're dead?"

"Something like that." He wiped his eyes with his sleeve. "I guess that doesn't make sense to anyone else."

The girl's calming presence, her serenity, broke down the emotional prison he'd been building for himself during the past year. Finally released, his speech was pressured: "The accident shouldn't have happened. They left the tree lights on for me; for me! And..."

"You would have left them on anyway. Little Amy begged you not to turn them off when you got home. And you promised not to. Remember?"

After a short silence, Owen said, "I'd forgotten about that."

"So the accident would have happened anyway. Now, would Mary and Amy be happy to see you like this?" Her eyes were stern, but loving.

"No. No they wouldn't." Owen gave a half sob, half sigh. "Mary would chew me out." Funny, he felt better. He actually felt better. Laura's touch, and her voice -- oddly mature for her age -- were soothing.

"Ad what's this I hear about your refusing to train police recruits?"

"I'm no good at desk jobs, Laura. Besides, the memory..."

"But Owen, Life is neither kind nor cruel. It just is. And now you can accept what is."

A great weight lifted off his heart, his very soul. "You know, Lass, you're right."

"So you have no reason to avoid life. Owen, you're the best. I know from firsthand experience. Maybe you now have physical limits, but you can train others to prevent suicide attempts. Use your gift. Give your gift. 'You cannot be unhappy if you have a purpose." You taught me that."

"I suppose..." Owen paused, unsure of himself. "Are you sure you're only, what, seventeen now?" This was not the same insecure girl he had saved.

"What would Mary expect of you?" Laura asked sternly.

"You're right. I guess I've been sort of wallowing in self-pity, huh?"

"'And that's a fact,' Owen. Well, I must leave now. Make us proud." She hugged him again, kissed him gently, and left. The door clicked shut.

Owen sat thinking. Make us proud? He pulled himself up and threw open the door. "Laura," he yelled into the empty hallway. Gone again. No, he'd find out where she lived from Captain Cleary when he paid a surprise visit to the precinct in the morning. Laughing and rubbing his hands in anticipation, Owen limped to the bathroom. Every valium tablet and every drop of booze went down the toilet. He then hobbled to the window and cried, "Merry Christmas!" And this time he meant it. On Christmas day, Owen bathed, shaved, and dressed neatly for the first time in months. [Odd, the leg doesn't hurt so much now.]

Captain Cleary bounded from behind his desk. "Lord be praised, it's Owen." Grinning as if he'd won the lottery, Cleary hugged Owen, then held him at a distance to look him over. "New cane, Owen? It's a dandy."

"Captain, that girl from last Christmas. Did she leave her address with you?" The war strength radiating from the cane dampened his anxiety.

"Who?"

"The girl whose fall I broke when I had my anatomy rearranged last Christmas Eve. She says she got my address from you yesterday."

"Yes, of course I remember. But for the girl to have come here - - that's impossible." Captain Cleary looked into Owen's eyes, seeking explanation.

Something didn't compute in Owen's mind. "Explain, Captain."

"After the accident, you had come out of six hours of surgery; and you had lost your wife and child. I just didn't have the heart to tell you."

"Tell me what, Captain?"

"Tell you that the girl had died of a brain hemorrhage on the way to the hospital." Owen stared, speechless.

"Look, Owen. Along with the leg you'd just lost, you'd lost your family in a fire and a job you loved. And for what? To save a girl who then died anyway. I couldn't tell you she had died, too. I felt you'd need to salvage something. So I faked a call in front of you. Said she'd disappeared."

"And I had thought..." [Wait! If Laura had died, how could she have...? And how had she known Amy's pleas: "Daddy leave the tree lights on for Santa, promise?" He had told no one. He had forgotten it himself. Of course! No wonder Laura knew of Mary and Amy's reaction to his recent behavior! There is no other possible answer.] Owen laughed.

"Owen, you okay?"

"Owen chuckled. "Captain, I've changed my mind. I'd like to return to work. Not behind a desk, mind you, but training a suicide prevention team."

"Say, that's grand, Owen. But what changed your mind?"

"Do you believe in angels, Captain? Well, an angel came to me last night and changed my mind. God cares, Captain. Maybe God can't intervene, but He does care. But man...man can intervene, Cleary. That's why I'm returning. And that," he added, looking upwards and winking, "is a fact."

The captain scratched his head as a carol on the radio played: "...for yonder breaks a new and glorious morn. Fall on your knees, Oh hear the angel voices..."

 


Reprinted with permission of the author, John M. Briley, Jr., who grants anyone the right to reprint this anywhere.


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