Death, Hope and Happy Holidays

Story & photos by Brian Smith
A few hours earlier they walked slowly through our neighborhood, Mama pushing Rickie in a stroller while clutching baby Zuzu tight to her breast, humming a tender lullaby, a canciones de cuna. The song drifts, I hear it almost a block away before they come into my view. Eight-year-old Reece astride, stepping aimlessly in flip-flops, a kid of curious disruption now quiet, I can almost see his mind gathering steam off things around him, the spiky rock formations and winter blooms of desert flora, a dead lizard.

A few hours later, the children and the Mama are asleep in the house, the four heartbeats and tender exhales. It is a dead quiet, dark December night out on our patio and, whatever little orchestrations of the evening get clouded in sadness. Those moments when fragility of being here at all haunts, and soon bites you on the ass. The moments keep you frozen, nice and chilly and about dead, the slab next to the one of your dreams of dying. Some recalled euphoria lifts for a moment, the flicker of woolly Christmas lights camouflaged by palo verde trees in the distance, my daughter’s red Radio Flyer trike parked at my knees, gentle pings of the wind chime and swish of the giant eucalyptus tree in the moon-cast shadows.

The old bluebird of depression, my cohort since early childhood, hangs around in the back of the head lifting weights in all the sweet, tender and good moments, always there, keeping strong, threatening the sickening squawks and flaps. When he comes alive, he inevitably cancels out whole days and even weeks, a formidable inertia. You can have everything but the bluebird tricks you into thinking it’s nothing.

I know well the couches of mind scholars, the prescribed pills, have considered electroconvulsive (shock) therapy, but can never go back to the liquor stores and street scores. Children push worst options off the table, as an old soul brother with kids would always tell me, before he died too young around this time last year of an unexpected ailment.

What better lazy, temporary remedy than a phone screen, so easy to indulge the magnetic circular sadness or the ugliness of the cultural milieu. It all curves in on itself. I’d been following Tucson news reports of a 6-year-old girl, Emory Conway, who got hit by a pickup truck crossing Fort Lowell Road. She died shortly after in the hospital. It was one of those heart-free, hastily pieced together news items offering nothing of the essence of the girl. Just her name and that she was dead. There was nothing to decipher, yet everything left to imagine, the between-the-lines: Did she have a mother and father who loved her, did she dance, do her favorite songs live in worlds involving panda bears and unicorns, did she collect dead butterflies in a wooden box? What about her friends at school and the other little lives growing beside her. I choose to believe she was loved, and somewhere folks are devastated.

I imagine the girl estimating her time to dart across the street, her little growing bones crushed against rushing metal. I know too well how children fly at unexpected moments, foreshadowing, or initiating, horrific accidents, and I don’t know any of the circumstances with this young girl, but for the love of whatever God, couldn’t an older person have piloted her across a busy street?

This all on the heels of the high-school shooting outside Detroit, teen Ethan Crumbley murdering kids. I lived walking distance from that old Albert Kahn building in Detroit where the parents, Jennifer and James Crumbley, were captured hiding from cops. It’s a block or two from the Detroit River, the other side of which is Windsor, Canada. I had a friend who once rowed the few hundred yards to the Canadian shore in a small boat. So, mom and dad wouldn’t have been allowed in Canada legally without proof of vaccination, or if wanted by police. They would have been forced to enter—as one Facebook friend points out—as undocumented immigrants; what a right-wing-nationalist karma bitch.

Those wretched Crumbley parents. The deadbeat dad and Karen mom (read the worshipful gun-loving valentines to her personal messiah Trump) and their macho social-media swagger, which involved the semiautomatic murder weapon Christmas gift they purchased for their son. They showed no remorse for the dead children, crying instead for their own culpability.

Along the lines of Crumbley-class parenting, I scroll further and see “congresswoman” Lauren Boebert revealing her patented outhouse-quality humanity in a holiday pic depicting her children as posable MAGA action figures, wielding assault rifles around a Christmas tree. Yeah, kinda what Jesus had in mind for a B-day celebration.

Is it any wonder? And I can only wish well one of those like-minded true patriots for recently infecting my family with COVID.

The bluebird flaps to the surface. In this moment, I’m overwhelmed, guts hiccup indecipherable sadnesses, and all I can do is weep. I want to head in and hug my children, and dream of them flying into better worlds where they can forever remain immune to any desolate suspensions of their impending selves.

The little bluebird does not live in Mama’s head. She does not move in what can feel like a dispirited twilight of pharmaceutical waketime, as if she lived a whole life minus the great abstract aloneness and the terrors, which is not at all the case. She’ll goes lengths to address specific kindnesses this month, which feels more and more like a bubble in the world. She’ll pull from other beliefs between us for the holidays, a Hanukkah menorah and nights of games and gifts and little teachings, Kwanzaa and winter solstice, leanings toward a Bodhisattva, and a live Christmas tree, alongside Alvin & the Chipmunks Christmas tunes and “I Have a Little Dreidel,” which log into my brain; kitsch and a kind of spirituality meet to simply celebrate light in darkness, and acceptance, and how grateful she is that we are alive and well. How kindness doesn’t belong in a bubble.

My work now is to hang the Christmas lights and finish assembling and plug in the light-up Minnie Mouse with the tilted green stocking, which still sticks headless out of its box in our driveway, bemusing the children. I will force myself to love every second of it, that light, because I know these are the days and the nights. And two-year-old Rickie Rose will see her lighted world and run and yelp, “papa, papa!” ■


Brian Smith's collection of essays and stories, Tucson Salvage: Tales and Recollections of La Frontera, based on this column, is available now on Eyewear Press UK. Buy the collection in Tucson at Antigone Books, 411 N. Fourth Ave.

Comments (0)

Add a comment

Add a Comment