Dark side of the Holidays

Holiday Season can be a dark season for many.

While the Christmas Season was a joyous one for my brother and I growing up…. there were glimpses of how dark this season can be for many. In a big city such as New York, the underbelly is hard to see at times, especially when it’s easier to pretend it’s not there.

We were blessed as kids; The Season was filled with expectation, excitement, and magic.Family gatherings, bountiful food, and beautifully wrapped presents dominated the scene. I’m glad I have these precious memories and would not trade them for anything. We have written about these memories in various other posts.
It’s significant, that just this past Christmas week, Rob and I exchanged a few text messages talking about the fact that after all these years, both of us found ourselves listening to Sinatra’s Christmas Album; and, after all these years, the tears of memory still fall.

It was as we grew older and our vision expanded a bit to the world around us that we began to see just how hard this season could be for many.
A few prime examples come to mind.

It was Christmas Eve night. The family was gathering at our apartment on 17th street for our traditional celebration. Mom was home , working furiously over the pastas, the sauces, the fish, the desserts. The aromas in that apartment were to die for. I forget the year, it’s unimportant. Robert and I were not living at home any longer, both starting our own lives, but again, that’s unimportant. For some reason , on this Christmas Eve, he and I decided to meet for a drink or two before joining the rest of the family for dinner. It must have been around 5:30PM and the city Christmas lights already dominated the darkened sky. I don’t even remember exactly where we decided to go. A small neighborhood bar somewhere around 18th street and 8th ave comes to mind, but again, unimportant .

We met and were in excellent spirits looking forward to the evening ahead. Even when we had “grown up”, Christmas Eve was still a big deal.
We ordered shots of Wild Turkey… I remember that part well. We laughed and joked about what family member may find themselves the center of attention that night.

Christmas music played on the “Jute  Box”. We ordered a second shot and figured we had better get going; we didn’t need to get Dad pissed off at us for stepping outside of the traditional bounds. Then WE would be THAT family member!

As we walked out of the bar into the cold, holiday air, we noticed a table in a corner. Sitting at the table was a woman alone, sipping on a drink. It looked like a gin and tonic. She was not old, and was not homeless. She was not waiting for anyone…. we could just tell that . Her eyes had a lost, blank look. Not from too much alcohol or any drugs; probably just from life. And she was alone…. on Christmas Eve. While others were with family and friends or on their way there, she was alone. Our mood changed as we walked by. I think we tried smiling at her. She just looked at us with those blank eyes. I have never forgotten that moment or that woman. I pray I never do. I don’t want to forget to look for those that are alone. It freakin kills me.

Second memory: the first Christmas after Mom had passed. She had fought a long , tough battle with Cancer before succumbing in the Spring  of that year. This Christmas was going to be brutal, especially for our Dad. His world revolved around mom. She was his everything. She made Christmas special and her personality could be felt everywhere. He so looked forward to Christmas with Mom, especially Christmas Eve; and this year she was gone.

He made a gallant attempt to have the family gathering, saying she would want us to carry on. Everything went well until after dinner, when the impact of her being gone hit him.He disappeared into the bedroom they had shared for so many years and the sound that came from it didn’t even sound human. He wailed and cried in a way we had never heard. He called her name. The  anguish he was feeling was unbearable…. for him and us.

I’ll never forget that sound. In a way, I don’t want too…. because I know now what a human being sounds like who has lost a major part, the most important part of their life. I honestly pray I never experience that.

Final Memory; Christmas Eve night and I was hurrying down 8th ave to get to the apartment before everyone else got there . I was coming directly from work. Back in the day, 8th ave around Times Square  not the best neighborhood . Prostitutes, drugs  and any other bad thing one desired could be found there. It was through this area that I hurried to get to my perfect Christmas Eve celebration . That’s all I thought about; the fun that awaited.

As I crossed 41st, a dark car pulled up along side of me. The front and back windows were rolled down and I could see a large , nasty looking buy behind the wheel. Out of the back window, a young girls face appeared. She was attractive, but with too much make-up and she looked tired.

“Hey, good looking”, she cooed,”wanna Party? I’ll show you a good time”..

I just stared for a moment before awkwardly shaking my head “no” and saying something stupid like “I was on my way to my parents house.” The guy in the front seat called me “ a fag”, and told me to “go f myself” .

The young girls face disappeared into the darkness of the backseat.
I just stood  there for a moment as the car drove away. I could not stop seeing her face. She looked so young, even childlike. As I hurried on to my celebration, I could not get that face out of my mind. How wonderful was her Christmas Eve going to be?  As we enjoyed dinner and exchanged gifts in the warmth and safety of our apartment ….. I thought about that little girl….

So, I guess the moral of these memories for me is to realize the season can be very, very hard for many. Some are alone, with nowhere to go, some are in a deep mourning that can be ripping their hearts out, some can be abused and violated.

This does not dilute the joy of what we celebrate…. but perhaps it can help us take a second look around: Maybe notice the one hurting and maybe, even for a moment, being the lighthouse that God intended us to be. 

Don Ortolano

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