It came just the same

I spent this past weekend in Chicago visiting my family before the big rush of holiday airport traffic, which gives me severe agita. My family is blessed to have my three-year-old nephew Declan, the most charming rascal you’ll ever meet, with a glint the size of Texas in his eye. “Thanks,” is how he replies when he’s told that he’s cute. “I know,” is how he replies when he’s told that he’s funny.

Declan and I settled down on the couch to read his holiday favorite, The Grinch Who Stole Christmas. I got through the whole book, performing goofy voices for him at his insistence, and then I came to a line that I just couldn’t get out without my voice cracking:

Somehow or other, it came just the same!

The reason why this line in a children’s book makes me stop cold has little to do with the Grinch, himself. On the morning of September 11, 2001, I was standing at the corner of 29th and Fifth Avenue, surrounded by co-workers. I’d gotten up late for work that day and was not only annoyed with myself, but annoyed with whatever craziness was going on in the city as I trudged, head down, toward my office near the Empire State Building. In 20o1 I didn’t own a cell phone yet, and hadn’t bothered turning on my television set that morning in my haste to get to work. I heard sirens and saw people rushing around, some standing on corners, pointing and gawking, but I had no idea that the World Trade Center had been attacked. After a summer of consistent tenement fires in my neighborhood and construction accidents across the city, I just assumed that the usual urban nonsense was to blame.

I didn’t have the slightest clue what was happening until my walk from the East Village brought me to the top of Madison Square Park, where the National Guard had cut off access to anyone trying to go further north on Fifth Avenue. Several of my co-workers, banished from our office building, were lingering there, not sure whether to walk home or stick around. Cabs had pulled over on both sides of the street, and cabbies leaned out of the open doors of their vehicles blasting news radio. It was then that I finally turned downtown and saw smoke billowing from the towers. My co-workers informed me of what had happened, or at least what little they had been able to piece together. A plane had hit. No one knew what was going on. Everyone was making sarcastic assumptions about how dang long it would take to fix the building, how subway service would be messed up. It hadn’t occurred to any of us that there had been casualties.

And then, much to the horror of the thousands of people who’d been ambling around at the little intersection where we’d been collecting, the first tower fell as we helplessly watched.

Three months after that horrible day (three months that were filled, in New York, with the inescapable stench of burning jet fuel, tattered photographs of the lost taped to buildings by loved ones, and in my own personal case, a dangerous case of strep throat that had resulted in a brief stay at the hospital), I was really not in the Christmas spirit. I was daily waffling through a full range of emotions, as I think a lot of city dwellers were that year. On a walk past the holiday windows at Lord & Taylor, my attention was caught by robotic models in a diorama spinning to the tune of  “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” and I burst into such a violent torrent of misery for families that had lost someone in the tragedy that I gave up on my errand (I’d been on my way to buy tickets to see Cynthia Nixon in The Women on Broadway) and walked home for the afternoon to sit alone in the dark.

And that year, my wonderful friend Paul, a talented artist who had made a habit of sending hand-illustrated Christmas cards every year, sent a simple card with that line from the Grinch:

Somehow or other, it came just the same!

Despite the fact that no one in the city was feeling festive, the holiday arrived.  Despite all that had happened, it came just the same. And that year, Christmas gave us a reason to be especially thankful for our lives, our safety, our families, our jobs. As a city, in the months between September and December, we had pulled together. We had witnessed something unspeakably awful in each other’s company. We had hugged strangers in the street. We had shed tears over people we’d never met. We’d donated blood for survivors who never arrived in emergency rooms. We shook the hands of the men and women in the National Guard who arrived in tanks to protect our neighborhoods, who gave us a sense of security that we desperately needed even if the  actual danger had passed.  Paul’s card had been an emphatic reminder that even though we weren’t ready for Christmas, there was no avoiding it. It was time to start healing.

Even now, twelve years later, the simple line of that children’s book for me carries with it a profundity that surpasses a statement on materialism. Christmas comes once a year as a gentle reminder to look around, be grateful for our lives, and to take the time to  enjoy them. I may never again read all the way through The Grinch without my throat closing up, and I’m not sure that I’d ever want to, because Christmas for me is a time of peaceful remembrance. If you have a three-year-old in your life this holiday season, spend half an hour with him or her and read a book together. The time you spend with him or her is worth far more than any gift you could buy.

Published by zoe aarsen

i am an illustrator, a cat herder and an all-around troublemaker residing in los angeles. i write and read stories about scary things.

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