A thrill of hope. The snow made today the kind of December day a Southerner always wished for as a child, but almost never got. It was especially wonderful after the sun went down and the streetlights went on, causing the snow to appear to glow. We went over to an a cappella concert at Battery Park tonight, close to Ground Zero, a little neighborhood kind of thing. We wanted to hear the Roches — sisters Maggie, Suzzy and Terre — perform Christmas music. Their fantastic Christmas album is long out of print (you can order it if you follow the link), but it is a gem of Mrs. D’s and my teenage years, so the prospect of hearing them was a real New York treat. So after we came in from Brooklyn on the subway, we stopped by Ground Zero, to say a prayer. You might remember the Brooks Brothers store across from the south tower; on 9/11, it served as a makeshift morgue. Rescuers stacked recovered body parts in its aisles. Tonight, though, the store windows were filled with red ribbons, greenery and Christmas merchandise, bathed in warm light. I tell you, it almost made me weep to see that mundane resurrection. I stood across the street, at the fence ringing the site, and noticed the large steel-beam cross on its pedestal, its arms holding up a thin frosting of snow. Just beyond it, someone had put up a huge Christmas tree. Evergreen. Life.
I turned away and walked back to where my wife and three-year-old son were standing. A man in a trenchcoat walked off making some kind of noise. Julie pointed to him. ‘Did you hear him?’ she asked. No, I hadn’t. ‘He was a businessman, I think, and he was singing Ave Maria at the top of his lungs as he passed the site.’
Over at Battery Park, on the banks of the Hudson River, the Roches had just begun Handel’s ‘Hallelujah Chorus’ in three-part harmony as we walked up. We got hot chocolate and Christmas cookies, and stood under snow-laden trees listening to these sisters sing the most beautiful versions of sacred and secular carols I’ve heard in ages. The snow was still falling on the dark waves of the Hudson, and my boy told me he wanted to cross over to Jersey. “That’s where Edison lives,” he said.
But we stood in the snow with the neighborhood folks, listening to the music, with hearts full of gratitude for this city in our place in it. A little over a year ago, on that day, this neighborhood was covered with grey ash, and choked by acrid smoke from the inferno a few blocks away. Tonight, though, everything was frosted white by the snow, clean and deep and pure. Watching the bundled-up children laughing and eating peppermint canes and throwing snowballs at each other, I thought about how terrified they must have been on 9/11, and wondered if they and their parents ever thought a night so serene and joyous as this one would ever come to their neighborhood again.
As the sisters sang, I noticed an older man, maybe a businessman, attending an older woman in a wheelchair. She must have been his wife. She was wrapped snugly in a grey shawl, her thin face swaddled by a red scarf. Her face looked so forlorn and expressionless, I thought she must be depressed. Then he brought her a Christmas cookie, and she brought her right hand out from under the shawl to take it. Her hand shook violently, and she labored to bring the cookie to her mouth. Parkinson’s. This would account for the frozen expression on her face.
From that moment, it was hard to take my eyes off the couple. The old man was so tender with his wife, fussing to see that she had what she needed, that she was warm, that she felt the touch of his hand. When the Roches began to sing O Holy Night, the old man bended his knee in the snow, placed his face on his wife’s shoulder, and softly sang the words to her. His bright eyes brimmed with love and mercy, hers stared into the distance. ‘O night! O night divine!’
There is not enough evil in the world to extinguish the good in the hearts of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.