What we saw in 2020: Grief, love and stirrings of hope

What we saw this year: Grief, love and stirrings of hope

The signs of the season were plentiful, just not the sort that one would expect

This has been the year of the endless Advent. Whether staying safe at home with family or venturing outdoors masked and socially distanced, we found ourselves waiting: for the coronavirus vaccine, a stimulus check, or just a sign of hope — which may be eternal but has proved elusive.

As the year brought many New Yorkers incalculable loss and grief, we approached a season usually focused on joy and family, hoping that the wait — and sorrow — might soon be over.

The signs of the season were plentiful, just not the sort that one would expect. Along commercial strips on Fordham Road in the Bronx, “For Rent” signs on empty storefronts were more common than glittery green-and-red holiday decorations on the street. The Salvation Army bell-ringers were out, although they had competition for mercy and money with weary-eyed men who pass the day panhandling. Streets normally bustling were empty, even during the so-called holiday rush.

Even old mainstays went dark and silent. Sure, the Christmas houses of Dyker Heights were still attracting visitors, but the northeast Bronx’s Garabedian house — famed for its display consisting of over-the-top tableaux of the Holy Family, assorted saints, Alvin and the Chipmunks, life-size celebrity mannequins and crystal chandeliers — was dark for the second year in a row (last year the family said they were unable to put up the display for health reasons). Their long overshadowed neighbors on Pelham Parkway picked up the slack — though not as extravagantly — the blinking lights and glowing inflatable Santas like a beacon.

This was the year we became contemplatives, looking at ourselves and our lives in search of meaning amid incalculable loss. The number of daily deaths in the city was staggering, but all it takes is for one to hit home to transform the dry abstraction of statistics into indelible grief.

A Year of Loss

My mother, Maria Lillian Rivas, came into this world in 1921, born to a struggling family of 13 children in Puerto Rico’s southwest coastal town of Cabo Rojo. Her parents and 10 of her siblings died by the time she was 6, her family cut down by the Spanish flu and the tuberculosis epidemic.

Lillian, as everyone called her, came to New York at 16, lured here by a brother who said she could go to school in the city. Instead, he put her to work as a live-in maid, throwing her out of the house — along with her wedding dress — on the day she wed Pedro Gonzalez Jr.

Despite the urban plagues that descended upon the South Bronx in the 1960s, my parents made sure their children went to school and were safe, even if their neighborhood wasn’t. My father died 40 years ago. My mother lived on her own until her body gave out on her and she had to move to a nursing home in Warrenton, Virginia, near some of her children and grandchildren.

A lifetime after she lost her family, a modern pandemic took her life. She tested positive for COVID in April, shortly after another resident. Her family, unable to visit, called her, though she tired easily. She was 98 when she died in early May.

She was buried two weeks later in the Bronx, her children staying in their cars about 100 feet away from her open grave. We reconvened after the service at a local strip mall and received a final bequest from her: Valencia cakes filled with pineapple and topped with an obscenely rich frosting.

A Season of Hope

This is the season we look for hope. Inside Our Lady of Lourdes Grotto in the Bronx, the faithful still sit and pray below a statue of the Virgin Mary. The statue, perched high in a niche, watches over supplicants who light candles and leave notes beseeching heavenly favors and wait.

Edwin Roman knows the anxiety of waiting with no relief in sight. He has held onto hope that Bianca, his one great love, would let him back into her life after she rebuffed his marriage proposal in 2016.

“When I first met her, she actually spoke to me, and I just fell in love with her,” said Roman, 47.

On the days that Roman, known by his nickname “Cuchillo” — Spanish for a knife — cannot find day work unloading trucks in Hunts Point, he panhandles on a corner under the Bruckner Expressway by Barretto Street, where he wrote on a pillar “CUCHILLO I LOVE — U — BIANCA. I STILL HAVE HEARTS IN MY EYES.”

Two Sundays ago, Roman’s vigil was rewarded. Bianca drove by that morning, stopped at the intersection, and chatted briefly with him.

“When I woke up I decided to take a walk and come here to panhandle,” he said. “I asked God, it would be nice if I could see Bianca before Christmas.”

She rolled down the window to say hi, and ask how he was doing.

“I told her Merry Christmas,” he said. “And that I still love her.”

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