Bailey went to see Santa Claus on Tuesday night.
The 4-year-old girl had been excited all day, even though she had just seen Santa at her church preschool only the week before. It’s not like you can get too much Santa Claus this time of year, though.
She had posed for a photo with him that day, too — she had sat on one of his knees and her best friend, Haley, had perched on his other knee. (They had suspected at first that he might not be the real Santa, but when their teacher pulled on his beard he said "Ouch," so they knew he was real!)
Tuesday, Bailey’s mother dressed her up for her visit to the mall in Pensacola, south of where they lived. She would sit on his knee again, tell him what she wanted for Christmas, and have her picture taken once more.
That morning, she played with Haley at preschool — just the two of them, so much to the exclusion of other children that Haley’s mother noticed and actually wondered if they would always be such fast friends.
And then Bailey went off to see Santa Claus. Her dad met them there and stayed behind to do some Christmas shopping when Bailey and her mother headed home.
Wednesday morning, Haley’s mother took Haley to preschool only to find that the preschool was closed. The teachers spoke to the parents, and the children were sent home. The parents were not sure what to say.
It seems that, at about the same time Bailey was whispering her secret wishes to a right jolly old elf on Tuesday evening, a man was having another drink at a watering hole north of Pensacola. He’d been drinking since noon.
At about the time Bailey and her mom left the mall on their way north and home, the man left the bar, headed south. He drove southward in the northbound lanes of a divided highway. He did not have his headlights turned on. It was nighttime.
Bailey died when the man’s car struck her mother’s car.
So on Wednesday morning, Bailey’s mother was conscious and in fair condition in a Pensacola hospital. So was her 1-year-old sister, Abigail, who was also in the car.
And Haley’s mother was trying to figure out how to tell a 4-yearold that her best friend was dead and what that meant — how to keep Santa Claus out of it — how to get through the morning without just holding her daughter and crying and not ever leaving the house again.
Because it wasn’t just Santa Claus that Bailey went to see on Tuesday, and it was Bailey they never would see again.
(The preceding was my Undercurrents column for Dec. 19, 2004.)