CHALYBEATE, Ala. — The tears in the corner of Noe Guzman’s eyes carried so many questions and so much pain.
This is his first Christmas without his only daughter, 12-year-old Aurelia, a middle school student and the youngest of the 14 Lawrence County residents to die in the April 27 tornadoes.
“This was always a special time for her,” Noe said. “She loved Christmas. She loved decorating with her mother. We didn’t put up a tree this year. Nobody wanted to.”
The Guzman family is not alone this holiday season.
Christmas will be significantly different for the families of the 18 people who died in Lawrence and Limestone counties.
“None of us are really looking forward to Christmas,” said Carol Mayes, whose mother-in-law, Mary Mayes, died in the storm.
“You go through the motion for the kids, and we put up a tree for that reason. But the rock of the family is no longer with us. You just feel empty.”
Kim O’Leary, a counselor at Hospice of the Valley, has been talking with families who lost loved ones since the day after the tornadoes. She said it doesn’t matter when someone dies, the holidays are always difficult for survivors.
“We share so many things together during Christmas, and we want them to be there because of the memories,” O’Leary said. “It’s even more difficult when death is unexpected because not getting to say goodbye adds another layer.”
This Christmas has been a double-edge sword for the Guzmans because their daughter would have celebrated her 13th birthday today.
Aurelia got “double presents” each year, her daddy said proudly.
“She would say, ‘Daddy please!’ and he would let all the kids open Christmas presents on her birthday,” Carolyn Guzman said. “She had daddy wrapped around her little pinky.”
Noe smiled after Carolyn’s comment.
“That’s my little girl,” he said. “She always will be.”
The Guzmans left Monday for California, where they are meeting family for Christmas. Noe said his church friends plans to do something, meanwhile, to remember Aurelia’s birthday.
The Guzman boys, Dakota and Noe Jr., are dealing with their own holiday demons because of their sister’s death.
They don’t want to talk about Christmas, and their wish lists were one item each. Dakota, 15, found Aurelia under the family’s van April 27. He talked with her, then went to check on family members. When he returned, Aurelia was dead.
The day after Thanksgiving is usually when Dakota and Aurelia helped their mother decorate the Christmas tree.
“It wouldn’t have been the same, and I didn’t want to do it without her,” he said.
Dakota said he can’t stop thinking about last year’s Christmas when it snowed.
“We built a big snowman, and I spent so much time outside with her,” he said.
Dakota also has the pink journal — the last Christmas gift he gave his sister.
“I always gave her journals because she loved to write and draw,” he said.
The pink journal survived because it was in Aurelia’s book bag at Moulton Middle School.
“It was one of the first things I saw when we looked through her bag, and I carry it with me,” he said. “It gives me some comfort.”
About a mile from the Guzman home, where the Mayeses lost two family members, the family has rebuilt the store Mary Mayes operated.
“She would want us to do this, and I’m glad we were able to get it finished before Christmas,” Carol Mayes said.
James and Brandi Lipscomb are leasing the store.
In Mount Hope, where four people died, the community remembered J.W. Parker, Matthew Chase Adams, and Horace and Helen Smith during a candlelight vigil next to the post office.
“It’s been real hard,” said Cindy Flannigan, a niece of the Smiths.
The elderly couple didn’t do as much Christmas decorating as some in western Lawrence County because they didn’t have children. But they always shared a meal with family.
“We usually went to Mother’s, but we didn’t do that this year,” Flannigan said. “It would have been tough, so we ate the past Sunday at my brother’s home.”