For Gaye Posey of Brookline and Marilyn Freund of Allentown, last Christmas was miserable.
That morning, Mrs. Posey and her family gathered around a Christmas tree decorated by her husband, James Posey. They unwrapped presents he bought them weeks before.
Mr. Posey wasn't there. He had died in a car crash three days earlier. His family exchanged memories of him, crying and laughing.
"We just made it happen. It was rough, but we made it through," Mrs. Posey said.
Two miles away, Mrs. Freund had a Christmas dinner with her daughters and grandchildren. The adults cried, leaving the grandchildren confused. They expected a joyous holiday.
Mrs. Freund's son, Robert, wasn't there. He was in the county jail, awaiting charges of driving under the influence and homicide by vehicle, listening to Christmas songs playing on a radio outside his cell.
The fates of these families collided on the night of Dec. 22. Mr. Posey, 60, was driving his daughter, Nia, 11, and two nieces home for a sleepover when Mr. Freund's Pontiac jumped over the median on Saw Mill Run Boulevard and smashed into him head-on, crumpling his engine into a dense knot of jagged metal. A third car crashed into the rear of Mr. Posey's Toyota Highlander.
Police say that Mr. Freund, 21, was speeding and drunk -- mumbling, smelling of alcohol, his eyes glassy. A breath test logged his blood alcohol content at around 0.28 percent, more than three times Pennsylvania's limit.
He walked away with a minor head injury. The three girls went to the hospital with bruises and cuts. Mr. Posey died instantly, his insides torn up in the crash.
In the months since then, Mr. Posey's death has sent a shock wave of pain through the Posey family, the Freund family and the communities around them.
Mrs. Freund hasn't been able to sit through a church service without crying since the crash. She's tormented by Mr. Posey's death and the dread of her son going to prison.
"This is like a very bad nightmare and I can't wake up," she said.
For Mrs. Posey, the emotional wound is still raw. The dream she shared with her husband -- to retire in a few years, spend time with their grandchildren and enjoy a cruise every once in a while -- is gone.
Her old dream has been replaced by a new one, to become an activist in the local unit of Mothers Against Drunk Driving. She hopes that sharing her husband's story will prevent other tragedies.
"In order for my husband's death to be valid, some change has to result," she said. "If we can deter one person from doing to a family what he's done to us, then we've won."
He was Mr. Ribbs
Many Pittsburghers knew Mr. Posey better as "Mr. Ribbs," the name of his barbecue restaurant. He settled on Fifth Avenue in the Uptown neighborhood, a couple blocks from today's Consol Energy Center, around 1994.
His ribs -- lightly crisped on the outside, juicy inside, with a sweet sauce that had a little bit of a kick -- attracted a cohort of devoted customers. The tiny restaurant was always crowded at dinnertime, with kids running around, R&B music playing from a boombox, and a giant fan struggling to push barbecue smoke outside. Many of the customers became close friends with Mr. Posey, coming to the restaurant for his company as well as the food.
"It was like family. It was like home," said Donna Stubblefield, who liked the ribs so much she had them shipped on dry ice to Charlotte, N.C., after she moved there in 2005.
Mr. Posey learned to cook during his childhood in Pensacola, Fla. Growing up in a poor black family in the South in the 1950s, he didn't have an easy youth. His family moved around a lot, family members say. When he was 14, he and his two brothers and two sisters moved in with their aunt and uncle in New Castle.
"He was the peacemaker of the family. He never made any waves," his cousin, Anita Farrish, said. "The way he was commanded the respect of his siblings, and that followed him into adulthood. He was the one they looked up to. When they needed help, they went to him."
Because of the poor schools in Pensacola, Mr. Posey never learned to read or write well. He wanted a better education for his children, Mrs. Posey said. That's why he was an engaged parent at Brookline Elementary School, going to PTA meetings and cooking ribs for the school's annual Fun Day.
His childhood also made him yearn for a stable family life. In 1980, that led him and Mrs. Posey to buy their home on Woodward Avenue in Brookline, where they raised two children.
"We found a house and he said, 'We're gonna die here. I'm not moving to another place,' " Mrs. Posey said.
Since Mr. Posey died, his family has been overcome by feelings of anger, shock and powerlessness. His daughter, Tianna, 38, still can't return to the apartment where she was sleeping when her cousin knocked on the window with news of the crash. She goes crazy there, wondering if there will be another knock, another family member dead.
"It's like someone sucker-punched you, knocked the wind out, when you put the key in the door," she said.
For Mrs. Posey, who works as a shipping coordinator at Ashland Inc., her husband's death has removed a restraint on her personality. When someone wrongs her, she has a tendency to be unforgiving, while Mr. Posey had a generous view of others. He would urge her to let things go, and she would tell him to be more cautious of people.
Mr. Posey's kind nature was one of the reasons she married him. He was the only guy laid-back enough to put up with her, she said. They expressed their personality differences through playful banter.
Their marriage wasn't perfect; they had a few difficult times. But they worked together to fix it.
"When it got messy in the center of our world, we both picked up brooms and cleaned it up," Mrs. Posey said. "We loved each other enough to know that neither of us were perfect, but we were perfect for each other."
Robert Freund's burden
Mrs. Posey knows what her husband would say about Robert Freund. He would tell her to forgive him.
"He would say, 'Babe, he didn't mean to do that. Even though he devastated our family, leave him alone,' " she said.
Mrs. Posey has complicated feelings about Mr. Freund. She sees him as a symptom of our society's drunken driving problem. She also pities him for having to carry the burden of taking someone's life.
But she won't leave him alone. She wants him to get the longest possible prison sentence.
"I'm one of those bullies that stays to herself," she said. "I don't cause grief for anyone, ever. But if you step on my foot, I'll take you down. And he stepped on my foot."
The Poseys and the Freunds have been in the same room at two of Mr. Freund's court dates. Some of the Poseys felt that the Freunds were cold toward them, refusing to acknowledge them.
For Mrs. Freund, being in that courtroom was an ordeal. It was hard for her to see the Poseys. She isn't sure how to act around them.
"I don't know what they think of us and our son," Mrs. Freund said. "I don't want them to think that Bobby's a really bad person."
Robert Freund -- his family calls him Bobby -- grew up in Allentown, where he has deep roots. His parents grew up seven houses apart there. During his childhood, he developed a close-knit group of four friends in the neighborhood that stays with him.
As a kid, he developed a love of cars while helping his father, a mechanic. He counted down the days until he could get a driver's license, and when he graduated from Carrick High School in 2010, he used his savings to buy the 1998 Pontiac Bonneville he was driving in the crash. He fixed it up with a new front end cover, tires and wheels, and he was fastidious about keeping it clean.
When he was younger, Mr. Freund wanted to be a fireman. He didn't like high school much, his Facebook posts suggest -- "Cant Wait Till Im Done I Hate School !!," he posted in April 2010. In recent years, he worked parking cars at a garage Downtown and talked about going to trade school to become an electrician, his parents said.
Then the crash happened.
Mrs. Freund didn't hear about it until two days later, on Christmas Eve, when her son finally called from jail. She told him she wouldn't bail him out. If the Poseys couldn't have their father home for Christmas, he couldn't come home either.
"As hard as it was, my feelings went to the other family. Because she didn't have her husband for Christmas, I didn't think it was right for us to have Bobby home," Mrs. Freund said. "That's what's called tough love, and believe me, it was tough."
They've bailed him out since then. Wearing an ankle bracelet, he's restricted to his parents' home and his job at the parking garage.
Now, his plans are on hold while he faces the likelihood of spending time in prison. The accident has wracked him with guilt over Mr. Posey's death, and dread and uncertainty about prison, his mother said. If he is found guilty of all charges at his trial in August, he'll face a minimum of three years.
"Bobby is not a heartless person. This is hard on him," Mrs. Freund said. "If he's having a bad day, he gives you that look where he could just cry, and I'd like to cry with him. I'd like to give him a Band-Aid and a freeze pop and tell him its going to be OK. But I don't know that it is."
For a month after Christmas, Mr. Freund's presents sat in the basement. He insisted that he didn't deserve them, but his mother finally persuaded him to open them.
On her dining room table, she keeps two white candles -- one for her son, and the other for Mr. Posey. She bought them at her church, the St. John Vianney Parish, where she was married and her son was baptized. She often prays for Mr. Posey there.
"Maybe one day, when this is all over, I'd like to go to the cemetery and say a prayer for him," Mrs. Freund said.
Mrs. Posey's army
At 5 a.m. on a Monday in early April, Mrs. Posey drove east on the Pennsylvania Turnpike, foggy and empty. Nia and Tianna were with her, as well as two grandchildren and a family friend from the Brookline Elementary PTA.
They were on their way to the Capitol building in Harrisburg to attend the Crime Victims Rally with other members of MADD. It was only the second time Mrs. Posey met with MADD, but she had big plans for her role in the group. She would turn her husband's family and friends into an "army" to fight for stricter DUI laws.
The local MADD members have a saying: "You never get over it. You get through." But it helps to do things for MADD, said Tara Pennington, who works as a project coordinator for the group.
"It gives you a purpose and a place to release all your anger and emotions," said Ms. Pennington, who was driving with her best friend in Brookline when a drunken driver hit them head-on in April 2005. Her friend died, and she still can't walk very far because of damage to her legs.
After arriving at the Capitol, the mothers set up a poster board in the rotunda. They took out stacks of pictures and stuck them on the board, one by one. Each of the pictures was of someone killed by a drunken driver.
There were dozens of them, many wearing hairstyles from decades past. They posed with their parents, their prom dates, their dogs. Many of the pictures were school portraits, with the victim looking optimistically past the camera.
Mrs. Posey gazed at them, her arm around Nia, who has recovered from her wounds but visits a psychiatrist to cope with her emotions from the crash.
"Each person's family is hurting," Mrs. Posey said. "Each person's family got thrown into the quicksand. They felt the pain, the hurt, the disillusionment of our system, which allows this to grow."
The rally began. Mrs. Posey took a seat in the rotunda to listen to crime victims tell stories of sexual abuse and losing family members to careless drivers.
She took notes on their speeches, but she also imagined herself at the podium at next year's rally. She even outlined a speech in her head.
The message: You should care about drunken driving, because it could ravage your family, too.
In the speech, she would tell the audience how excited her family was for Christmas last year, before it was ruined.
She would tell them about how innocent her husband was, but his life was taken anyway.
She would tell them about how she was joking around with him when he left to pick up the girls.
And how, an hour later, she was leaning on a lamppost by his mutilated car, retching.
Richard Webner: email@example.com or 412-263-4903.