Sunday, December 24, 2017

Ruining Christmas

Today, December 24, 2017, marks the 24th anniversary of the day I moved in with the person who was to become the love of my life, and eventually -- nearly 20 years later -- would become my husband as well. (Ron and I do not believe in rushing into things.) One of the things I most remember about that long-ago move, and that Ron and I still chuckle about, is my mother's pointed accusation that because I chose that particular time to move in with Ron, I was "ruining Christmas for all of us."

True, it was a disruption -- for me most of all, because I hate moving at least as much as your average cat does. (Which
I mentioned a few years back (and then mentioned again) when Ron and I were prepping for our move out to the Edge of Nowhere.) But back in 1993 my mother wasn't talking about mere disruption; she was talking about ruination. You see, she had her own ideas about acceptable parameters for the holiday season, and I was violating them on two counts.

One point of violation was that my involvement in moving prevented my observation of my longstanding tradition of spending the night at her house to help her prepare for Christmas dinner the next day. The dinners had grown smaller and less elaborate in recent years, and she no longer had the steam to do the big Christmas Eve spreads of past years, but she still tried to keep up the Christmas Day tradition. And we both enjoyed our time together, even though I probably wasn't that much practical help to her. I did a little cleaning and straightening up, to the extent that she would allow in her cluttered home, and some minor food prep. Mostly I was just company, and we were both fine with that. I miss those times.

But more importantly, and central to her complaint about a wrecked Yule, my mom was distressed that I was breaking up with my then-husband, Roger, of whom she was very fond. She wanted at least one more Christmas in which the whole family was "together." In truth, the marriage had been in trouble for some time, and the separation/divorce was proving to be amicable. Roger, with whom both Ron and I remained friends throughout and after the divorce, seemed quite accepting of my decision to move out, though I was torn because of the pressure from my mother in addition to my own nagging doubts. Like I said, I hate moving. And there were moments when I wasn't entirely sure that I was doing the right thing. At times I was on the verge of accusing Ron of ruining Christmas by being so insistent that I move in with him. It was the classic should-I-stay-or-should-I-go situation.

"If you're going to leave, leave," said Roger, when I expressed my concerns. It didn't make any difference to him that Christmas was nigh. In fact, he helped me pack, which may say more about what a pain in the butt I am than it says about what a good sport he was.

So clearly, I wasn't ruining Christmas for Roger.

I asked my brother and sister and brother-in-law if I was ruining Christmas for them by moving in with Ron, and even though they all liked Roger too, they also liked Ron and assured me that they would survive the season. And I had no reason to disbelieve them, particularly since we all had a nice Christmas Eve gathering, post-move/minus Roger/plus Ron, at my sister and brother-in-law's home, with my mother by this point grudgingly accepting the inevitable. Eventually she came to accept and even to love Ron. But Ron and I and the sibs still joked for years about how I had "ruined Christmas."

* * * * *

Precisely ten years later, on Christmas Eve, as Ron and I prepared to celebrate not only the Yuletide but also a decade of living together, it was my mom who ruined Christmas. She had been having a variety of health problems, but nothing particularly serious that we were aware of; she still lived alone and seemed to be managing okay with a little help and support, particularly from my brother, who saw her frequently. But when he stopped by her house on the morning of Christmas Eve, he discovered that she had fallen. After that, I never could laugh at the once-ubiquitous jokes about those "I've-fallen-and-I-can't-get-up" commercials. When it's your own mother who has fallen and can't get up, it's not funny any more. She wasn't in pain; she just couldn't get up, so my brother helped her up and got her into her favorite recliner, then called the paramedics. They checked her out and saw that fortunately she hadn't broken anything, and her vitals were okay, though they did detect a heart arrhythmia. They offered to transport her to a hospital, an offer that she adamantly refused.

My brother didn't push it, but he made sure she had something to eat and drink, and that she was comfortable, before leaving her and promising to check in later. He immediately called my sister and me to inform us of what was going on. When we tried to call her to check up on her, there was no answer; normally she answered her phone after two or three rings. Panicked, I had Ron take me to her house, and my sister arrived at about the same time. We found our mom unconscious, sitting on the floor, leaning up against her chair. Apparently she had gotten up to try to answer the phone, and had taken another fall, once again having the great good fortune not to have broken anything. We were able to rouse her -- she seemed flabbergasted when I told her that it was Christmas Eve -- and we called the paramedics, who were understandably a little impatient when they showed up. This time we insisted she be taken to the hospital, and though she argued about it, we prevailed.

And that was the beginning of the last chapter of my mother's life. Christmas and the New Year passed in a cloud of anxiety. You're never really prepared for the decline of a parent; I likened it to being suddenly thrust into a wilderness with no guide and no provisions. It was a very scary time.

Shortly after my mom's fall, while she was still recovering in the hospital, I had a dream that was so blatantly symbolic that if I had heard it from someone else, I'd think that person was fabricating it. I dreamed that I was at my mother's house, and she walked down the hall from her bedroom, out into the den where I was waiting. Rather than being hunched and frail, she looked the way I remembered her from my childhood: young and pretty and perky and almost radiant, and she was wearing one of her vintage-1960s cocktail dresses. "I have a date!" she said, much to my surprise, because after my father had been killed many years previously, she had never been on even one date. Then she handed me a large manila envelope.

"What's this?" I asked her.

"Just the things from my purse," she said. Knowing that she never went anywhere without her purse, I looked at her quizzically. She quickly explained, "I don't need a purse where I'm going."

Then her doorbell rang, and she almost ran to the door and flung it open. And there stood my dad, smiling broadly, looking as he had in some early photos I'd seen of him. It wasn't just that he looked much younger than he'd been when he died; he was actually a sepia tone, and looking beyond him I saw that the lawn and streets and trees and sky were all in sepia too. "I'll see you later!" my mom said to me brightly, and then she disappeared with my father into that sepia world where I couldn't follow.

Meanwhile in the real and multi-colored world, my mother's attending physician at the hospital said it was time for a "new phase" to begin, which was his way of warning that we all needed to start thinking about new arrangements for my mom, as clearly she could no longer live alone in that big house she'd occupied for nearly 40 years. We struggled with this matter in various ways for the four years and four days that remained of her life. Accompanying her on numerous doctor visits, I did end up toting around some of the contents of her purse -- Medicare card, drivers' license, insurance documents -- in a big manila envelope along with my pages of notes I took during her appointments.

That Christmas Eve, 2003, marked the beginning of a long goodbye, but at least we had the luxury of saying goodbye and learning, in our own fashion, to let go. We were profoundly saddened but not really shocked when, in 2007, she ruined the Christmas holiday once again by leaving this life on December 28.

On the last full day of her life I spent hours at her bedside, sitting with her well into the evening. By now she was refusing food and water, and was lying on her back, her eyes closed, her lips moving but her speech for the most part inaudible. To whom was she talking? Was she praying? I really couldn't tell. She responded audibly to my direct questions but never opened her eyes. So I sat there, just being with her, while she had her conversations I couldn't hear with someone I couldn't see.

At one point, though, she spoke aloud, still without opening her eyes. "Let me go," she said, and I assumed her plea was directed at me, since I was the only other person in the room at the time. "Go where?" I immediately responded. She replied, "I just need to go somewhere to rest. I'm tired. Please just let me go."

And the next morning, after a panicked trip to the emergency room that probably did little except cause her pain, including a collapsed lung no doubt sustained during resuscitation efforts, we finally did let her go. When the ER doctor came into the room to essentially tell us that only machines were keeping her alive, he seemed hesitant, his eyes full of sadness. He appeared visibly relieved that we accepted his prognosis and gave him the go-ahead to take my mother off of life support. At this point I was numb, and the doc seemed to need comforting more than I did, so I gave him a hug.

All I could think about at the moment was how grateful I was for the last exchange I'd had with my mom before I left her bedside the previous night. I had told her I loved her, and she had replied, quite audibly, "I love you too."

But gosh. Way to ruin Christmas, Mom. And I miss you fiercely. And so does Ron.

* * * * *

Ron's own mother, Maggie, managed to ruin both his birthday and Christmas 25 years ago by passing away four days after his birthday and two weeks before Christmas. She also ruined her chances of getting to meet me in this life; Ron and several others have said Maggie and I would have loved each other, and I am sure we would have.

And two weeks ago one of my Facebook friends observed the 30th anniversary of her own mother's death, and another Facebook friend just lost her mother yesterday. It's a terrible, terrible time of year to lose a mom. But then, there's really no good time.

And it isn't only parents who leave at inappropriate times. Dear friends can depart without notice too. On December 10 -- two weeks ago today -- Ron and I lost our sweet friend Alma, who was our across-the-pasture neighbor for several years after we moved out to the Edge of Nowhere. Alma was the sort of person who seemed like a Grumpy-Cat type when you first met her, but you didn't have to know her long at all to realize that beneath the gruffness was a wicked sense of humor and a huge heart.

Alma was no recluse -- she had a wide circle of friends and participated in a variety of activities -- but she cherished the silence and darkness of the country at night; she loved the darkness so much that she never even left a porch light on. She even good-naturedly groused about our own back porch light, saying its glare spoiled the peaceful darkness for her, so we stopped leaving it on. But Alma also loved Christmas, and at Christmas time she did put lights up. It always made me smile to look out my kitchen window late at night, across the great expanse of darkness, and see her lights burning.
Alma was a book lover, a rescuer of dogs, an inveterate gift giver, and an unimaginable gift herself. And although she always had other plans and other obligations on holidays, she managed to join Ron and me for our feast on nearly all of the major holidays. It got so that it didn't really feel like a holiday without Alma.

But she underwent emergency open-heart surgery earlier this month, and there were complications, and she did not survive the ordeal. Now there's going to be another empty space at our holiday table. Way to ruin Christmas, Alma. We love and miss you more than we can express. *

Of course our human friends don't have a monopoly on breaking our hearts; sometimes our fur babies ruin Christmas for us too. Ron's and my big sweet boy cat, Sabu, left us on December 21, 2014. Our lovable goofy whippet, Snapper, checked out on December 23, 2000. I have loved ones and friends who lost beloved animal companions earlier this year and whose hearts are wrecked by spending the first Christmas without them.

And so on, and so forth.

I think most of us reach a point when, if we're not careful, Christmas -- or any other major holiday, for that matter -- becomes as much a time for dwelling on all that we have lost as it is a celebration of what, and whom, we still have. The so-called season of joy is incredibly difficult for those whose losses are recent or profound or extensive or any combination of the above (I'm thinking especially of all those who lost so much in the recent hurricanes). But holidays are also quite difficult at times for those whose losses are cumulative, as is inevitable in the course of a normal human life. And in a season when most of us are under such constant pressure to be merry and bright, the contrast between the outer trappings and our inner grief can seem like a cruel joke. We keep forgetting that, with the notable exception of terrorists and sadists who calculatedly wreak their havoc on cherished holidays, tragedy and calamity have an utter disregard for the calendar. Christmastime is just another opportunity for sh-t to happen. The gods may throw the dice/Their minds as cold as ice/And someone way down here/Loses someone dear. (
Thank you, Abba.)

Nevertheless it is good and useful, perhaps especially at this time of year, to try to find as many somethings and someones as you can for which to be thankful. That's why, despite my cynicism about self-help exercises in general, I'm all for gratitude exercises, and my Facebook friend Marie, the one who lost her mom 30 years ago around this time, definitely has the right idea with her daily postings about the people and things for which she is grateful.

Truly, there are so many ways that Christmas can be ruined, but with a little effort I think that most of us can pick our way among the ruins and still find something good and whole. Me? I still love the holiday, despite being
a cynic for many years. And Ron and I always find a way to celebrate the season with family, food, and friends. True, we can't have a Christmas tree due to the fact that we have cats, and they have hands, and they know how to use them, but I manage to festoon the house with garlands and wreaths and shelf elves (most of the elves being vintage 60s and 70s fellows who spread Christmas cheer at my mom's house for many years) and other accoutrements. More importantly, I can even manage to smile rather than cry when I think of the people and fur babies who have passed. After all, I am still surrounded by people I love, including a houseful of four-legged folks who are constantly clamoring for love and attention (as well as some of Alma's dogs who haven't yet found new homes). I am happy to accommodate them.

And at night, which falls so early in the dead of winter, I can walk out of my gate and past the motion-sensitive solar light that was Alma's last gift to Ron and me. Like most solar lights it automatically comes on once darkness falls, but when we walk past it, it shines a little brighter for a couple of moments.

Most of all this Christmas, I look forward to beginning year 25 with the person who helped me ruin Christmas so many years ago. Moving in with him was the best choice I ever made, next to marrying him.

May your own holidays be filled with as much joy, and as little ruin, as possible. Be kind to yourself and to those around you who are hurting. And give what you can, of your time or money or both, to help ease their pain.

* With a little help from you,
our friend Alma can continue to rescue dogs in perpetuity.

* * * * *
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