Grief is a peculiar thing. Even when we feel we have put it aside or worked through it, even when years have passed between the loss and the present time, it can re-surface without warning in unexpected and surprising ways. Such has been my experience as this holiday season begins, as I have found myself recalling the last Christmas my mom spent with us- the entire family- here at my house. She had not had a good autumn and I watched her getting progressively weaker, her pain level from the periodic vertebral fractures escalating, though she usually denied the pain, feeling that pain medication made her too drowsy. I was tired from the care-giving, from carrying the full burden of the household on my sometimes weary shoulders, and so I announced my intention of not putting up a tree that Christmas.
Mother received the news quietly, as was her way, but after several days had passed, she very gently asked me if I wouldn't reconsider as she would love to have a Christmas tree so we could carry out the family custom of having candles on the tree, something we had not done for a number of years. And so I went to the local nursery and found a "live" blue spruce (the best type for candles) and had it delivered the week after Thanksgiving. Donning my long-sleeved denim shirt and gloves (I break out from the pine needles against my skin), I lovingly brought my assortment of tree ornaments from the attic and decorated the tree which graced the front window of the living room. I placed my collection of Santas on the fireplace mantle and got a lovely pine wreath for the front door, all of my tasks being overseen by Mother, a benificent smile on her face.
When all was completed, Mom sat on the living room couch in front of the fireplace evening after evening, and saying over and over again, "Oh, Linny, it looks so beautiful. Thank you so much for doing this." I was so very glad I had done something which was giving her so much pleasure, and when the family gathered, we indeed burned the candles on the tree, listening to traditional Christmas music and choosing which candle would be the last to extinguish itself. Through it all, Mother sat in the midst of us, smiling and nodding and even shedding a tear or two, her pleasure so obvious, even through the veil of pain which never really left her.
It was after Christmas, after everyone had gone home, that her downward spiral began. Within days, she was spending most of her time in bed and by the end of a week, I visited the doctor to obtain some stronger pain medication for her. After several more days, Hospice became part of our lives, offering additional help as well as pain control.Dear Ruth, my trusty right arm, began coming nearly every day and another lovely woman, Rosa, came on the weekend. My days and nights became almost reversed as I was up many of the nighttime hours, sleeping during the day when one of my helpers was here. My daughter, Hope, spent 5 days here near the end of the month, providing both physical and psychological support...and then, on the last weekend of the month, we had a beautiful snowstorm and late on Sunday morning, with the sun shining on the new-fallen snow, Mother quietly slipped away. And I was left with a feeling of gratitude that I had helped to give Mom the kind of Christmas she most wanted.
Fast forward to the next two Christmases...and I did not put up a tree. Just seemed like too much work, too much bother- or so I said to myself and others. The Santas came out to grace the mantle, but there was no tree. I didn't need one, I said, to celebrate the season. And the grandchildren had trees at home, so why did they need one at my place? I honestly made no connection between that last Christmas with Mother and my lack of interest in holiday preparations. After all, I still baked cookies and cooked for the family...and that was what was important, wasn't it? I had done my grieving, hadn't I? Mom was ninety-two and had lived a full life and I am convinced that she was accompanied on that final journey by her sister, Anna, and my dad, and welcomed by a great multitude of friends and family when she finally reached her destination.
But the other day as I was preparing Thanksgiving dinner for my son and me- just the two of us this year- I was filled with the sense of Mom's presence and I knew that this year I would have a tree...in remembrance and honor of that dear woman. And so today, the Christmas season began for me, as I spent the afternoon putting up the lively artificial tree I bought on sale, decorating it with old ornaments and new ribbons, filled the mantle with Santas, and ironed the Christmas tablecloth for the dining room table. Tomorrow, I plan to purchase a fresh wreath for the front door and get some pine branches for the vase near the fireplace to give the house the fragrance of fresh evergreen. And to add to the feeling of the season, I attended a concert of "The Gathering" in Greensboro this evening, two hours of Appalachian Christmas music played and sung by 5 amazingly talented musicians, including the most beautiful rendition of "O Holy Night" I have ever heard.
I realize now that the dark curtain of grief which has covered the past two Christmases has been lifted, without my even realizing it had been there. And I am filled with a fresh sense of wonder and awe and joy at the beginning of this season of light and hope. Mom, I'll be thinking of you each time I sit in front of the fire and admire the tree. And I'll be thanking God for every moment of time we had together. An early Merry Christmas, wherever you are.