My mother didn’t attend our family Christmas party this year because she’s dying. She was admitted to hospice in a nursing home near the ocean and is doped up on morphine, her walker by her bed, just in case her body changes its mind.
Friends mean well, but they struggle with words. Oh, I’m sorry, I typically hear, followed by, What a bad time to go through this, right around the holidays.
But there never is a good time to die. Never a convenient time to lose a parent, child, spouse or friend–someone we love.
Yet death has a rhythm of its own. It ignores us when we plead, Not now! Can’t it wait until after the holidays, after my birthday…until I can handle it?
Life ends when it ends, whether we’re ready or not, yet holiday loss seems especially cruel as we feel compelled to partake in rituals that no longer make sense as someone we love is missing from the festivities, the empty setting at the table as falsely cheerful as the tennis balls at the base of my mother’s unused walker.
Holiday expectations constrict our hearts, insisting that we put up mistletoe and hang stockings, drink spiced eggnog and sit on Santa’s lap when we feel like screaming, Leave me alone! I can’t handle this!
It doesn’t matter if we believe in life after death or not. We still break in half or shatter like splintered glass when we lose someone we love. Pets included.
Sudden death is the hardest to process, leaving us fragmented, our hearts compressed into lumps of coal. We do the best we can, but more often than not we fail. We tell ourselves to be strong and carry on when we want to hide in bed for days or drink ourselves to death.
Sometimes we cry and flail and pound our fists into our chests, futilely screaming NO into the cold winter wind, which slaps us in the face. Or we trip and fall into the black hole of grief, thinking we’ll never find our way out. Or we push our pain into a box that we can unwrap later when we are strong enough to handle it.
We have children who need us, funeral arrangements that have to be made, and life does not give us time to grieve.
The first holiday without a loved one is the hardest. We shut down, cry or stumble forward, half alive, oblivious to everything that once brought us joy, whether it’s the smell of pine needles from the well-lit tree, the taste of gingerbread, hot from the oven, or the upside down Elf on the Shelf that we hid in the onion bin in the kitchen pantry. We pretend it’s the onions that make us cry…
As we celebrate the holidays wearing a smile as forced as heat through the vents, we realize we are present in space-time, yet strangely absent. We stand solidly under the mistletoe aware that our soul essence is somewhere else, in death with the one we lost.
In time, we establish new traditions, new ways around our pain. But peace is elusive when love is deep. Grief burns a hole in our hearts that never is filled. Most of us finally learn to live with loss, but patience is needed. Self-love and compassion too. Permission to feel. To not feel. To do what we need to do to get through one deep breath at a time.
When I visit Mom this holiday season, I notice the silver wreath on the nursing home door, the poinsettia plants in every room, the advent calendar announcing a holiday party that Mom won’t attend. I hear The First Noel and realize it’s Mom’s last. I hear laughter from the nurse’s station down the hall and notice Mom’s favorite necklace lying next to the holiday sweater she asked to wear to our family gathering this year.
None of it means anything anymore.
I only hope she’ll wake up and talk to me. Show me traces of the mother I want her to be before her body dies. I talk to her softly, hoping she’ll hear me. She doesn’t’ move or speak or sigh and I check her breathing under the pastel afghan my sister made. I hope she hears me. I imagine her flying free somewhere far from the earth. I picture her dressed in her red Christmas sweater, some part of her floating to join us at the family party that’s always meant everything to her.
As I sit by her bed, hoping she’ll wake up, I thank her for the lessons she’s taught me. All of the pain and hurt that made me who I am. I apologize for hating her for years and thank her for losing her memory, which made her forget her past, which helped us to find each other again, in love, like children. A gift in her final years.
I think about all the grief she faced in her life that I never knew about and apologize for considering her weak when she was anything but. I know that I’ll never be the same when she’s gone, but I also know that I’ll find peace with her loss–quiet acceptance. I will feed off quiet memories that offer me solace.
As I see it, the river of life flows until it ends. Everything ends, a lovely dance that brings us as much joy as it does pain. Life flows until it reaches an ocean, lake, or another river, then it merges with something bigger than itself. Sometimes it flows into the ground, which swallows it, and earth and water blend together, like life and death.