I write this with the winter Solstice about 15 hours away. Hanukkah begins Sunday evening. Christmas Eve comes on Tuesday and Christmas Day naturally follows on Wednesday. Boxing Day is on Thursday, the 26th which is also the start of Kwanza. In the midst of the dark and cold in the northern hemisphere the time of celebration is upon us.
It is the time of comfort – the warmth of the fire or fresh baked something, whether sugared to the max or gluten and dairy free, a bit of spiced eggnog or a wee sip of whiskey, brandy, or aquavit. For my family some pickled herring with onion on a cracker before sitting to the groaning board of a festive table. It is a time for giving gifts to those near and dear and offering remembrances of those absent and departed.
It is this last that I turn to as this year marks a decade since my mother’s passing on Christmas Eve.
Like Mary and Joseph unable to find room at an inn, after back surgery, complications, infection, and decline my mother was unable to find room at a hospice. Instead she lay in bed in the living room at home, next to the white-flocked Christmas tree with its red balls, strings of twinkling lights and presents for grandkids splayed underneath. It was the tree she wanted year after year. The stereo was playing an album of carols sung by Bing Crosby, Ella Fitzgerald, Nat King Cole set on repeat. Little did I know that the comfort that it provided her between lapses of consciousness and the need for more morphine would imprint the memory of her in that room whenever I hear one of them with a consequent being on the verge of tears in the check-out line.
My mother saw angels and talked to long departed relatives. In the days leading up to that last night, each of us had our own conversations or made peace with the past, unsure of whether she heard us. Unsure of what she thought or what she said which was barely audible and necessitated leaning in to try to catch a word or two between ragged breaths.
Santa did not come that night but merciful Death did. In the early morning of Christmas day, I suppose the police and paramedics arrived, but by time I got to the house they had departed. It was the family sitting around the bedside in various stages of acceptance and grief, waiting for the mortuary folks to arrive. At least I think that was what happened.
I am not surprised that I don’t remember more of the details or even the sequence. She died when she was ready and we were left with trying to make sense of that departure while holding some semblance of Yuletide spirit for the grandchildren that were too young to know much beyond a gift with their name on it. There still were presents to be unwrapped. Some of them were from her, though in truth she had been in the hospital so long that she had not done a whit of shopping. One of my sisters had done that and penned the to and from card as well. There was still a long row of stockings hung on the banister with mine as the oldest child at the top. Each had an orange, some chocolate and something else that changed from year to year. There was still picked herring and crackers. There was still wine to sip in hopes that it would soften the blow. There was still a meal to cook or finish cooking. I’m pretty sure that it was not a year when I made a standing rib roast or baked a whole salmon but we had something.
After she was taken away, the bed was disassembled and the parts moved to the garage. The eight-foot folding tables and chairs were brought in and assembled in that same living room. Tablecloths, plates, silverware enough for twenty-something relations were placed. All of it without the usual joking and now or then a halt had to be called as someone wept.
It did not help that we were not the only family who lost someone that day. Mothers, fathers, uncles, aunts, grandparents, siblings, significant others and yes, children, passed or were taken in America and around the world. Death does not have holidays off. It did not help that we who remained clutched our feelings and told stories about the mother who left us. Mostly they were funny stories though inevitably we had to acknowledge that she was also often stubborn and sometimes angry. It was an anger that was rooted in her being an orphan. That telling of stories was what families do. It did not help that my father was unusually silent.
That Christmas remains fixed no matter how obscure the memories of who did what or said what and every Christmas that follows bears some echo of the day. Christmas 2009 was the first of all that followed. No matter how sharp a recovered memory of the when and what might be, my mother was dead and gone. That fact stands alone.
There were and are other years of celebration and familial joy. The nieces and nephews grow up, marry and have kids of their own. We multiply. The world becomes those who were before and those who come into a world after the parting of the veil.
In many ways that is the core of the winter Solstice. The inevitable cycle of night and cold, then a return of light. It is a physical manifestation of the celestial physics of orbit and wobble, but also one of body and emotion. As I said, a time for seeking comfort, for memories and dreams, for a muted celebration of survival and family, and life goes on.
This missive feels done and so I will not belabor your attention. A blessing on you this Solstice and all my best wishes for your joy in whatever celebrations are yours in this season. Be well. Stay warm. If you can extend the gift of comfort to another, please do, for as the “birthday boy” of the Christian tradition is reported to have said , “Whatever you did for the least of these... you did for me.”