Christmas Day is in our grasp, so long as we have hands to clasp.
Christmas Day will always be just as long as we have we.
Welcome Christmas while we stand, heart to heart, and hand in hand.
– Theodor Seuss Geisel, American writer, poet and cartoonist,
from The Grinch Who Stole Christmas
Christmas is my favorite holiday. When we watch A Charlie Brown Christmas or How the Grinch Stole Christmas with our kids, it reminds me of the tradition of watching them as a kid. Of course, back then we had to wait impatiently for the night it aired on television and endure commercials, but no Christmas season was complete without having seen the two animated shows. Now our kids watch them several times in a season, and we have added the Polar Express to our Christmas viewing repertoire, complete with hot chocolate and popcorn.
In high school, I was in choir so we always sang Christmas songs for the annual winter concert. When I was in college, Christmas was a time to get together with all my high school friends to compare college experiences. It’s a Wonderful Life became a staple for me going into adulthood. I still get teary-eyed when, in the last scene, Mary Bailey’s eyes glisten with pure joy as she watches her husband George realize how rich and blessed he is with the many friendships he has made throughout a life of giving.
Since then, Christmas has become the holiday associated with loss. On Christmas Eve 1995, as I drove my parents from their home in Terra Bella to my sister’s family’s home in Folsom, near Sacramento, my 88-year-old father’s heart and kidneys began to shut down. Of course, my mother and I didn’t know that at the time. It was a tense four and a half hour-drive. After we arrived, we took him to the hospital.
We spent Christmas Day going back and forth from Folsom to the hospital in Sacramento. It wasn’t really Christmas. That’s what I thought to myself when we drove back to Folsom that evening to take a break, staring at the blinking and streaking outdoor Christmas lights from the car window. Not long after we had returned to my sister’s house, my brother-in-law, who was still at the hospital, called to tell us we needed to come back. We didn’t make it to the hospital in time. The presents were left unopened that year.
As the years passed, I didn’t associate my father’s death with Christmas. The mind would not allow that to happen. After all, it didn’t seem like Christmas; therefore, it did not happen at Christmastime.
Last Thanksgiving, my 85-year-old mother was stricken with pneumonia and was in the ICU for two weeks with a coma. When she awoke, she was transferred to an acute-care facility that dealt with patients with ventilators. Last Christmas, my sisters and I took turns watching over her. She had her first setback on Christmas Eve, as we were preparing for midnight mass. When we asked her if she was done fighting, she nodded.
Dumbly, and numbly, we waited for her body to comply with her wishes. It wasn’t until after my oldest sister returned to her home in San Antonio, and a week had passed that on New Year’s Eve my middle sister and I realized my mother could not do it on her own. We were at her side during her last hours. She did not “slip quietly to the other side,” as the veteran nurse had assured us that she would, but she was not alone when she took her last breath.
Christmas and New Year’s Eve would never be the same again, I remembered thinking, as we drove in silence back to my sister’s house in the early morning hour.
It’s true that the holidays will never be the same, and I admit that I approached this holiday season with panicked moments full of fear and uneasiness. However, whereas last year I returned from the long Thanksgiving weekend and found that my husband and kids had completely decorated the house to welcome me home, I was able to decorate the house with them this season. We put up the seven displays of our lighted Christmas in the City buildings throughout the house. The final and traditional touch was the kids’ “letting it snow” over the city buildings and streets with fine plastic bits of snow. We decorated our seven-foot tree with treasured ornaments, many with memories associated with them, and instead of spending our evenings in the family room we moved our activities to the living room, as we always do at this time of year, so we could enjoy the fire in the fireplace, the smell of the pungent tree and the lighted Christmas villages. We’ve had a few friends over for Christmas cheer and enjoyed listening to Christmas music. It’s a Wonderful Life is on my list of things to do before New Year’s Day.
I survived the sadness of not being greeted by my mother at the front door when we first arrived at my sister’s house or seeing her bedroom now home to a new treadmill and a relocated futon couch. We are enjoying a respite from the rain and frantic last-minute Christmas shopping. This morning we are preparing to visit my mother’s niche, where her ashes are laid to rest. My 10-year-old daughter is excited to deliver the Christmas card she made for her lola.
I am navigating these new traditions. It is a part of life – learning how to embrace loss and honor our loved ones by celebrating the present.