“He went to the church, and walked about the streets, and watched the people hurrying to and for, and patted the children on the head, and questioned beggars, and looked down into the kitchens of homes, and up to the windows, and found that everything could yield him pleasure. He had never dreamed of any walk, that anything, could give him so much happiness.”
Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol
Last Christmas was mom's last Christmas with us. Most of us knew it. She and I had already had the conversation about stopping chemo so she could at least enjoy her last days without being unbearably sick. Our Christmas Eve and Christmas Day as a family are some of our strongest, most important traditions. We go to a Christmas Eve service, come home and eat chili from the "Chili Bar," watch "It's A Wonderful Life" by the fire, and open one present before tomorrow. Between us falling asleep and waking, Santa Mama comes to town. Though she Christmas shopped year-round, she nearly always finished wrapping in the wee hours of the night (I've come to believe this late deadline crunch is attributed to basketball season all winter, ten whole people to think about, love on and wrap for, and a bit of the adrenaline and magic that comes in the final hour. Every year she would say "Next year I'm getting this done sooner!" and she never did. It was perfect.) When she'd find a good sale in March, or a cute pair of socks in June, she'd snatch them up where they lay wait in Forbidden Closet. All year she'd watch, gather, store up and prepare for our Christmas Day. The presents don't go under the tree at our house until Christmas Day. She would bring all the gifts down, load by load, creating a mass, a sea, a fortress of gifts not just filling the underbelly of the fraser fir, but marching out to the sides of the room.
Stockings were Christmas Day opener. She hand-wrapped every individual gum and toothbrush, she didn't "package" the items to make wrapping easier. The orange tic-tacs, the new comb, the bath salts, the body lotion, the kitschy boxers for the boys and dangle bracelets for the girls. Each wrapped with teeny love. They were always far too stuffed to hang from the mantle so she laid them out on couches and armchairs, like fat babies being made to pose for a photograph. Mama would clean up and straighten the family room, light some candles, and turn her attention to Christmas breakfast. We had the same thing every year for my whole life: some sort of egg and sausage bake, hot cinnamon buns, and orange rings sprinkled with coconut flakes. She'd listen to holiday music and my dad would come check the fire in the hearth for her, keeping it fed all night long. She knew 1000 things I never knew as she worked alone those silent nights, cracking eggs and cracking into history. After sliding breakfast into the fridge, she would take a picture of the glittering family room, and find a spare space to slide herself in the "workshop" for a couple hours of sleep.
No matter how bad things were in our life, she could pull off Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. In the earliest years her entire-pregnancy-long nausea would have been enough reason to call it a day, but sickness and throwing up couldn't stop her: she made us our Christmas. Sometimes we had guests, other years it was just our 'little' family. One year we were moving across the country on New Years Day, and our worldly goods had gotten on a moving truck a few weeks earlier. But we still had Christmas -- presents and all. Cinnamon rolls and coconut oranges to boot. One year she had lost her mother, her best friend in this world, suddenly to cancer. She gave birth to a little boy a few weeks later. She cried much that Christmas, and didn't take very many pictures, and she held her brown-haired baby feeling more alone than usual. But the wall of gifts was as marvelous as any year before. One year, she had a miscarriage before Thanksgiving and had positive cancer results before Christmas. The troops stormed and rallied, she protected her drainage tube from surgery while she fielded hugs and excited toddlers covered in sticky cheer. Our friends wrapped presents and decorated that year, but when just before midnight came on Christmas Eve, mama was the one to crawl out of bed and arrange the gifts, to chop the sausage and onions. A few years she battled an ill depression, a sadness deep in the throes of human experience. Children who hated her, hated life, hurt her, hurt themselves. She knew they weren't happy or whole; we all sat around on Christmas morning and saw the vacant anger in their eyes. How do you reach them? How do you end their destructive cycle? At times she feared for their lives. Yet she sat on, legs spread out in a V on her bedroom floor, cutting itty pieces of tape to hold together the waving-snowmen-paper she was using to wrap breath mints for that child. Crying over their pain, her pain, praying for that Miracle Baby to come do something, a miracle! Help them! They know not what they do, and I love them! Tears of a weary soul. Tears onto wrapping paper bought 11 months ago for about 30 cents. How could she have known she and her stockings were the miracle? That those 2-for-1 Pillsbury cans and long nights were going to save their lives?
Now, I believe it was God in those things, God in the wee-hour baking and ornament-hanging. But it was her He used, her He gave. Last year one of those children came home from rehab right before Christmas, and that very child a few weeks later, with chilling tenderness, carried mom in his arms and laid her down to die. In one hand he held hers, in the other he held an iPod where Chris Tomlin repeated "I hear the voice of many angels sing, 'Worthy is the Lamb!' And I hear the cry of every longing heart, 'Worthy is the Lamb!'" He wept over his mother, whispering how he loved her. Often falling to his back, face turned upwards with the sheen of great love and great sorrow painting his cheeks. She asked him to stay home, to stay with her this holiday season. He had new, motivated, healthy plans for his future. And she supported them, wanted him to follow through on them, but asked "Can you wait until after Christmas?"
Last Christmas there was no hail mary. Amazing friends came once again to wrap for us. This was not the first or second or third year they've done so. There are plenty of children grown enough to decorate, and we did. We found the boxes with dad and pulled them out of the garage and worked on setting up the house while we ate a dinner someone brought us. The oxygen tank upstairs heaved and ho-ed in it's unmistakable, awful way. For the first time I went with mom to buy stocking stuffers. She was cold, tired, and green. I told her more than once that she could go wait in the car; I'll finish. She refused until the third aisle. "I'm so sorry." she said, not making eye contact. I hated that I knew she felt like a failure. I can hardly think of when I loved her more. "Shannon likes the cucumber smells, but Katie doesn't. Oh, and get blue things for Lauren. Apparently she's done with pink." She parted with a chuckle. Once I was done, I brought all the bags and bags out to the car where she was resting, eyes closed, still. "...Is she alive?" White and clear chunky slime sat in a puddle outside her door. I stepped over it to open her door and help buckle her in. She was alive.
Christmas Eve came and she didn't go to the service, nor was she in the kitchen making chili, and she wasn't up in her room watching specials while she wrapped. The house seemed especially messy and things just weren't… right. The presents were already under the tree because they had been wrapped for a week. The stockings weren't as full as when mom does them, and they were hanging over the fireplace. As I nursed my baby I told my husband that mom wasn't going to sneak downstairs once we all fell asleep. Caleb put Rowdy to bed, and I stayed up with my sister Katie. She worked on breakfast, and I cleaned. And cleaned. And cleaned. Starting in the family room, arranging the presents in a little more "her" way, vacuuming the pine needles, fluffing the pillows. I moved into the dining room and set the table for our holiday feasts. One wine glass at a time (because even juice is so much better in a wine glass). My present to mom was a gallery of our family on the staircase wall. Her present to me was my whole life; her whole life. Caleb worked on hanging while I spread out the table runner and counted dining room chairs. Katie's present was a recreation of some of my mom's favorite childhood pictures of us. She wrapped each frame and grew the tree pile once she was done. Slowly everyone finished their jobs, even me, but I stayed up. I couldn't stop coming up with things to do. I didn't want it to be over. I didn't want my last Christmas Eve to end, and to wake up for the final time to mom with us on Christmas morning. The sun started to rise, so somewhere in the 6 am hour I decided to get a couple hours of sleep. Everything looked 'perfect.' I understood a few new things, a few things my mom knew, when I crawled into bed.
Sadly and happily, there was no avoiding it; The Last Christmas With Mom Day came. As opposed to other years, we waited downstairs -- quietly, to let her sleep -- and finally helped her up when she was ready. We stood at the bottom of the stairs (I wanted to applaud) as she carefully came out of her room with a santa hat on. I think I wanted to be able to cry, but I couldn't. I was too full. All of us together.
"And this is the testimony: God has given us eternal life, and this life is in his Son." I John 5:11 "For to us a child is born, to us a son is given. And His name shall be Wonderful." Isaiah 9:9 "Therefore once more I will astound these people with wonder upon wonder." Isaiah 29:14 "Mary kept all these things, storing them up in her heart to ponder." Luke 2:19
We're the lucky ones. Most often, it seems, the ones left behind don't get to have the preparation and information we did. Dying from cancer is tragic, because all death is, but it wasn't instant. And we had time (never enough, of course -- but that's why there is forever) and we made memories. Once you lose someone so close, it's hard to not wonder who will be lost next. Could this be my last Christmas with my husband or son? A future baby growing in my body? My sisters? Or brothers? My dad? My best friends? My husband's family? His siblings? Our grandparents? Our aunts, uncles, cousins? What will happen between this Christmas and next? When will the bell toll again? It's a morbid curiosity but at times, for me, a very matter-of-fact one. We can't stay here. It isn't safe. They aren't just looking for male two year old boys, they are looking for everyone. We have to escape. And we will. We'll hand in our visa to a Free Country and never fear the terrors of night. But until then, we will not let Death, or it's brother Fear of Death, win. We will pop open the cinnamon rolls, find tic-tacs in our giant socks, and let the fire keep us warm. We will carry on what has been passed to us, and if what has been passed is very bad we will do our best to make it very good. In our case, we had someone in this battlefield who loved us very much and if it's possible to have that kind of year-long, late-night, itty-tape, tired-out, won't-stop love here, what must The Land of Advent Seen be like? Who must be there? How must it feel? It simply must be similar to our last Christmas Day, and ten thousand more.
Merry Christmas, people of the world. Merry, merry Christmas.