Saturday, December 26, 2009

Why I'm Always Sad at Christmas

The last time that I saw my Mother alive was at Christmas. She was living in her lovely little apartment in a beautiful converted church building, near the University at which she had worked before I was born. She was the Secretary to the Dean of Women in the 1950's, and she spoke with pride about her time there.

She met my Father when they worked at the same Company; she was his boss' secretary. They fell in love, and against her family's wishes, she married him. He came from "the wrong side of town", and from a much poorer family. The marriage was most likely doomed by their decision to live in the same house as my Mother's parents; this was a common custom at the time. They separated when I was 2, and he moved away when I was 6. My Mother led a very lonely life; unlike today, there were very few "broken homes" in the 60's, so she experienced a lot of social isolation. She focused her entire life on raising me.

When my Grandfather died, and we were forced to close our family's shoe store, she had to find work as a waitress just to get along. Later, she worked for several years in a department store owned by a family friend. Her last job, which she held for over a decade, was the secretary to the Director of a social services agency for senior citizens. Finally, she became unable to work due to her worsening emphysema and congestive heart disease.

Her Sister effectively forced her from the only home which she had ever known as part of settling my Grandmother's estate. This was completely ruthless and unnecessary, as my Aunt's husband had just been awarded a very large sum of money to settle a medical malpractice lawsuit. I urged my Mother to legally contest losing her home, which she had been paying all costs to maintain, but she was emotionally devastated by her own Mother's death, and by her Sister's actions. This affected her health as well, and hastened her decline.

I was able to get my Mother into the church apartment due to her past association with the University. A wonderful husband and wife team were the building's caretakers; they lived on the premises, and kept an eye on the tenants, who were all either elderly or disabled, like my Mother. Sue and Dick often had all of the residents over for dinners and parties. It gave me comfort that my Mother was living there with such caring people. Her apartment was on the ground floor, with a private outside entrance, a combined living/dining/kitchen area, and a separate bedroom. The building's striking architectural details were preserved throughout.

That last Christmas, we visited her in her new place. I had earlier helped her put up the tree; we decorated it together, with the ornaments lovingly collected over the years, and placed our Family's keepsake decorations around her apartment. Everything looked beautiful, and she was so happy; at least some things from her former home were still with her in this next phase of her life.

She was my only parent during my childhood, and had worked very hard during some truly challenging times to make sure that I had whatever I wanted. I fondly remember the Christmas when I got my folk guitar; and the year before, she gave me a sewing machine. These were very meaningful Christmas presents, and not inexpensive. I know that she constantly put aside her needs to fulfill my dreams.

I owed so much to her, and I knew it. So, now that she was ill, I would make sure that she was taken care of in return. My husband had just gotten a better-paying job, and we were really pleased, because it meant that we could do more for her. She had emphysema, had smoked since her teenage years, and even had to have part of a lung removed because it was so severely damaged. As a result, she was unable to walk more than a few steps, or leave her home to go anywhere other than for medical appointments. I did her grocery shopping, housework, banking, got her medicines, and helped however I could. She wanted to live alone, and she liked it that way.

I would see her in person almost every day. I spoke with her on the phone just before my husband and I went away for New Year's; she was going to spend New Year's with the other residents at the caretakers' apartment.

We returned a couple of days after New Year's, and I got a phone call from my Mother's cousin: my Mother wasn't answering her phone, and her cousin was worried. With mounting fear, I called Sue and Dick at my Mother's building with this news. Sue said that she had been at their New Year's party, and had a wonderful time. She sent Dick to my Mother's apartment to check on her.

Dick found my Mother dead in her apartment; she had been dead for at least several hours. He was in tears as he told me the news. It was almost unreal. I was in shock.

In a complete haze of fear and emotion, my husband and I went to her building. Police cars were already there, with lights flashing. Upon entering the apartment, two policemen were standing there; they took my information, and let us go into the bedroom to see my Mother.

She was slumped over, looking so tiny and frail, sitting on a wooden chair; it looked as though she must have died either putting on or taking off her slippers, because one slipper was on, and the other was off. This somehow reassured me that her end came very quickly, because she wasn't able to complete the task. At least she wasn't in a hospital, hooked up to machines, as had been the case so many other times in the past, when her doctors told me that she wouldn't survive. She was only 59 years old.

The funeral home attendants arrived, went into the bedroom, and closed the door. I waited, looking around at all of the Holiday decorations, and the presents that she would now never get to use. Her bedroom door opened. Next, I saw my Mother being wheeled past the Christmas tree, but now she was in a plastic body bag. I will never get that image out of my mind. She was gone, being taken away from me forever, in the midst of a scene which formerly had been so happy. I would never feel the same way about Christmas; even now, 22 years later.

Taking down the Christmas tree and putting away the decorations which she so loved were further reminders of her permanent absence. Years later, I have no interest in decorating my house for Christmas; perhaps I see it as a bad omen, and that I will lose someone I love if I do...the mind works in such mysterious ways. This is why I am always sad at Christmas time.

1 comment:

  1. I think part of the appealing of Christmas is that ambivalence. To be happy or sad at the same moment. Best wishes for you and the ones you love this season. :)