Mark Twain

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Monday, November 29, 2021

Please, make it January.

(This is not one of my happy posts.  You can skip it if you need too. I won’t mind. Just giving a voice to feelings that I carry with me around this time of year - in hopes that putting fingers to keyboard I can shed some baggage that follows me during December.)

In the next few days it will be December 1.  



  My least favorite month of the year.  

I can already feel the holiday pressure of getting things done crowding me.  How I wish that was my only problem. The real issue is more complicated. I feel concern creeping up on me that the month passes without any bad stuff like illnesses or worse. I know that sounds a little bit paranoid - but December and I have a history together and it isn’t positive.   

How did December get such a bad wrap?   Truthfully, I didn’t always hate December and the number of happy December holidays far outweighs the sad ones ... so why can’t I just throw off the bad ones and enjoy the season? Being a generally happy positive person the other 11 months of the year, I gave this question a lot of thought and discovered only one answer for me: the intensity of events and life changing nature of some of my Decembers sit in stark contrast to the “let us all be happy” message of December.  

The first dent in my relationship with December happened in 1970 with the death of my dad right before Christmas. It was a sudden event - a fall down a flight of stairs that was not discovered promptly and after a few days in ICU he died - several days before Christmas.  His passing was a combination of sorrow and some relief.  He was an alcoholic and he made family life hard.  But I loved him in spite of all the pain he caused.  That Christmas without him was my first experience of sadness while all the world seemed joyful.   Even in the funeral home where our family gathered to say goodbye reminders of the season were everywhere ... tastefully done, of course, but there all the same.  

Ironically, like bookends - the death of my mother came just after Christmas in 2014.  

These events were 44 years apart - certainly healing should have happened in that time.  And it did. Each Christmas after his death I remembered him with forgiveness and love. That yearly remembrance felt like a healthy and realistic admission that sad things can happen at Christmas time, and you can move on and to be grateful for the happy events - recognizing that Christmas happiness is not ‘promised'.  

But my mom's death was preceded by many hard December experiences - each one more difficult than the last until I couldn’t stand the month at all.  

The first event happened about a year after mom moved in with me in 2007.  A vicious GI bug spread through our family the day after Thanksgiving.  It was the worst GI virus I have ever had.  While normal healthy individuals could survive that, my mom was in her 80s.  It devastated and hospitalized her - not once but twice in quick succession.  The second hospitalization landed her in ICU because she was septic. As with all her hospitalizations, I was with her 24/7.  Rehab followed and I followed her there as well.  Getting her well consumed me.  I approached her recovery as a battle to be won.  I pushed medical staff to get her home before Christmas.  She rallied quickly.  When she came home it was December 22 - little to no holiday prep had been done for my own family’s Christmas.  Some gifts were purchased but no wrapping, no Christmas tree, and no meal preparation.  But no matter, my mom was home.   The tree got put up on December 23rd, and the gifts that weren’t purchased by then where replaced with checks. I purchased a fully cooked Christmas Day meal from a local grocery store - and we called it good!  The real celebration was ... Mom was home and doing well.  I won that battle.

I won the battle over several other hospitalizations and rehabilitations over the course of a few years getting her back home, but  each left her weaker than before. At age 85 a hospitalization and a very long rehab experience ended with her being placed in Assisted Living.  And, of course, that happened in the month of December.  The community I picked was top notch, very homey with great staff, and beautifully decorated for the holiday, but I knew mom didn’t want any this.  She wanted to go home.  The final determining factor were the 20 steps up from the parking lot to my townhome - steps she could not climb any more.  I remember riding home that first night she spent in Assisted Living.  The December lights on houses I passed were twinkling brilliantly, the Christmas music was playing on the radio, and I was in tears the entire way home at this permanent change in all our lives.  That night I started to intentionally ignore December ‘cheer’ that tried to invite me at every turn to be happy .

The last 3 years of her life she lived away from home - 2 years in Assisted Living and 1 year in Nursing.  As always, the staff made the holidays as grand as they could.  But it was hard to ignore that fact that about half the residents were mobile enough to visit a family member’s home for the holiday. We couldn’t do that for mom.  I hated those last 3 Christmases more than you could imagine.  As December approached I felt disappointment and sadness begin to grow in me.  To compensate I spent as much time as I could during those holidays with her, and extended family came for visits as well.  We even arranged a separate Holiday family meal with her on site, but the one thing she always wanted was to go home,  and I couldn’t make that happen. Those 3 Christmases cemented my distaste for December and it was when I learned to yearn for January.

Starting in early 2014 at 88 years old she had a number of serious health issues that could not get resolved. Her dementia had pretty much consumed her with only short glimpses of who she had been as my mom.  In mid-December of that year her chronic problems were growing in intensity.  Her eating had dropped off and she had no interest in her surroundings. I was losing this final battle and it seemed like nothing could halt her decline.  When medical staff finally informed me that she was actively failing, I had already known in my heart she could not be pulled back.  The message - your mother is dying - I got on December 22.  They estimated she would make it to Christmas but not much past that.  Needless to say, there was no holiday spirit left to crush in me.  By this time Christmas Day was just another date on a calendar.  My only comfort in those last days and hours were that the dementia I fought so hard against, was finally her ‘friend’ ... shielding her awareness of another passing Christmas away from home. Mom and I lost this last battle together, but at least I was the only one grieving. 

She died on December 28th.  I was numb driving home that evening.  I don’t remember the trip at all - but I am sure without a doubt - those Christmas images I learned to ignore - were everywhere.

This year will be the 7th year anniversary since her passing.  Unfortunately traditional Christmas sounds and sights still remind me of our years of struggle.   I still yearn for January.  But now at 74, I accept that this will not change.  You can’t ‘un-ring a bell' - the memories cannot be wiped from the mind as if they never happened.   I accept them now, however, with more grace.  A grand daughter has helped me to find some peace in these celebrations, but I still feel it is a lot for those tiny little shoulders to bear, so I don’t rest entirely on her existence as my way out of holiday gloom.  After 7 years I am better at hiding that sad part of me by putting a smile on my face during December - especially with family.  But when I am alone with only my thoughts during this month, the memories of holidays mom and I shared appear like a flash flood - sudden and sweeping away everything else.   

Please, make it January.  

(Has the sharing of this helped me shed some of my ‘baggage?’  Maybe a make-up case worth.  Has it increased just one person’s understanding that others struggle mightily during the holidays?  I hope so.)

During happier times when she would sit on 
my front step and just enjoy the feeling
of being outside.

Mom and I in 2011
Taken at the rehab facility she eventually would call “home.”  

Mom, my sister and I in 2012
Taken 2 months after she moved into Assisted Living.

 Is it January yet?


Marie Smith said...

Thank you so much for sharing. It helps me understand how December is such a depressing month for some. I hope this December is as wonderful as it is possible to be for you. Your mother would want that for you for sure!

Cynthia said...

I’m so sorry Christmases have been so difficult for you. My mom has been in the hospital and now rehab for five weeks now. She is 94 and wants so much to be home. I hope she can make it by Christmas — or ever. For me, grandchildren help so much. One can’t help catching a bit of their starry-eyed happiness. I hope you will get to spend some of the holiday with yours this year.

Michelle said...

Totally understandable, and yes, heartbreaking. I pray December speeds by quickly for you!

Wendy said...

I do understand where you are coming from. The last few years of my Mother's life Christmas was a difficult time as she was in a nursing home and in the latter stages of Alzheimer's. Christmas became a holiday I dreaded. The first few years after Mum passed away (in 2012) weren't easy either but as time has gone on I have tried to embrace Christmas especially now that we have grandchildren. It's still not easy and of course there are days when it's harder than others. But January will come. Thank you for sharing this post.

Leigh said...

Sounds like December carries a lot of sad memories for you. I hope that sharing it with us gives you some strength and comfort!

Sandy said...

I can see why December isn't your month. So sorry for all you've been through. The holidays are a great time of sadness for many and we who enjoy the holidays tend to forget that. ((HUGS))

A :-) said...

I know how hard it can be to lose someone around the holidays. I'm sorry for the losses you have sustained, and I hope your spirit will eventually be able to find some comfort and joy as you continue to process your grief. It takes as long as it takes.