Saturday, December 24, 2011

Holidays - A Year Ago Today

Hello! No photos with this post, just memories of what happened a year ago today. For anyone reading this who is not a relative or friend, what happened a year ago is that my mom died. Yes, on Christmas Eve. 

The timing wasn't exactly a surprise, for she had been at a residential hospice facility since that October, following a rather sudden and shocking diagnosis in late September of a type of brain cancer that does not respond well to surgery or other treatments. 

My mom had always seemed rather a tough cookie, having survived a car accident, heart attack and breast cancer in recent years (the brain cancer was not related to the breast cancer, we were told). She had turned 83 the month before her diagnosis, but still had seemed to be in reasonably good shape. 

For example, she had driven across the state, 2 1/2 hours each way, to visit us in July, and while there did a fair amount of walking one night, explored two antique malls with me, plus dinners out, a visit to a local beach and other activities. In short, it seemed like a normal visit. As she and my dad drove away, I wondered, as always, if it had been the last visit the two of them would make. After all, at that time my dad was 88 and my mom had been discussing his mental and physical decline for years already. 

So needless to say her diagnosis turned life as I knew it upside down. We kids did what we could to make her stay at the hospice facility as pleasant as we could and of course tried to support our dad as well. It was very sad to see her mental and physical condition decline, but there was nothing that could be really be done to reverse what had happened. Very early on in her diagnosis, I had the sudden awareness that this is how it was supposed to be, as if somehow I had known this all along. It didn't mean that I was happy that she had gotten this form of brain cancer, but I could accept her diagnosis rather than flail along with the what-if's or why-did-this-happen sort of thinking. 

Still, there's no denying that watching a loved one die, especially right around the holiday, was very tough. All around me last year, people were wishing me Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays. I wanted to scream at them at times! One well-meaning person, who was kept informed of my mom's diagnosis and decline, even wrote a cheery "have fun" in her Christmas card. I forgave her for her choice of words since her parents are both still alive, so she didn't know how it was for me, and I knew she meant well. But by writing that she came across as forgetting, or not caring about,  what I was going through. 

However, what was worse was the non-support of someone whom I've given a good deal of  support and encouragement in the many years I've known her - including when her own parents died. I was very disappointed, as it would have taken very little time on her part to drop a line or send a quick email. Yet she never did. Too busy, I guess. 

(I should add that I mention these two incidents not to point fingers at anyone, but rather as an instructive lesson of what not to do if anyone reading this wonders what to do or say under similar circumstances. And I am sure that I have made some clumsy etiquette mistakes myself.)  

On the other hand, I was greatly touched by the thoughtfulness of a friend who invited me to come to her church to pick out a prayer shawl to take to my mom. (A group of women at her church make these as a way to provide comfort for those in need). I did as my friend suggested and selected a pretty green shawl from the assortment at the church office. My mom was very pleased by the shawl and used it often. After her death my dad donated it to the hospice facility, so it continues to give comfort to those in need. I am grateful for my friend's gesture and am also grateful to the unknown woman who crafted the shawl. It really meant a lot to me!

As Mom's condition decline further last December, there was uncertainty within the family over what to do about Christmas Eve. My dad had already decided that he wanted to take part in the Christmas Day buffet offered to the hospice patients and their families (the facility had offered the same for Thanksgiving and so that's where my family gathered on that holiday). Christmas Eve had been one of my mom's biggest nights of the entire year, for it was on that night that she hosted her large French-Canadian family for their traditional meat pie. The gathering had dwindled in recent years due to relatives having moved away or died, but it was still a dinner that my mom always hosted. 

My husband, my daughter and myself had gone to see my mom a few days prior to Christmas Eve, and were going to be present at the buffet dinner at the facility on Christmas Day. So, as usual, we headed off to the Christmas Eve Family Mass, which at our church begins at 5:00. 

Around 5:56, the part of Mass during which prayer intentions are offered began. As the lector read the intention for those who are dying, I felt a jolt inside of me. 

I came home after church to a message from one of my sisters that Mom had died - right around the time that that prayer for the dying had been read. What timing! 

I went to bed that night with a very heavy heart since I was not at her bedside when she died. (she'd gone very fast at the end, so I wasn't the only one who hadn't made it, but still felt sad about this). As I lay in bed crying, I suddenly felt as if my hair was being stroked - yet at that time I was the only one in the bedroom. Could it have been my mom, trying to comfort me from beyond? I'd like to think so. 

Now, at first it seemed quite ironic that my mom would die on Christmas Eve, since I recall that in the past she often expressed sympathy for others who had to deal with death or other sorrows during the holidays. When the father of a sister-in-law died a few days before Christmas, Mom commented that now the family would always associate Christmastime with his death. And whenever she heard the fire siren go off on Christmas Eve, she was certain that someone's house was burning down due to a Christmas tree fire and would express sorrow about this. 

So, here she went and died on Christmas Eve - the very thing she would have thought so unfortunate if it had happened to another family! Rather ironic - but in retrospect, it's quite fitting that she died right around the time that she and her family would have all been sitting down around the dining room table to eat that meat pie. In that sense, it's a sort of memorial to her and the kind of person she was - devoted to family, having get-togethers with family and friends, and keeping the spirit of Christmas alive for those whom she loved. 

I endeavored to keep her spirit alive this Christmas by making ornaments out of her fabrics for my siblings and their kids. We can never take her place, of course, but we can endeavor as she did to keep the spirit of Christmas alive - for ourselves and for others. Although I miss her very much, I told our daughter earlier today that Grandma would want us to be happy today. 

Merry Christmas, Mom - I will never like that meat pie, but I will always remember you on Christmas Eve - and on every other day of the year!


  1. What a beautiful post.
    Shortly after my mom died last year, after years of Alzheimer's Disease, I clearly heard her say my name. It didn't even seem weird, just sort of comforting.
    May all your Christmas's include happy memories of your mom.

  2. Thank you so much for reading along and for commenting - it was difficult to write, so I appreciate your kind words. May you have happy memories of your late mom too. I am familiar with Alzheimer's, so I know it's hard on the families. I only had to watch my mom decline for 13 weeks - if it'd been years that would have been even harder, I'm sure.