“The riders in a race do not stop when they reach the goal. There is a little finishing canter before coming to a standstill. There is time to hear the kind voices of friends and say to oneself, ‘The work is done.’”
~~ Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. ~~
Is your Christmas tree still up? What is your tradition for taking it all down? When do you put all the magic back in storage?
When it comes to decorating for Christmas, we are failures. Having all the extra clutter sitting around the house makes me a bit crazy. I own a lot of ornaments — boxes of them — not to mention nativity scenes, a large village, electronic Santas, angels, and carolers, lawn decorations, etc. But in recent years, most of the decorations have remained packed away.
The answer to that question is complicated. I could just claim that I’m too busy for all of it and that would be true, in part. I have a demanding career — I work long hours and travel a bit. I am a member of several musical groups for which I must rehearse and, of course, we present holiday concerts in December. In addition to my other responsibilities, I could build a convincing case founded upon a lack of time to properly prepare.
But that is not the whole story.
The truth was elusive until a few weeks ago. After Thanksgiving, in the midst of Christmas lights, decorations, carols, advertisements and all the rest of the seasonal sights and sounds, I realized that I haven’t had much enthusiasm for Christmas for several years. As I pondered Christmases past, I struggled to remember the last time I got excited about celebrating the holiday.
Finally, I concluded that it was 2002. That’s when this photograph was taken.
We moved into this house in late October 2002. My mother had moved to an assisted living facility because it was no longer safe for her to live here alone. Although she was 85 years old and experiencing serious memory loss, she recognized her family and delighted in seeing my boys every Sunday when we would pick her up and take her out. She was still able to walk with little or no assistance, and participated in activities at the facility where she lived. The folks there assured that she kept her weekly appointment with the hairdresser, and provided the assistance she needed to care for herself.
I snapped the photograph of her with her four cherished grandsons on Christmas Eve. It is the last picture of the five of them, taken the last time she was in this house. In the months that followed, her condition deteriorated rapidly. By the next summer, she could no longer walk or feed herself, and we were forced to place her in a nursing home where she spent the last two years and three months of her life in a fully dependent state. Although she could speak until she died, her words stopped making sense well before that time. For a long time, she did not recognize anyone else, but remembered my older sister and me. Eventually, we were erased from her memory banks, as well. When she died on October 13, 2005, I was relieved. (I wrote about the long, slow process of grieving a loved one suffering from dementia.)
The last two Christmases that my mother was alive, we tried to carry on with the celebration. She could not leave the nursing home, so we decorated her room and brought gifts of food to her caregivers. My sister and I went to visit her before coming home to spend the day with the rest of our families. We all carried on as best we could, but she was in our thoughts, even though we knew that she no longer had any appreciation of the fact that it was Christmas or that she was missing the festivities. In 2005, nobody felt, understandably, like celebrating at all so the obersvation was modest, mostly for the sake of the boys.
A few weeks ago, I realized that we have never really gotten into the full swing of Christmas again. Our celebrations have remained modest and, although we have enjoyed spending time together, we have never regained the enthusiasm we exuded for the hoiday season back when we had parents with which to share it, and the kids were younger and more excited about it.
This year, we had a very nice celebration, which included again attending the Christmas Eve candlelight service. It has been very relaxing and without stress. We put up the tree, but no other decorations. We’ve enjoyed lighting it and snuggling in front of a crackling fire, but we have not turned the lights on the past two evenings. Although we have traditionally left the tree up through New Year’s Eve, with that being the last night the lights are on, I am anxious to take it down. I might do that tomorrow, in fact.
My parents are gone, as are Bob’s. We have no aunts or uncles, with the exception of my mother’s youngest sister who resides in South Dakota. The kids are grown — MattieBoo, the youngest, celebrated his seventeenth birthday in November — but we are not yet grandparents. Maybe we are experiencing a normal transitional phase between the days of parenting young children and watching our parents enjoy being grandparents . . . and being the grandparents ourselves.
Perhaps I was wrong when I concluded that I had finished grieving by the time my mother actually died. I was very angry about her circumstances and the manner in which she was forced to live out her life — helpless, dependent, utterly lost, her final sentence was what she had always described as her worst nightmare and we were unable to assist her. Maybe I’ve remained angry and my anger has manifested itself in relationship to the holiday I used to love most. It might be that finally recognizing and acknowledging my anger will allow me to release and move on from it in the coming months and years.
I am hopeful that my Christmas funk will resolve itself in the coming years. I believe that I need to make a conscious effort to regain my enthusiasm through a combination of embracing the fact that we are now, as BigBob enjoys reminding me, the “old folks” — and implementing some new traditions. Perhaps next year we should plan a family vacation and celebrate the season in different surroundings. We will never again celebrate Christmas in the same way we did for so many years in this very room. Those days and the people with whom we celebrated are gone. It might be that I have discovered one drawback of living in the home in which you grew up where you constantly confront your memories — good and bad.
Here’s to ringing in a happy, peaceful New Year and looking forward with anticipation and wonderment to Christmases future!