We set out in the car and take the local route. Following the river, we pass through small cities and towns in various stages of development. Some, like mine, once abandoned or left in disrepair, now show signs of life, propagated by the many transplants from Brooklyn and other boroughs. Thanks to them we will have a maker’s holiday market this year. Our new old car has heated leather seats that keep me warm. Slow jazz repetitions accompany us when we take this journey, lulling me into a tenuous sense of security. At the end of the drive is my mother.
She is now in the last stages of dying. Unlike the usual brisk, taking care of business approach to her life, she’s taking her time with her death. Each week she does less. She rarely speaks, no longer eats, and takes only sips of fluid. Now, rather than stay busy with reading, doing her crosswords, and praying novenas for her children (and anyone else who needs them), she sleeps. The crystal rosary I brought her from a cathedral in Strasbourg three years ago no longer sends out sparks of light as her fingers animate it, moving through the beads. There are no more murmured Hail Mary’s; only sorrowful mysteries. As I tidy up her room, I come upon a woven china basket she’s had for as long as I can remember. It’s one of the few artifacts of her life she brought to this place when she arrived six years ago. She fills it with Mass cards for those who have taken this path before her. Her sisters, their husbands, her parents, her friends, her nephew, and my father. Her card will complete the pile. My stomach contracts; my generation is next. Hospice began this week.
Two generations behind me, and three generations behind my mother, my granddaughter remains exempt from this waiting for death. She is full of only one thing right now; the incredible excitement that for children is Christmas. She reminds me urgently that I must get a tree this year, put up decorations and find pride of place for the two tiny gingerbread houses she made for Thanksgiving. Instead of slow jazz, she wants me to play Christmas music, as loud and celebratory as the volume controls allow. She tells me I must be ready because Santa will come to my house too. Last year I got away with opting out of decorating because I had just moved, but this year with a determination reminiscent of my mother’s, it’s clear she will tolerate no excuse.
There are cookies to bake for the neighbors who brought us plants when we arrived, left vegetables from their gardens during the summer and apple turnovers when it was apple picking time this fall. It’s my turn to return their neighborly hospitality and acknowledge the gifts that were given that eased the adjustment to our new community and home. It would be easy for me to evade these responsibilities by simply explaining I am too busy witnessing the passing of my mother, but it would disappoint her if I offered that as an excuse. After all, she remained present, living and loving as she experienced the death of all those she loved. After my father died, she allowed herself to become our greatest comfort.
We buy a Christmas tree, a live one, in a big red tub. Determined to re-use it as our tree every year, we bought a variety that while a small tree now, can grow up to eight feet tall. Then it will need to be planted outside unless we want to stunt it’s future growth. In crafting our decorations, we choose life and re-birth. I have cranberries to string, pine cones gathered from under our towering white pines, evergreen and boxwood garlands to weave between the spokes of our staircases, inside and out. All these materials will return as compost to the earth where they will reconstitute and regenerate providing rich soil for future growth. The smell of Christmas comes into my house and from this I experience a burst of joy amidst the sadness.
After our trips to visit my mother, we stop at thrift and vintage stores looking for ornaments that have lived a life on other people’s trees. I sift through baskets of them like I’m on a treasure hunt. Now they will be re-born on our tree and someday packed up and given to my granddaughter for her own tree, in her own home. I hang foil-covered balls of chocolate ornaments that will disappear as they are plucked from the tree and eaten. I search for a cookie recipe that is festive but not too difficult as my kitchen is, like me, in the process of renovation. I decide on a rich, soft chocolate one topped with shards of crumbled candy canes. Everything triggers a memory of my mother these days and I remember chocolate mint is one of her favorite flavors. I see the long narrow boxes of chocolate dinner mints she bought for holiday tables. I can almost taste the refreshing jolt of the mint, waking you up and reminding you are alive. As she aged, her favorite treat was York Peppermint Patties, and we all brought her bags of them; always disappearing before the next visit.
My mother and my granddaughter, wiser than me, are teaching me how to continue living life when one is in the company of death. My Christmas tree tells me that life goes on, we will continue to grow and strengthen each year. My ornaments say there will be a new purpose for you when this time is over though some familiar and loved things will disappear. The evergreens and boxwoods reveal that nature allows us to reconstitute and become something new; to nurture those that come behind us. While one life ends, others go on and for those, we must remain present. It’s the nature of things they all tell me; life goes on.
What lessons about life are you learning this holiday season?