december 23rd - the final xmas, death duties
As I said, over the last decade or so I’ve managed to more or less avoid the whole Christmas bonanza. While my in-law family are Christmas freaks, we live far enough away from them that we often don’t see them till spring, and since they haven’t got to grips with sending gifts through the post (they probably like to see our gifts under their tree on Christmas morning) we face the ordeal (and I’m afraid for me it is still an ordeal) of having to open Christmas presents months after the event. Which means putting on the grateful face. Still, nothing’s perfect is it. I am willing to compromise where necessary. I just wish that people would respect my wishes enough not to include me in their Christmas.
As proof that I’m not heartless, I’ll tell you of the last Christmas I ‘did.’ (And I’m hopeful it’ll be the last one I ever have to ‘do.’) It was my mum’s last Christmas. We knew she was dying of cancer. She’d been diagnosed with three months to live and we knew that even if she lasted longer than this (she did) she wouldn’t see another Christmas. So I put all animosity aside and did what I knew was ‘the right thing.’ I went to spend Christmas with her and (most) of my family.
She was more or less bedbound but as I knew that Christmas was her biggest pleasure through the year, I determined that we’d do the best we could to give her a final Christmas. I even did some hoovering! She had organised a Christmas tea party and she’d booked for us all to go out for a Christmas Dinner. I had been more than happy to cook all the Christmas Dinner for us all at home, but my mum was always pretty territorial about her kitchen and the thought of me ‘taking over’ Christmas wasn’t what she wanted. So we went out.
Unfortunately, she wasn’t well enough to go with us. I would most happily have stayed behind with her, but my sister, who was living with her at the time, took on this role and we were detailed to go out and ‘have a good time.’ We did our best, but I couldn’t help thinking how overpriced the food was, how crap it was for the cooks and waiters (though maybe they were enjoying avoiding their own families at time and a half!) and it all felt a bit strange. At least I avoided eating turkey and Christmas pudding.
We got home and my mum had made it out of bed. She’d had something of turkey and Christmas pudding I think, but she was struggling with eating in general so I think it was more the idea than the actuality she experienced. Maybe it sparked the memory of Christmases past. But I think what my mum liked best about Christmas was that it was a wipe the slate clean sort of time – you did the same old things you always did – but as if for the first time and with the hope that this time it would be ‘brand new’ and perfect. Like I said, her relationship with Christmas has always been a mystery to me.
However, what my mum did teach me during her prolonged dying process, was how almost infinite the human capacity is to reduce expectations. I’m sure she extended her life by some six months simply by constantly reducing them, while steadfastly also refusing to let go. But of course, inevitably, she died and I wouldn’t wish the quality of life she had for the last six months on anyone. But, it was her choice and we all respected that, however hard it was for us. I’m sure it was harder for her.
That Christmas afternoon we all opened presents and I did the best job ever of the gratitude game. It’s tough buying a present for someone who is dying, hard to get something from the world of consumption that is valuable in the moment. Which is ironic given the ‘life’ of most consumer items these days. But with approaching death, priorities change and it was a really limited range of things we could wrap up for her. The ‘gift’ was us all being there and we gave that as wholeheartedly as possible. One last time.
Once the presents had been opened, the front door was also opened and the friends came in. She had a decent circle of friends in those last months, all of whom gave up their own family Christmas to come to ours. And you know what, we actually had quite a good time. There was an elephant in the room of course, the awareness that we were all doing this for one reason and that it was a once only event. Perhaps it was because of that that we all had such a good time. It wasn’t about consumer capitalist or even religious Christmas, it was about doing something for someone – giving them what you knew they wanted – because you couldn’t give them more life. We stayed a couple of days and when we left I went to see my mum, propped back up in bed, wearing her wig and looking small and vulnerable but still recognisable. She beamed at me. ‘You didn’t think I’d be able to manage it,’ she said, or words to that effect.
‘Did you have a good Christmas?’ I asked her.
‘Yes,’ she beamed. And with a sort of triumphant tone, like she’d brought the prodigal home, added, ‘Did you?’
‘Yes, mum, I really did,’ I said. And meant it.
And when I left her bedroom, I told myself that this was how I would always remember her. I knew there were tough months ahead – nine of them as it turned out – during which time she reduced her expectations and became both mentally and physically quite unrecognisable. But now, years on, the way I like to remember ‘last’ seeing her is that Christmas. How strange that it should be one of my happiest Christmases, and one of my happiest memories. But it sticks with me. The spirit of Christmas can strike from time to time, but to expect it every year is perhaps over confidence!
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