"Twas the night before Christmas and all through the house, not a creature was stirring not even a mouse..." These are the very familiar first words of Twas the Night Before Christmas; a poem that is read in the homes of many this time of year. I can almost envision all the little children in their pajamas, holding their favorite stuffed animal, and sitting on the floor in front of the fireplace. In a wing backed chair, their grandfather sits regally and clears his throat as he begins reading to the wide-eyed children. The rest of the family listens intently, sipping egg nog and remembering back to when they were kids. Beautiful Christmas memories.
I too have many wonderful Christmas memories from my childhood; my first kitchen set, three separate pieces made of aluminum not hard plastic; my "Chatty Cathy" doll, go figure; my first ten speed bike, a boy one because "Santa" didn't realize there was a difference and the excitement of checking to see if Santa ate the cookies I left and reading a note from him. Now that I've dated myself, I will tell you that after all these years, I can still hear my Mother singing Christmas Carole's in the kitchen as she cooked Christmas dinner and my Father played with my sister and I on the living room floor. In my head it is almost like I'm there.
Today, my Christmas memories include my grandchildren and the traditions we have started with them. But underneath the memories of smiling children, mounds of torn wrapping paper and cut out cookies, there lies a sadness that I have experienced for the past 16 years. In December, 1996, as we prepared for the Christmas season, buying gifts, planning our annual Christmas party, and decorating our home, my Mother became very ill. Six months earlier she had been told that her breast cancer had returned and this time it was in her bones. The first few weeks, were a series of roller coaster rides; one day she was good and the next, she was flat on her back for days on end. On December 18th, we took her to the doctors to be given the worst possible news, the cancer was now in her liver and her organs were shutting down. She now had to be hospitalized.
As we waited for her admission, her spirits were high, doing everything she could to soothe my broken heart and assuring me that she was not done fighting. We got her settled and we joked and laughed; she complained her room was too hot and she was determined to be at our family Christmas party just three days later. We kissed goodbye saying I love yous and went home to spend a sleepless night. The next day was like the slow creep up the first hill of a roller coaster. Mommy, was in and out of consciousness; her skin was dandelion yellow and hot to the touch. Her stomach was swollen giving the appearance of pregnancy and I knew by looking at her, it wasn't good. As we sat by her beside, the slow creep up the track seemed to be getting faster and faster. When visiting hours ended, I kissed her cheek and rubbed the short hair on her head. "I love you," I whispered in her ear and turned to leave. The night nurse assured me she would call if anything changed and we left for home and another sleepless night.
I called the hospital as soon as I got up and was told that my Mom had had a wonderful night. She had been up several times, talking and joking with the nurses and was sleeping comfortably at that moment. I hated it, but I had to go into work for a few hours that morning so, I left after my husband reassured me that he would call if anything changed. At 1:00, the descent down that sky high roller coaster slope, began. The call said, "Get to the hospital right away, it's not good." As I raced down the highway to the hospital, everything around me seemed to move in slow motion. I prayed over and over again, asking God to get there in time. I sprinted through hallways and pushed past people until I was met by her nurse at the door to her room. As I entered the room it appeared everyone had arrived before me; aunts, uncles, cousins, my sister and my husband. I rushed to her bedside and sat down on the edge of the bed. The movement didn't stir her; she lay motionless, oxygen mask on her face and machines beeping behind her bed.
I sat with my sister on the bed and we talked to her, telling her all the things we wanted her to hear, not sure she could. I thanked her for teaching me to be a mother, for loving me when I was unlovable, for helping me raise my children and for showing me what unconditional love was all about. I praised her for her courage and for the valiant way she fought this disease. I told her how very much I loved her...then on this very day 16 years ago, I gave my Mommy permission to die.
I know this all sounds very sad and depressing but some very remarkable things came out of letting her go. To that point in my life, I believed in God and I hoped there was a heaven, but at the moment of letting her go I was assured of it. As quickly as the words "It's okay to stop fighting. We will be okay." left my mouth, she opened her eyes and smiled and an amazing sense of peace washed over her. I knew at that moment she was looking in the face of Jesus and was being welcomed into heaven by my Dad and so many others we had lost. Of course there were tears from everyone in the room, but just as quickly it turned to laughter and joy as we remembered the amazing woman she was and how she would get to experience the live Nativity.
After burying my Mother just two days before Christmas, the Christmas of 1996 was hard but I had children and my Mom would have really been mad if we hadn't made it happy for them. So I swallowed my tears and painted on a smile and did just that. The Christmas' since have become easier, though I will always miss her, but the Christmas' since will never be the same, but not because she is missing.
One final request my Mom made in the days before she died was that my husband and I find a church to go to. So in the two years after her death we searched for a church for our family to attend. We tried several churches of various faiths, but we didn't feel we were "good enough" for any of them. Christmas 1998, brought us to Mountain Christian Church and we've been there every since. My Mom's final request brought us to a family that has embraced us and carried us through the rough times in our lives. We have found a peace that can only be found in Jesus Christ and we are better people for it.
Now, instead of missing my Mommy with sadness on Christmas, I miss her with joy. I thank her for her final request that brought my husband and myself to Salvation through Christ. I thank her for her final request that led me to a place that taught me that being a Christian doesn't mean perfection, it just means forgiven. I thank her for her final request that makes me want to be a better person, mother, wife, sister, and friend. I thank her for her final request that makes me look at the Nativity in a way a never did before.
At this time of year when so many are grieving the loss of loved ones, I say, I get it. But equally I say, don't let their death and ultimately their life, be marked by sadness. Find the one thing that gave you the most joy from that person and hold tight to it. Learn from it and grow from it. The best memorial you can give a loved is joy in your life and the joy you bring to others. Shed some tears if you must, but only for a little while and then remember to smile.
Christmas morning when it is still quiet, I will sit and think of my Mommy and my Daddy and my tears will flow, but then I will smile as I think that on that day, just as the wise men visited the stable in Bethlehem, my parents will be visiting the manager of the King in person. Their voices raised in glorious song to the Christ Child and my heart will burst with joy as I know I will be there with them one day. I pray that you find that joy too!
I pray that you have a joyous Christmas and a Blessed New Year!
Until next time, I thanking Willa Mae Barlow, my Mom for her final request!