being a mom

Mom Without A Mom: Getting Through The Holidays Without Her

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Christmas Angel

The first Christmas without my mother, we took off for the Caribbean. My father, brother, and I shared a room at a Marriott hotel on a wide, windy beach. We took turns sleeping on the cot.

It was messy. We drank too much. We fought, sometimes about where to eat dinner, sometimes about her. It was fun. We walked and read books and gave gifts, maintained our family traditions as best we could in the confines of a giant, hollow hotel. It was hard. So hard I felt as though we’d never get through it.

We drank too much.

We’d spent her last Thanksgiving alive cramped around a tiny coffee table at Mass General, shoveling hospital turkey into our mouths. She was there for the entire week, after landing in the ICU with septic shock. She probably should have died then, but she didn’t. She came home with tubes planted in her stomach, draining bile into two bags we clipped to the inside of her shirt with safety pins. She had to give herself shots, and administer medicine through an IV in her arm. We’d sit on the couch together, tapping the tubes to get the air bubbles out.

Have you ever been to the ICU? It’s not a trip anyone should have to take. There are always pockets of happiness on most hospital floors. Maybe you pass a new mom in the elevator, heading home with her baby. A family relieved that an emergency scare ended up being nothing. But on the ICU floor everyone is in misery. Death echoes in every sound – the beeps of medical machinery, the nurses being paged over the speakers.

It was a shitty Thanksgiving.

I think by Christmas, I knew she was going to die. On Christmas Eve I pulled my car in behind my old high school and cried. We were together, but everything stung. Everything tasted bitter. She was almost gone, but not quite. I was selfish and ravenous for her, I took what I could get. I’d take my shell of a mother over no mother at all.

Everything about my mother was soft, and the holidays with her was no different. She didn’t clog the house with tacky trinkets, or overdo the Christmas cheer. With her, the house just felt warmer. She’d turn Christmas music on in the living room, and the white light of the trees somehow lit up the whole house. The sound of her cooking in the kitchen, prepping, was like a lullaby.

She would hide presents in presents, sticking gift cards and lottery tickets in books. She loved “Silent Night.” She cooked Christmas Eve dinner every year, and it was always chicken, and these delicious, cheesy potatoes. She made something called a “chocolate log.” I never liked it all that much, but she was so proud of it.

And then suddenly there we were, in the Caribbean, without her. The next year we went back again. My brother and I brought our significant others. We played cards, laughed, went on boats. We drank too much. It was fun and light and I thought I could spend every Christmas to come on the island of St. Kitts.

We never did Christmas in my parents house again. We found new ways to celebrate, kept the traditions we loved and let go of the things that only she could do. But it’s been long enough now, that I’m starting to feel brave. Maybe I can resurrect some of the things she did that made Christmas unique. I will try to make her apple cake for breakfast this year. I will stuff my kids’ stockings with surprises.

I don’t know if the holidays ever get easier without the ones we lose. It just gets…different. Time doesn’t heal, it nudges you forward. The only way to get through the holidays without a loved one is to get through them. But how you do it is up to you, and only you. Still, find joy in the spaces between the grief. There is still lightness there.

And when it gets hard, you can always drink too much. It’s worked for me.

(Photo: Shutterstock)