It was with some sadness that I read this article from the Smithsonian about the Christmas card from 1963 never sent by President and Mrs. Kennedy. It reminded me so much of a Christmas I endured more than a decade ago.
In the dark of night a knock came at the door and there stood a state trooper. There had been an accident and my mother was in the hospital in critical condition. With a week to go until Christmas the news came not only as a shock but also a time freezer — the whole world just stopped.
It was a nightmare we all fear of living through, from beginning to end. Mom was in ICU, her body battered by a violent collision brought on by a combination of speed, inattentive driving and black ice. There were cuts and lacerations from shattered glass. But worst of all was the swelling which disfigured her almost to a point beyond recognition. It was awful.
She was on a ventilator, unable to breathe on her own. In all, a pretty grim scene. So when the doctors told us they expected her to recover we were surprised. Citing the fact that none of her vital organs were damaged that they could see, and her remarkable robust health despite the 74 years on her body, they saw no reason why she could not recover in time from what looked to us to be horrible wounds.
For days it was slow going. The ventilator came off first and then, slowly, she came around to not only eat but also move almost completely without aid.
That Christmas flew by. We spent almost no time at the house. In fact, by the time she had turned the corner it was past New Year’s Day and we all began talking of returning to work and picking up the pieces of our lives.
At home the tree was still up, presents beneath it still wrapped and waiting for attention. We didn’t have the heart for it until my mother inquired sometime near the middle of January from the hospital bed, asking me how I liked the new quilt she got us for Christmas.
We had no clue. I knew Mom was on the mend when she chastised me then and there in front of everywhere for skipping Christmas.
I know she would have done the same if she were in the situation I was in but at the same time I understood her wanting us to be happy. That’s just my Mom and, I think, just about what any good parent feels.
So plans were made to celebrate Christmas, right there at the hospital. She wanted her room decorated and she insisted that as many of the family as could come should be there.
She might be hurt but she wanted the light and laughter of the family Christmas we all missed. A date was set for the next Sunday, when most the family could attend.
Then it happened again. Tragedy.
On Friday Mom suffered a devastating stroke. By Sunday, she was gone. Just like that.
Another week passed and we held the funeral. And still the Christmas tree remained up, the presents wrapped and ignored for a second time.
The twin tragedy of the accident and then the loss just about took all the wind out of my sails. I was spent.
Having lost my father two years before had taught me all I wanted to know about losing a parent. It wasn’t like I was not prepared to let Mom go.
But after the funeral we found ourselves at the house, gathered together as a family anyway, and facing that Christmas tree and those presents straight in the face.
And you know what?
It changed the whole experience. Mom’s last motherly lecture to me was that Christmas was going to be celebrated. And, by God, my last gift to her was to see to it that it was.
I put on the old Johnny Mathis album she loved so much — real vinyl, by the way — and announced to everyone that even though we had just buried Mom we were going to fulfill her last wishes. We passed out presents, we ate food, we laughed and told jokes.
We had Christmas.
It was healing. It was a pure gift from a wise woman whose life was lived just long enough to give what she felt was most important.
I love you, Mom. And thank you.