Preface This year I have been apprehensive about the approaching holidays; it is the first time that my husband and I are not traveling to Los Angeles. Last Friday, I was planning to post my reflections when the horror in Connecticut engulfed all of us in a deep and profound sorrow.
In one of her original 1968 serigraphs, the artist Corita Kent prominently featured the words by Gabriel Marcel “We can only speak of hope.” During this sad week, these words have become my mantra. In this spirit, I offer you the post originally intended for last Friday:
I’ll Be Home For Christmas
For the last twenty years, my husband and I have spent Christmas in sunny Southern California.
This year, for the first time, we are not boarding a plane bound for Los Angeles.
In the early years, I anticipated our pilgrimage across the country to see my Mother with a jumbled combination of hope and dread. Christmas in LA always loomed as the final duty in a year defined by obligations.
Every year Christmas week beckoned with the promise of a brief respite from anxious clients, corporate crises, and imminent deadlines. Surrounded by the lights and festivities of Manhattan, year after year I dreamed about canceling our flights and staying home; Christmas, New York, and us– just us.
But every year we would pack our bags, board the plane, and head to my childhood home.
In the early years, I tried to balance our need to unwind with my Mother’s gleeful expectation of fun-filled activities with her offspring. And every year, as the week drew to a close, I felt defeated. For my Mom, who had anticipated our reunion with such fervent longing, the week had gone by too fast. For us, numbed by exhaustion, it had become little more than yet another exercise in checking tasks off a list.
And suddenly we were right back in our If-I-Can-Make-It-Here world of clients and crises and deadlines.
“Did you have a good vacation?”
“Oh yes, wonderful.”
But then my Mother’s world shifted on its axis, and with it, our Christmas. For the next ten years, we headed to Christmas in LA, but not to my childhood home. For the next ten years, we headed to a nursing home.
In the beginning, we were convinced that our Mother’s nursing home stay was just a temporary detour. I viewed our new surroundings with apprehension and even disdain; we might be here but we don’t belong here; our Mother is going home. During those visits, I stared straight ahead, barely heeding the other patients; my husband sat in the garden with a book and a come get me when you need me expression.
But my Mother did not go home. And over time, the Christmas sojourn to LA took on a new imperative; imbued with unforeseen joys to be had only in the small, enclosed world of people living their final days.
At the nursing home, we were surrounded by the basic pleasures of the season: crafts and cards made by local kindergarten children; the communal TV blaring Miracle on 34th Street at FULL volume; a therapy dog stoically outfitted with reindeer antlers; sugar cookies served with fruit punch; fire department-approved decorations covering every available surface; carols sung by enthusiastic musicians; nurses, orderlies, social workers and volunteers working steadily to ensure all was calm, all was bright.
Over the years, I grew to love Christmas at the nursing home.
I loved spending Christmas week with the people who took care of my Mother with patience and care and skill and yes, I think even love. I was in awe of the front desk administrator who stopped by her room every evening to wish her a good night; the aide who carefully selected her outfits–complete with matching socks; the activities director who convinced her to join the festivities; the dietician who always remembered her preferences; the maintenance worker who, knowing she thought he was a beloved nephew, visited her every day; the social worker who calmed her frenzied outbursts by enlisting her ‘help’ in the office (“but,” my Mother informed me “I don’t get a paycheck”); the nurses who efficiently addressed every need and quietly reassured her: your daughter is on her way.
And I loved spending Christmas with my Mother; her wishes fulfilled; her delight apparent even during the toughest years.
We belonged there.
And during those years my husband and I developed our own traditions for Christmas Eve and Christmas Day; after several hours at the nursing home, we continued our celebration; joyous times with extended family and friends who became our new family. Bleary-eyed and happily exhausted, we enjoyed good food and good friends; our new home away from home.
This year we are not boarding a plane. This year we are not heading to LA.
This year, I’ll be home for Christmas.
If only in my dreams…
My Mother’s Last Christmas Eve
View from the Nursing Home
Photo by Hallie Swift