December 16, 1996. It is a day that is etched in my brain forever. It was just nine sleeps before Christmas and we got a call early that morning around 6am. My parents and I got up out of bed and got into our car and rushed to the nursing home where my grandmother had been staying for the last few months. She was 86 at the time. In the two years before she passed her health had deteriorated. She had osteoporosis and had broken her hip when she rolled over in bed. Born in 1908, when she had found herself confined to a wheelchair, she refused to leave the house. For her, it was shaming to be seen anywhere in public in that wheelchair. My cousin, Laura, lived with her and cared for her, but by the fall of 1996, it became too difficult. My grandmother had also been diagnosed with breast cancer. She had also put a Do Not Resuscitate (DNR) in place, probably because of the depression from being in the wheelchair or the depression from being in the nursing home or both. The call we received that morning was from the nursing home to let us know we had to get there quickly; my grandmother was close to the end. If we wanted to be with her in her last moments, we didn’t have any moments to spare.
I remember it was a cold but sunny morning. The sky had that pink glow as the sun was rising. It was hard to believe that something so terrible could happen on such a beautiful December morning. My dad is someone who always follows the rules. For example, most Canadians, when they do cross-border shopping in the U.S., lie about how much they bought when they come back into Canada. Not my dad. No, my dad is always honest and he would dutifully report how much we spent and then we would dutifully pay the duties on what we spent. And he never speeds. Never. But on this morning, my dad sped. It didn’t matter. When we arrived, my grandmother had already left us. I remember my cousins, Laura and Liz, sisters who were more like her daughters since she raised them being there. It was the first time I had ever seen a dead person. I was 22 at the time. Immediately, when I saw my grandmother, I realized it wasn’t her anymore. Yes, it looked like her. But the person I grew up loving more than anyone was no longer there. My cousin, Liz, who was hugging her body and crying didn’t seem to understand that she wasn’t hugging my grandmother anymore. She was hugging the home where her soul had lived, but her soul had moved on.
Christmas is always hard when it’s the first Christmas you celebrate after someone you love has died. But it’s even worse when the person dies just before the Christmas holidays. Not only do you have to do all the usual Christmas stupidity, but you also have to prepare for a funeral. I remember in the weeks leading up to Christmas, my cousin Liz insisting we celebrate Christmas with my grandmother since we knew she wasn’t expected to live past Christmas. My grandmother, who was a no-nonsense, practical lady, often found my cousin, Liz, to be ridiculous, even though she loved her like a daughter. Liz brought in a little tree and decorated it and put up garland and lights all around the room and all of the family was told to bring gifts for this early Christmas. My mom and I both racked our brains; what do you get someone who is dying for Christmas? And I knew my grandmother well enough to know that she was going to roll her eyes at this whole “Christmas” before Christmas fiasco. My mother and I settled on a bottle of Clinique hand lotion for the gift, because we knew my grandmother’s hands got dry from the air in her room. And we also figured, whatever we got, we would end up getting back after anyway. When we finally came to the day of my grandmother’s special Christmas, she, surprisingly, didn’t grumble or roll her eyes as much at my cousin Liz’s antics as she usually did. I think she knew that the early Christmas celebration wasn’t for her. It was for Liz. It was something Liz had to do to deal with the pain of losing the woman who had raised her from the age of two.
Every year on December 16, I think about my grandmother and that first Christmas without her. She was the matriarch; I think most women are in their families. It is the mothers and grandmothers who are the glue that hold families together. The last time I saw all ten of my aunts and uncles together who were left at the time my grammy died was at her funeral. My grandmother was buried next to her three children who had passed away before she did. When you have twelve aunts and uncles and fifty-three cousins, it is difficult to maintain close ties with them all. When my grandmother was alive, she was the reason that family who had moved to Ontario would return home at least once a year to visit. After she died, our family fell apart. I rarely saw my aunts and uncles and cousins anymore and our Christmas tradition of going to my grandmother’s for Christmas dinner and spending the afternoon working on puzzles and playing cards ended.
My grandmother died 21 years ago today. Ironically, she always said as she was nearing the time of her death, that she wasn’t afraid of death. She said she was ready at any time. Her only stipulation was that her death couldn’t be at Christmas because she didn’t want to ruin Christmas for her family. That was the kind of woman she was. No-nonsense and practical, and someone you didn’t want to cross. She’d hold you to account. I like to think that when she got to the other side that she tore a strip off of God’s decision to take her at Christmas! So today, I ask you to be thankful for your family and friends, and to enjoy every moment you have with them in the days leading up to Christmas. Hug your loved ones just a little bit tighter and remember that every moment you have with them is precious. Finally, if someone you know is dying at Christmas, hand lotion makes a great gift.
Graveyard. Free Stock Photos. <http://www.freestockphotos.biz/stockphoto/9185> December 16, 2017.
Hand cream. Px Here. <https://pxhere.com/en/photo/634760> December 16, 2017.
Mini-tree. Flickr. <https://www.flickr.com/photos/daveynin/8251311244> December 16, 2017.
Winter morning. Max Pixel. <http://maxpixel.freegreatpicture.com/Frozen-Season-Morning-Cold-Sun-Ice-Winter-Road-1881442> December 16, 2017.