Coping with grief during the holidays is difficult. I am sharing my touching story of caring for my mother during the holiday season and how I found strength amidst the darkest hours.
Sleep in Heavenly Peace, Christmas Lights, and a Music Box
A Christmas Story
We looked alike coming from the same European mold, with our rounded faces, Mother with a stern look, and me without a care in the world. We were complete opposites, constantly repelling.
Mother, the strong-willed, working woman held everything about herself, including her emotions, protected and locked away tightly inside a vault.
Me, oh, I was softer around the edges and wore my heart on my sleeve, chasing dreams.
As the leaves changed their color for the season and turned crisp and crunchy beneath foot, news circling this household changed the holiday preparations for the season. The cul-de-sac was aglow with twinkling lights as the anticipation of Christmas was drawing near, except for the house in the center. There were no lights sparkling in this home, making the dimly- lit house seem ominous.
Mother could ward off colds and flu with her determination her whole life, never stepping foot inside a doctor’s office, and under no circumstances did she get routine physicals. But this nagging cough seemed more than just a cough, compelling her to visit the doctor.
The doctor shared his findings. I had worked alongside this familiar doctor at the beginning of my nursing career and trusted his judgement. He expressed his sincerity and shared that end would come quickly. This was something Mother would not be able to will away.
Mother, who methodically prepared for the future, lived in the present, and sealed away her past, said she was ready and wasn’t afraid.
The internal struggle for me was more than I could bear. Yet, somehow, I managed to maintain composure with tears held back, looked into my mother’s eyes as she relayed to me her wishes.
The Stories of Old
The stories of old would be told a bit differently this year, as they had been when we lost my sister and said our final goodbyes to my father not long ago. There were just the two of us remaining, mother and child.
All the battles we fought through the years that had seemed important to me were extinguished, and now it was up to me to respect my mother’s final wishes.
My mother’s strength drained in just a few weeks and in her eyes, I saw the truth. The look in her eyes when she relinquished to her fate was the same look in a child’s eyes when they learn to walk; they fall, but they are determined to get back up, they reach out for their parents’ hand and try to stand again.
Her eyes spoke, there would be no getting back up. My mother now reaching out to her child.
As the autumn air grew colder, darkness came earlier, and the nights lasted longer. I prayed and hoped the angels were nearby to guide me. I administered medications more frequently, and I listened to the sounds in the night, as a shepherd would guard his flock for a lost lamb crying out. The only sound was the air flowing through the tubes filling my mother’s lungs with well-needed oxygen.
A Star Shining in the Sky
I made footprints in the snow as I paced outside. I saw the clear night sky and the snow reflecting the moon’s light and as the heavenly stars gleamed down as it once did years ago upon the manger, it offered a sense of hope. But as I looked back upon the house, I saw no hope.
Was it the angels that gave me this determination? I hastily brought the heirloom boxes out of their hiding. There were generations of shiny ornaments passed down from great grandmother, to grandmother, to mother, and now to me. Memories from the past filled the small tree with colorful lights beside my mother’s hospital bed. As each ornament was carefully placed, I sang along with the choirs of the seasonal music playing. My heart felt less heavy.
Visions of all our Christmases past flashed as tears welled in my eyes. Feelings of both happiness and sadness filled my soul as if it were to explode. Was this what my mother was experiencing? Was she remembering the days of old? Was she seeing her whole life flash before her? “Silent Night” began to play and a presence was felt in the room beside us as if the angels had joined the choir. I stroked my mother’s hair and whispered, “Sleep in heavenly peace.”
A Silent Night
Maybe the angels heard my plea. My mother was blessed with an ounce of strength. She was able to sit up in her favorite chair for just a short while and she was able to quench her thirst with a few sips of water. Her face gleamed and she spoke to those who had passed. Perhaps, she saw angels amongst those familiar faces as she spoke to them. This unusual bout of energy was short-lived. I placed her back into her bed and she looked at me and said, “ I love you, Susie.” “I love you too, Mom.” And I kissed her.
Mother had succumbed to her hospital bed and I tended to her day and night to keep her comfortable. She was freshly bathed, her skin covered in scented lotion, hair freshly brushed, and donned in a pink nightgown.
When Irish Eyes are Smiling
Mother’s discomfort increased, and as instructed by hospice, I gave her a dose to calm her and ease her breathing. Beside her table full of medicine, I noticed an old music box. Mother loved all things Irish. I lifted the scenic painted lid and “When Irish Eyes are Smiling” echoed through the room from the music box. I read aloud the cover of the box:
May your troubles be less
And your blessings be more
And nothing but happiness
Come through your door
A calmness flooded my mother’s face and I felt still.
The Spirit of Christmas
I found promises in the lights that glistened and in the songs that I sang. I began to believe the box of heirlooms we unveil each year holds the spirit of Christmas. The memories from generations past whispered out to me; I had something to hold onto. I felt the meaning in those treasures. By some means, in that that short time, there was a new bond that formed between my mother and I as we shared our last Christmas together.
The fresh covering of the night’s snowfall instilled a sense of calm on this day, it was clean and bright as it sparkled in the sunlight. Mother was surrounded by her loved ones and rested easy. The lights of the Christmas tree shone down on my mother’s face. The angels caught my tears on this day, as my mother lay now in heavenly peace.
I dedicate this story to my mother and to the nurses, doctors, healthcare professionals and patients along with their caregivers in hopes of offering strength and hope during the holiday season.
I welcome your comments and encourage you to share this story.