It’s late December, only days to Christmas. The kids are out of school and it’s dark already at 4:30 pm. All the lights burn in the kitchen where my husband is busy making sugar cookies with our girls. Flour dusts the counters and floors. A delicious aroma fills the house. I’ve got work emails to tackle, but I’m doing it reclined on the couch while listening to Christmas music. iTunes shuffles our collection of eclectic albums, creating the playlist that plays pleasantly in the background. Until the opening phrase of Happy Xmas catches my ear.
“And so this is Christmas, and what have you done? Another year over and a new one just begun.”
The unmistakable timbre of John Lennon’s voice causes me to pause. I close my eyes to listen. Such a familiar, comforting melody.
“And so this is Christmas, I hope you have fun. The near and the dear ones, the old and the young.“
Like a waltz or a lullaby, the lilting rhythm in ¾ time soothes and I find myself swaying. Nostalgia prickles at my skin, then suddenly it penetrates and washes right through me. The chorus swells with children’s voices and fat tears fill my eyes, hot and quick.
“A very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year. Let’s hope it’s a good one without any fear.”
Spreading into my sternum like warm liquid, the harmonies untangle the knots in my neck and shoulders. The music is a nurturing presence, a caress. It reaches down into my gut and grabs some unnamed emotion and shakes it loose, free to rise to the surface. The feeling, just out of reach, crystallizes as it slips into my conscious mind. I take a sharp breath in.
And so this is Christmas. Without my mom.
Music is my undoing. It’s always the music that cuts through the noise, the barriers I’ve constructed. For the 5 months since my mother died, I’ve dipped in and out of grief, but mostly I postponed my mourning, tucking it deep down like a monster locked in the dungeon. Now, in this season, and in this moment, the beast is unleashed. Unfettered, it expands and threatens to swallow me. But instead of fighting, I surrender and let it over take me.
And so this is melancholy. I ache with missing my mother and tears spill over as I imagine her face. I can see her smile and hear her voice. Time stretches and loops back, and suddenly, this moment contains all the Christmases I spent as her daughter. The film projector in my head cues up my most cherished memories and replays them across the screen of my mind.
In the song, the key changes and John sings, “And so this is Christmas, for weak and for strong, the rich and the poor ones, the road is so long.” The children, in whole notes, sing lyrics offering a message of hope, “War is ov-er, if you want it. War is ov-er, if you want it.”
I’m weeping now, saturated with sorrow, not just for myself, but for everyone with a broken heart at Christmas. For those far away, devastated by war and poverty. For the homeless with nowhere to go. For those navigating the excruciating void left by the death of their loved ones. For those alone and lonely.
How can we embrace Christmas when there is such pain and suffering?
I ponder the question with sincerity and some measure of despair. Then, through the blur of my tears, I see my daughters at the dining room table bent over their project. They spread frosting thickly on candy canes and gingerbread men. They douse the cookies with sprinkles, smearing stickiness everywhere. They lick their blue and green stained fingers until their tongues and lips are colored as well.
I watch my husband—spreader of cheer, the anti-Grinch—outfitted in a ridiculous and adorable bright green elf apron taking yet another batch out of the oven. He, too is missing his mother. Gone more than two years, it seems like yesterday. He’s carrying on, for the third Christmas now, a tradition of hers. It may not have started out as an established yearly ritual, but isn’t that how such things evolve? Christmas without a weekend at MeMe’s house spent mixing and baking and decorating sugar cookies wouldn’t be complete, like skipping a visit to Santa or leaving the tree standing naked and unadorned.
Now, my husband has spread his mom’s dog-eared recipe cards on the counter. I notice her recognizable handwriting. After rolling out the dough, he cuts the shapes with her collection of cookie cutters, older ones made of dented tin–the same she used when he was a boy, and the newer, plastic ones. They are all worn, well-used. These talismans hold her energy, a precious reminder that keeps her close. When I ask how he’s doing, he tells me the loss still stings, but his memories are beginning to bring peace as well as pain. He reassures me as time passes, remembering my mother will bring her back to me.
I try to trust him, to hold on to what he says, but my grief is raw and I wonder how I can balance remembering her and going on without her. How do I move forward with my life, but not forget the past? I sense the answer. Because even this soon after, the sharpness of my mom’s absence is laced with tenderness. My longing is accompanied by intense gratitude. It dawns on me that physical separation doesn’t erase the depth of our bond. I’m consoled by the thought that I might keep her with me simply by remembering what we shared.
Love is an energy that does not die.
In this season of peace, the boundary between worlds feels thin. Permeable. Magic abounds and disbelief is suspended. We are willing to consider mysterious possibilities. In this elevated state perhaps we can sense the presence of those no longer living, hovering close, watching out for us. But to feel it, we must stop long enough to let it in. My sister says, “When I’m still and exhausted and quiet, Mom comes to me. And I cry.”
And so this is Christmas. How I wish I could talk to my mom, hear her voice and wrap her in my arms one more time. But I can’t. And it hurts so much sometimes I can’t breathe. At the same time, I feel her everywhere, in the generosity of others, wherever there is compassion. And I feel her in myself as I embrace the people right in front of me, just as she taught me.
The song ends, leaving me reverberating with this concoction of complex emotions. Tangled up together, they are impossible to sort. A new song begins and suddenly, my girls are dancing in the kitchen.
“Children go where I send thee. How shall I send thee? I’m gonna send thee one by one. One for the little bitty baby born, born, born in Bethlehem.”
The rich harmonies and thigh-slapping rhythm from Hall & Oates’ version of the traditional spiritual send my daughters into jubilant cavorting. They jump and bounce, wave their arms and shimmy. They whip their hair and shake their hips. All long-legginess and ponytails, they are exuberance in motion, beauty incarnate. I think how Mom would love this. She would clap her hands and laugh with a wide-open mouth, exclaiming, “How wonderful! Aren’t they just great?”
There is life here. And it is good.
The human heart can hold both joys and sorrows, can mourn and rejoice at the same time. I’ll never stop missing my mom. And yet, here and now, I can celebrate my children, the very perpetuation of life. The past alights gently in the present where new memories are being made. Times moves forward, but I will carry my mother with me always.