ED: This story was originally published on Nov. 7.
I don’t hate Christmas for the usual reasons.
I’m not an atheist, and I don’t care that the holiday is commercialized (so don’t send me the Charlie Brown Christmas special, okay?), and it doesn’t bother me that we’re required to give gifts out of obligation instead of giving them because they mean something to someone we love, although that is fairly obnoxious and pretty damn expensive.
I hate Christmas because I used to love it.
My mother loved Christmas more than anyone I’ve ever known. I never really thought to ask why, but probably for the usual reasons that every mom loves the most wonderful time of the year: The nostalgic feeling that accompanies opening presents, and drinking hot chocolate on the one day that everyone in the family is (happily) forced to be together.
Mom stored boxes of garlands and lights that she would keep in the garage that we would open up the weekend after Thanksgiving, along with the same fake Christmas tree with the lights still attached from the year before; she was cheap like that. But her favorite decorations were the sets of nativity scenes that she collected year after year. When I was an 11-year-old girl, her favorite things were my favorites, too.
Some of the nativity scenes were classic and ceramic; some were cartoonish and stuffed, others made of balsa wood. And then there was my favorite, the brass nativity with the southwestern feel. They all had the same place every year: the mantel, the living room table, and it was always my job to put the brass scene together on the entryway table, because it was guaranteed not to break.
It took at least one full day to unpack the boxes and unwrap these fragile nativity scenes. My dad and brother weren’t invited — or more likely, didn’t care — to help with such things. It was our tradition, until it wasn’t.
Mom was diagnosed — or, rather, given her sentence — in March 1998, right before Easter. The cancer killed her pretty quickly, which was nice of it.
The doctors sent her home the second week of December and set up the hospital bed in her room and hooked her up to the IVs where she could be “comfortable.”
At the time, I didn’t know that hospice equaled death.
Being the southern lady that she was, mom didn’t want people to see her with yellow, jaundiced skin, with black spots on her face, without hair, and without a wedding ring that couldn’t stay on her skeletal finger. So nobody decorated the house with those nativity scenes that year because nobody would have come inside to see them.
On Dec. 18, friends came and erected a Christmas tree in our front yard adorned with photographs of my mom, of me, of all of us. When everyone left that night, we helped her walk, slowly, outside to see the tree. She cried at the sight, although I’m not certain she knew what she was looking at. Three days later, she died.
Those boxes of nativity scenes wrapped in bubble wrap belong to me now, but I haven’t opened them since the last time we opened them together; the last time that I loved Christmas.
I haven’t decorated a Christmas tree in 15 years. I haven’t strung lights or arranged a nativity scene or willingly listened to a Christmas song, although I will admit to digging Michael Buble’s holiday album. (Admit it — you like the guy, too.)
I’ve been alive for 26 years now, and I only knew my mom for 11 of them. But 15 years after her death, I still get that unsettling feeling in mid-October when the first chill sets in. The feeling lasts well into winter, until after her birthday and then mine, both in February, just three days apart. That unsettling feeling goes away for several months in the spring and summer; then it starts all over again in mid-October.
This, of course, is not a novel phenomenon. Unfortunately, for any of us who have lost a parent or a loved one — which is all of us, eventually — we know that all it takes is a whiff of a perfume or a chord of a song or a season to take us back to a time where we really don’t want to go. But fortunately, there are songs and smells and seasons that take us places that we love to revisit.
The chill in the fall air reminds me of mom’s ugly, pale pink sweater that draped over her thin body. Winter means IVs and pill bottles and hospital beds and death. Christmas means the season that mom loved but was too sick to love one last time. And now I can’t love it, either.
Nearly 15 years to the day after my mom died, I’m still not ready to revisit those boxes, but I will be eventually. And then the chill in the air won’t feel so cold.