The Present

With the Christmas season upon us, the chatter of commercial consumption has commenced, focusing on acquisitions instead of reflections.

I’m reminded of the complexion of Christmas’s past, celebrations as a child in the early sixties. Christmas Eve and Christmas morning spent at church, followed by a festive extravaganza either at our home or that of a relative. Similar to a resident of “Whoville” from a Dr. Seuss story, with people laughing, campy decorations, a cornucopia of food and my mother busy telling everyone to eat. It was about being present and surrounded by love.

My most magical Christmas came in December 2003. I intuitively felt compelled to have all my Christmas gifts purchased and wrapped by Halloween. The urgency was intense and void of reasoning. With my shopping completed, I shared with my mother, Baba, as our kids and friends affectionately called her, that we would spend all of December together. We both loved Christmas. While everyone else was racing around preparing for the season, we could chill and enjoy each other’s company. Baba had been a widow for many years at this point, and though we spoke several times a day, spending the month together would be memorable, in particular, going for coffee. Something I use to do with her when I was a little girl. She would share stories and laugh with me at the vintage steel, and chrome counters of Kresge’s. The discount establishment at the time. I’d be giggling while sucking back a tall chocolate milkshake elated in our time together.

During November 2003, I experienced two unsettling dreams of extreme loss. Both were rattling and resonated with me for the entire day. When the beginning of December rolled around, my husband and I hosted our annual Christmas party. Baba decided not to attend. The week prior, she experienced acute pain in her legs and resolved to stay home and rest. The Monday following the soiree, the pain had intensified. Her doctor scheduled her for emergency surgery that Thursday. I went to her home with food and insisted on spending the night, but she wished to be alone. The next day, feeling a tad better, we spoke briefly at 2:45 pm. I shared with her how the surgery would unfold and that I’d be there for her. Her final words to me were, “you always make me feel so good.” A short time later, Baba suffered a massive stroke.

I called her back several times later that day to check up on her. With no answer and uncanny feeling that something was wrong, I raced to her home. I found her collapsed in shock on the living room floor. Ambulance and fire trucks swarmed her house as we rushed her to the hospital. I didn’t leave her side.

I always wanted her to have a medical alert necklace, but she flat out refused. She promised she would call me should she ever experience a heart attack or stroke. A shared delusion of older Eastern European women believing they possess a constitution so strong that they can override nature.

I lovingly told her that she had suffered a massive stroke. Her entire Universe lay in her eyes, welled up with tears with no place to go. In them, I saw the shock, pain and surrender. I knew she wouldn’t be home for Christmas, so I brought Christmas to her. Each day on the way to the hospital, I stopped by her house, picked up her mail, bringing with me her holiday cards. I taped them in the shape of a Christmas tree on the wall of her room. The smallest card, with a Christmas tree motif, kept falling. Frustrated, as the larger cards seemed to be held tightly in place, I realized at that moment that the possibility existed that Baba could pass on Christmas Day. With this awareness, I taped it once again; this time, it stayed.

I brought my mother three gorgeous hand-painted Christmas ornaments and placed them in a decorative box next to her bed. One had snowflakes the other polka dots, and the third nestled in the middle had a Christmas tree. The following morning the middle one was shattered. It made no sense. What had become clear was the Universe was speaking to me, and Christmas Day could see my mother transition.

I spent the month of December holding her hand as she couldn’t speak. Squeezing my hand once for yes and twice for no. In that elemental communication, she still managed to convey for me to eat. I held Baba’s hand for 18 hours straight and spoke to her all day about everything and anything. I read to her and lovingly put headphones on her ears to listen to her favourite classical music so it could move her soul in the same way she introduced it to touch mine.

My husband had picked up a lovely necklace for Baba from his travels. The small act of bringing it into her field of vision brought her joy that could be read brightly in her eyes with a trace in the corner of her mouth. I fixed her hair and put lipstick on her. She raised me to believe it was the most crucial cosmetic a woman could possess. A few days later, she drifted into a coma.

I experienced many gifts that month. Though I only had four hours of sleep nightly, I repeatedly went to the REM state and awoke fresh and energized to spend another beautiful day with my mother. No cramps in my hands from holding her hand tightly; no pain in my jaw from speaking incessantly. No stress, exhaustion, or worry. We were both wrapped in light, love and an intoxicating peace. Neither time nor the outside world existed for either of us.

My house was dark when I left each morning and when I returned each evening. I made a friend with the parking attendant who knew, without me disclosing anything, that my dedication was one of unconditional love. He earnestly suggested that I get a monthly pass. His insightful disposition, while keeping the same 18-hour shifts, had me wondering who he really was.

The last rights were administered to Baba later that month while our eldest son spent the day with her. He had the lengthiest history with his grandmother and was accepting of her fate. He bravely spoke to her as she lay there, eyes shut, reflecting on how she was a catalyst for so many fun adventures. We laughed and cried. He thanked her for being his Baba and for the generosity and love she showed him. Our tearful eyes turned into stifling laughter as we watched the Mr. Bean of Priests administer what would be her final blessing — clumsily bumping into Baba and everything surrounding her.

For 21 consecutive days, I was at Baba’s bedside, detached from the world. My husband ran with Christmas and was a champ in an area that wasn’t his forte. Our children had to grow up that Christmas, struggling to understand something incomprehensible during a season that was supposed to be immune to such events. We helped them to see that it wasn’t sad but a release and freedom that their grandmother had summoned.

My mother passed away peacefully Christmas morning at 7:02 am on her favourite day of the year. As we unwrapped our last gift at home, she took her final breath. As sad and monumental as it appeared, it was the best Christmas for the both of us. Circumstances forced me to stop, listen and look into her eyes. I reflected on my history and how far this woman had taken me on my journey in life as I bore witness to hers. The cherished gifts exchanged that month between a mother and daughter were plentiful.

I still love Christmas. Each year I reflect upon the time I spent with my mother. I detach from the mania of the holiday and envelope myself in the love of the season. Our family gifts continue to be small tokens of loving intentions. I reconnect with friends and acknowledge as many people as I can. It’s important to me that they know how essential they are in my life.

Yesterday is gone and no one is promised tomorrow; however, we all have today. It’s no wonder the last gift my mother gave me was ‘the present.’

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