In my life I’ve celebrated ten Christmases with my mother. The first couple I don’t recall. And the last two were very difficult. Mam was in hospital for my ninth Christmas. She wasn’t well enough to come home. Dad took my brother and I to visit her and we sat around the hospital bed thinking this was not how Christmas was supposed to be. For my tenth Christmas Mam was at home but both she and I were ill. In hindsight I’m certain that I was terribly anxious about Mam’s illness and my body was buckling under the stress. I spent all of Christmas (days of celebrations in Ireland) and my birthday, which is on January 3rd, in bed sick. Mammy returned to hospital on January 4th, and died at home with us on March 2nd, 1988, when I was eleven.
The Christmases with Mam that I do remember are filled with happy memories of Santa Claus, games and toys, books, attending mass, a glorious open fire and delicious home cooked meals with hot tea and Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory on the television. My small family consisted of Dad, Mam, my older brother and me and we loved Christmas. The carol singing, tree decorating, Christmas lights, and the joy of giving and receiving filled us with cheer.
When I was nine Mam had to remain in hospital during the Christmas and this was confusing and sad. I understood for years that Mam was battling an illness, but that she couldn’t be home with us on the most special day of the year was hard to take. My father did his best to keep Christmas morning as normal as possible. The Cabbage Patch Kid I requested was beneath the tree, we visited Granny and my aunt in the morning and we went to mass. But of course it didn’t feel the same without Mam. Something was very wrong and life was showing us at an early age that we couldn’t always have what we wanted. What we wanted was our mother home with us on Christmas Day.
After visiting Mam in the hospital, Dad took my brother and me on a drive to the village of Menlo, a few miles outside of Galway city, where he pulled the car in at the side of Lough Corrib. Wrapped in our winter coats and hats we stepped out onto soggy ground and stared as a beautiful swan floated before us on the still grey water. For several minutes my full attention was on that striking swan. With my tiny hand nestled in dad’s hand we admired her as she glided on the lake. I remember that moment. There was beauty in it. My dad remembers it too.
The Christmases that followed Mam’s death were tough but my family remained close and because we kept many of the same Christmas rituals we were able to move forward together. Our Christmas tree always stands in the corner of the living room by a window where my mother once decided it should be. Our Christmas decorations are comprised of random pieces collected by Mam and Dad down through the years. Some of these decorations are beginning to fall apart while many are as good as new after thirty plus years. Unique and vintage they each tell a different story. We attend Christmas Eve mass as a family, though now I get away with skipping church on Christmas Day, and the hymns sung in both English and Irish take me back in time. Dad lights a beautiful fire and my brother and I hang our Christmas stockings on either side of the fireplace as we’ve always done, our names in red velvet lettering across the tops of each.
After Mam died we started going to my aunt’s house for dinner. Christmas Day became a different kind of day but it is still one that I love because of time spent with family, texts from friends, decorated trees, warm fires, delicious food, heartfelt conversation, gift giving, candles lighting, crackers popping and time to read and rest. Time for stillness and reflection. And lots of hot tea.
I credit Dad for the smooth transition after we lost Mam. No doubt there was terrible sorrow and disbelief at losing the mother we loved so much, my father losing his beloved wife. Dad remained strong and he held us all up by allowing for a smooth transition into our new normal.
Dad put a lot of thought into creating a nice memorial place for Mam, close to our home in Galway. My brother and I went along with Dad to help choose her gravestone. I was eleven but can clearly recall the experience. My mother’s grave is pretty with a simple but stylish headstone and flowers that burst into color in the spring. I pray at her grave, I talk to Mam, grateful to have this place where we can reflect but I don’t feel any closer to her when I’m there. We visit every Christmas Eve after mass in the dark, cold night if it isn’t raining. I like to think Mam is with me always, in my heart and our home, not in the cold, damp earth. The grave is a place where we honor her. Mam’s name is engraved there and people who read it will know it’s hers, but I keep my mother with me everywhere I go. I don’t leave her behind in that graveyard.
It has always helped that Dad was able and willing to talk about Mam after we lost her. In the earlier days I didn’t talk about her too much because I didn’t want to upset anybody. Outside of our immediate family Mam wasn’t discussed often. But Dad spoke about her. She was and is, always remembered in our little family.
“…when people stop mentioning the dead person’s name to you, the silence can seem worse than the pain of hearing those familiar, beloved syllables.” Meghan O’Rourke
This Christmas I’ll light a candle in Mam’s honor. We lit a candle for Mam on my wedding day last September and it was a beautiful thing. A warm light shone for her and flowers from my dad’s garden sat bunched together in my mother’s little ceramic jug, as my husband and I spoke our vows.
I think about people who don’t like Christmas, those who feel they have nothing to celebrate, those who feel lost and lonely, hurt and afraid. Christmas can be a terribly hard time for some. I remember my little self, a small nine year old girl, gripping my father’s hand while taking in the beauty of a swan on a still lake as my mother lay suffering in the hospital on Christmas day. I worry for my ten year old self, sick in bed on my mother’s last ever Christmas with us. My poor mother. I consider my father. My brother. The pain so many of us go through, in different ways, at different times. It may sound strange but I think I’m one of the fortunate ones. Not because I lost my mother. That part of my story is tragic and always will be. I’m fortunate because the light came through. Mam lives on inside of me. I feel her with me. I write about her and it helps. Poetry and the written word speak volumes and I always find a quote of someone’s that resonates. We are in each other’s stories.
I recall the Christmas swan. I can still see her. Beautiful and alone on Lough Corrib that Christmas Day. Beauty is all around us. Let’s look for the beauty wherever we can. And if we cannot do it this Christmas, maybe another day. One small thing of beauty. You may recall it forever after.
For now, and into the future, much love…