The Hillhouse

The Journey of a Mother and Son

Christmas Last December 25, 2013

On a bright and sunny Christmas morning, peaceful and still in my little house, it’s difficult to imagine all that’s going on across the land at the very same moment. Living rooms are ankle-deep in wrapping paper, parents are sitting nearby, watching the chaos, relieved they pulled it off and children are awash in new toys and chocolate. Yet at the very same time hospital beds are occupied by people for whom this day is much like any other, some are just waiting, some are in pain, some are not even aware of being there. Some young women are realizing that their new baby’s birthday will be today, and some people are getting ready to watch a loved one breathe for the very last time. Yes, it’s a holiday, but everyday life does not take day off.

When I went out to tend the chickens, I discovered a hen taking cover underneath the water trough. When she tried to move, she faltered and fell. I’d seen her only just last night, on her roost and doing as fine as always. How did this happen? And what, pray tell, took place? It seemed her leg was broken, yet I couldn’t imagine how. Her back showed signs of pecking, a bare spot and a fresh scab told me that she’d somehow sunk down the pecking order and had begun to show evidence of it. Unpleasant as that was, it did not explain a broken leg. Immediately I picked her up and brought her in to the house. Likely she’d be housebound and in my care for the next week. I thought of all the folks, animal and human, whose needs continue, acute and mundane, regardless of the celebrations. My father, awaiting his death, still needed to be changed and moved in his bed, and this hen still had an injury that needed attention. I kept thinking to myself that this was a good year for Elihu to be away. Not sure how I could possibly have been present for these situations otherwise.

As I think about my son on this morning, far away and in the midst of his own magical Christmas morning, I do realize that it’s the last such Christmas that he’ll believe in Santa – already the signs have been showing over the past week – and I’m a bit sad that I’m not there for it. Yet in the end, it doesn’t really matter. While we have distinct, clearly defined holidays on our calendars, time itself is a bit fuzzy. Events stretch out over time… not believing in Santa doesn’t happen in a second, instead it’s a process. A slow calculation built upon a growing body of evidence. Likewise, a natural death does not happen all at once. It too is a process, a gradual slowing down. And while there may truly be one final breath, it in of itself is not the dying. And so I realize that I can have no regrets on this, the final Christmas that Elihu believes, and that my father lives.

All I can do is be fully present in the moments I’m given. I can take some peace in knowing that I will carry the memory of this day with me until the end of my own, and it’s in this way that I’ll make this final Christmas day last.

 

Melting Time December 26, 2012

Woke up to snow covered trees and fields, the white Christmas we hadn’t even dared hope for. Santa had come long before Elihu awoke at 5:30, but I was pooped and asked if he could wait for an hour. Good kid, he did. The morning was lovely, we made a fire and opened presents and listened to the Peanuts Christmas album. Our first Christmas together, just we two. It was nice, but still…. it’s just the two of us, and something, some tiny little thing just wasn’t quite there. I knew it, he knew it. It didn’t prevent us from enjoying our time, but still…

On account of my mom having a nasty winter cold, we postponed the family Christmas afternoon at our house, and instead made a short visit to grandma and grandpa’s. My mom’s posture and lessening mobility are beginning to show in her inability to do simple things without discomfort. My father hardly gets out of his pajamas anymore, and he is constantly forgetting what has just been said only minutes before. It is an old people’s house, and on this day in particular, it’s not the most enticing destination for a little kid, even one as forgiving and easy going as mine. We need to head out to visit some friends, so after a while we find relief in our evening’s plans and take our leave.

While we’re received with love and warmth at our friends’ home, and while they feed us and include us and make us feel very welcome, still, something is missing. We watch as the extended family plays Wii together. First round we sit out, next one they include Elihu, who, in spite of his limited vision does pretty well. But still, something’s not quite feeling right. We don’t quite feel we’re at home. We both agree we should be leaving soon. We find the right time, the polite time, and thank our hosts and wish everyone a Merry Christmas as we head out. The snow covered fields seem to glow in the moonlight. Standing there in the cold night air, we feel relief.

Although we’re very much looking forward to going home – at least I’m nearing the end of my energy and can’t wait to be there – just as we approach our driveway, Elihu suggests we visit Martha. We haven’t seen her in a while, we miss her, and now is a good time. After all, if we wait just one more day… well, you never know. So we turn around and make an impromtu visit. Martha is a matriarchal figure of my extended family, a woman who, in spite of repeated visits to the hospital and a continually declining quality of life, simply refuses to die. She holds court sitting on the side of her bed tonight. We have a nice visit. But still, it is an old person’s home with pill bottles, strange-looking health and hygiene aids, ancient layers of dust from years without housecleaning, dessicated plant carcasses and antique bottles on shelves… There are also beautiful antiques and lovely old floorboards beneath threadbare rugs, the walls are carefully chosen colors authentic to the home’s original Colonial style… It’s a queer mix of the grand house it once was with the temporary nursing home it has now become. Again, not the most Christmassy place we could be, and certainly not the liveliest. Finally we hug and kiss goodbye, and soon we’re out in the moonlit night on the road home.

But home isn’t the ultimate relief I’d thought it would be. Instead, I make one false move, and the whole night turns on a dime: Elihu continues to investigate a toy, and pulls it apart in such a way that I believe it to be broken, or at least unworking until I can put it right. In an exasperated tone – probably much harsher than I intended – I tell him it’s not time for that now, it’s time for bed. I tell him that if he’d just waited til the light of day he wouldn’t have made the problem, that it’s enough and it’s bedtime. ! Tears come. Rage comes, sobbing, angry noises, horrible noises, noises that are all way too much for me to deal with. But I need to. In the wake of our lovely day, I have let myself get angry, I have ruined it. I apologize, and explain that I’m at the end of my rope. He says he gets it, but asks why I had to yell. Again, I tell him it’s because I myself am pooped, I’m done… that Christmas day is done. More tears. More volume. Then… a respite.

“It doesn’t feel like Christmas” he said finally. Yeah, I knew what he meant. In a way, it really didn’t. I steered him to the kitchen, where I pulled out a cookie and some water. I asked him to tell me, in an ideal world, what a real Christmas day would look like. He told me that it would be in a big house with a stairway up the middle, a mom and a dad (a tall, ‘generic’ looking dad he said) an older sister and a younger brother. He recounted the whole day. I listened. Man this is tricky. I got nothing to compete or even come close to this scene. I wonder how it would be if Fareed had stayed. Hell, if we had all just stayed in Evanston. In our beautiful home. The four of us, how we’d planned. But I let it go, there’s just no point to doing that to myself. As so many times before, I toss that old dream out quickly and make an effort to concentrate on us, here, now. I apologize to Elihu again, this time for the lack of all those things he wishes he had. He tells me it’s ok. We sigh, sit in silence for a moment, then head to bed.

But after he’s in bead, he asks me to leave. Not sure that he really means it, I offer to sit and talk. I pull out a short book, and as I open it he explodes. Tears again. He wants me to leave. He screams at me. I just don’t get what’s behind all this. It’s very late, and it’s been a crazy long day. That’s part of it, I know. But there’s small voice inside that tells me there’s more; he’s feeling a bit let down. Christmas in a family of two just isn’t the same. I feel sad that I can’t give him the family he wants. Shit, I’ve felt this way for the four years I’ve been here. I try not to indulge the feeling, but at times like this, it kinda stares you in the face. I know I’ve made a very good life for my son here, but at Christmas, what with all the hope and expectation and hype – it’s kinda hard to see real life match all that.

I let him cry, I say goodnight to him, and he says good riddance to me. There’s no repairing this tonight. From my room next door I listen as he winds himself down, and I relax as he falls asleep.  Finally. That’s better.

The countryside might be covered in snow, but here inside there’s been one hell of a meltdown.