I dreaded Christmas. The lights, the decorations, the gift-buying, the social events, all of it felt like a burden, a set up for disappointment, a confusing morass of sadness and depression. Nevertheless, I played the game, especially when my kids were little. I gave and gave, only to arrive exhausted on that special day of celebration, watching them rip into their presents, then trying to make a big deal out of the bottle of smelly hand cream or scented candle I received in return.
I had no idea why I was such a scrooge until my mother lay dying from lung cancer in a nursing home in 2014, in and out of consciousness, rambling about memories past. When the MRI showed the cancer had spread to her brain, her biggest fear was forgetting who we were. Fortunately, that never happened.
One afternoon, as I kept vigil by her bed, she awoke from a restless nap.
“I remember one Christmas, when you were about three or four years old,” she began in short, gasping breaths.
Why she remembered this particular Christmas story in the middle of August on a muggy Virginia afternoon, almost fifty years later, was odd, but not a mystery. The mind regresses toward the end. What she communicated to me, though, whether intending to or not, exposed the roots of my conflicting emotions about the season.
There were four of us siblings, my brother David, a year and a half my elder, then me, then my sister Janette thirteen months later. Our caboose-sister Katey came along six years after Janette, so she wasn’t on the scene yet.
“You and Janette both wanted these new dolls for Christmas, the kind that cooed and cried and peed after feeding a bottle.”
I had absolutely no recognition of this doll.
“So, way back in July,” she coughed weakly, trying to clear her raspy throat, “I went to Sears and ordered two of them. When they arrived, I didn’t even open the boxes. I hid them in the basement until Christmas.”
Mom always bought two of everything for Janette and me. The same slippers, the same sweaters, the same cassette tape players and clock radios. To tell them apart, she would get different colors, or mar them with our initials in permanent marker. But since we opened our presents one at a time, from youngest to oldest, I always knew what I was getting when Janette opened hers. I remember the disappointment, having to act surprised and grateful when I already knew what was coming.
“On Christmas Eve, your father and I got out all the gifts from Santa. We put together a bicycle for your brother,” she even remembered the color and model of the bike, “and then made sure all the toys had new batteries. But when we got to the dolls, one didn’t work.”
I thought I knew what was coming next, because it was what happened my entire childhood. I was always the smart one, the strong one. “Your sisters are more sensitive,” they’d explain.
“Your father and I had to decide who we thought would be better able to handle the disappointment on Christmas morning.”
So, there it was. I got the broken doll when we opened our presents Christmas morning. The doll I had begged for and convinced them to buy.
“Your doll wouldn’t make any sounds, and the tube that was supposed to go from the mouth to the bottom was missing,” mom wheezed.
Not only was the poor doll broken, it was defective. I felt sad for the little girl who was me so many years ago. And, though I don’t remember the broken doll, I do remember anticipating disappointment on Christmas mornings after that. I now understood the source of my dread.
Mom looked at me then, her eyes watery and drooping, oxygen pumping into her nostrils. She looked so pale and frail, so scared. I took her cold hand in mine and scooted my chair closer to her side, suddenly afraid that soon she would be gone from my life forever. How could I be mad or upset at this tender, helpless, annoyingly imperfect woman who was my mother?
“I’m so sorry,” she said.
I could barely hear her through labored puffs. “It’s okay, mom. You did the best you could.” I thought of my own failings as a mother.
“I’ve always been so proud of you.”
I stood up to lean over the hospital bed and hug her awkwardly. She held me for a long time, saying more with her embrace than she could have with her words. All the petty insults of youth melted away. I sobbed in her arms. Somehow, I knew this was it. This was the goodbye of a dying mother.
“I love you,” I said.
“I love you, too, my dear daughter.” Before releasing me, she whispered in my ear, “Take care of your sisters.”
Three days later, mom passed. It was a sad, glorious moment when we all gathered around her for the priest’s final blessing. She had left nothing unsaid, carried no regrets. A graceful death was her final gift to us.
It turned out mom was right. Janette was the weaker sister. A mother, of course, knows these things. Her instincts are primal. Did Janette get more attention than me, more financial assistance from mom and dad for her various attempts to launch and relaunch over the years? Yes. But she also survived a devastating car accident, three back surgeries, two divorces, and was about to enter the worst of her battle with brain cancer.
Because of her disabilities, Janette didn’t work. It was she who stayed in the house with dad and coordinated mom’s palliative care while the other three of us labored remotely, struggling to bridge time and distance to visit when we could. As respect and compassion for my sister grew, my repressed resentments faded, which, until that conversation with my mother, I hadn’t realized I was harboring inside.
With renewed insight, I faced my first Christmas without a mother. Our father was grieving, Janette was back on chemotherapy, we had a second grandson on the way, my brother wrote a controversial book that almost derailed his career, our little sister Katey had another mental breakdown, and my husband and I were becoming more and more disenfranchised with our corporate careers. In other words, life went on. But Christmas, I decided, would be different from here on out. It was time to start some new traditions.
My husband and I discussed our options. We knew we had family obligations, his mother lived in a retirement community in Florida, my father and Janette made ends meet in Front Royal. There was my other sister Katey, my brother, their kids, my two sons and their significant others, my two stepdaughters and their husbands and kids. Scheduling one Christmas celebration was unrealistic, considering geography and blended families and job responsibilities.
We worked with each family member to arrange two or three pre-Christmas gatherings for a meal and gift exchanging for whomever could make it, at our place or not, with or without a tree, which I decided not to put up that first year, but always with good food. This freed my husband and I up to have the day of Christmas and the week afterwards to ourselves, a gift that has never disappointed me since.
My husband and I enjoy planning ahead for this special week together. The first year, we flew to Germany to meet our newest grandson. In 2015, we drove to Winchester to attend Janette’s wedding to a wonderful man she met after mom died. One year, we traveled to Charleston, and another to Myrtle Beach, for the area’s annual Christmas-to-New Year’s duplicate bridge tournament. Another year we got a group of friends together for Richmond’s Tacky Light Tour and rented a cabin at Hot Tub Heaven in the mountains. This past year we took a road trip to Florida to visit his mother and soak up the sun.
Sadly, in December 2017, Janette died from her long battle with brain cancer. I will forever treasure the bittersweet hours we spent together during her seven years of illness, bonding as only two sisters with completely opposite dispositions can. I took care of my weaker sister, the real broken doll, just like mom wanted. She made me strong like that.
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