It is the season of hope and joy, although I strain to find either. Everyone has his or her sorrows, and these are mine.
The leaves have all fallen, and the naked trees thrust their barren branches straight up into the graying sky in disappointed supplication. I see vistas revealed that were previously hidden by the foliage – the horizon opens up – there is a factory in the distance, a power plant perhaps, still sending up steam into the sky on Christmas eve. It looks lonely.
It’s cold, but not bitter, not quite yet – the kind of cold you test by blowing out a breath, seeing the fog form then waiting for a moment as the breeze caresses your skin before nodding in acquiescence. This is not so very bad. And anyway this is what we have, the weather is what it is and nothing to be done for it.
It will have to do.
We are all here together, all of us but one. The fact that the rest of us are there is a comfort to the others, we take turns needing each other, needing support, needing love. In an unusual inversion of responsibilities, my children throw their arms around me, ask me if I’m all right, if there’s anything at all that they can do.
We got in late, 11pm but everyone was waiting for us and we hugged and told tales and ate a bit. Some people you notice when they’re present, and some you notice when they’re absent, but Ann you noticed either way: I looked around at one point because we were at home in the warm and loving embrace of our family. Everyone was there but one, and she was the one who was always there if any of us were. But now she was the only one person missing, and I was not yet used to her not being there. The same was true at lunch the next day, a restaurant in Old Town that she favored, not far from her house. And once again I found myself looking around to see where she had gone because none of this made sense as of yet in her absence and now I’m not quite sure we’ll ever go back there again. Because it’s different.
That night we sat around the table with our glasses of wine and discussed what had been decided, the hows and wheres of what will follow after. There was still that mute and empty place at the table.
I knew where she was of course – we’d visited yesterday morning, and yes it was hard. She’d gone from ICU to the hospice wing, which is a development we had not anticipated and came as a result of decisions that I might not have acceded to if such had been asked of me. But they were in consonance with Ann’s oft-expressed wishes, and it was none of my place to make such decisions, nor mine to re-open old scars. No pain, we were advised – she is in no pain – and the morphine drip assured me that this was so. Very clearly dying, barely conscious, really in and out, unfocused too, she responded to our voices with a flutter of the eyes and a moan, this woman who not so very long ago could move mountains by dint of mere will and who walked into this place not ten days ago under her own power and in high heels and a Saint John’s suit. She tried to speak from time to to time but the only thing she ever said that I could make out was, “Help me.”
And God help me, after all that she’d done in life for me and mine, I could not. I could not.
Now usually when we’re at one sister’s house in Virginia for the holidays and the phone rings at something around 11am it’s the other to find out what will be the plan of the day, whither shall we dine, what adventures will follow. The ringing of the phone brought no good news today at 11am on Christmas Eve, 2005. Rather it brought the news that our sister had left this life, this vale of tears behind her. We reassembled at the place she was, all of us but the smallest of us, and we said our goodbyes and gave our thanks and asked her to say hello for us to our parents. We told her that we loved her and would keep her vision of a family alive, the thing in life that made her happiest. We had us a right good cry or two the kinds of sobs that shake you and you don’t care who sees. I don’t know that we’re done with all of that quite yet for there are still a few hard things remaining to us. Those we will deal with as they come to us, sufficient to the day being the evil therein.
So now it is upon us, Christmas of 2005. The presents are wrapped under the tree, many of them bearing her name since she was always as forehanded and organized as her brother is not. It was always her joy to watch the little ones, and the big ones too as they opened their gifts on a Christmas Eve, that being our custom. And we shall open our gifts tonight after our supper, since we must carry on but this Christmas season our joy is the bittersweet joy that her pain is ended while we that stay behind are left to reckon with her loss, and our hope is that we shall all meet again in that great by and by, that being the promise made to us two thousand years ago or so.
It will have to do.