Winter is one of my favorite seasons, and I really want to like Christmas, but it’s complicated by the fact that my mother died during this season five years ago. Even before she fell ill with terminal cervical cancer, the holidays have always been challenging, and I’ve never been particularly good at knowing how to genuinely celebrate while also holding the sadness that is also present other than doing what I always do — which is writing through it. Below is an excerpt from my memoir, published in 2016, The Beautiful Darkness: A Handbook for Orphans.
Marguerite loved to celebrate. You didn’t have to take the party to her: she was the party. Lights flickered in her eyes, her mouth would curl up at the sides, and she’d nod her head and shake her shoulders to music, shuffling her wide feet with socks curled over her toes leaving her heels bare, side to side, off-beat.
In the house of her best friend in Philadelphia or in one of our many apartments, she liked the music turned all the way up, and she could easily get lost, her arms lifted up, fingers snapping. She loved Christmas the most. She would wash her favorite red blouse in the sink and hang it on the shower curtain to dry a day ahead of time.
She said an extra rosary for the season, dragging in real or fake trees some years just to have the lights around her. There were rarely gifts under the tree or even blankets to catch the shedding pine needles. She would say, “You’re my gift. I’m your gift. Merry Christmas!”
We usually scrambled for food and warmth during Christmastime in New York City. The scalding radiators in our apartment were loud, rusty pieces of shit that sent steam spraying toward the ceiling in loud squeals. The refrigerator was often empty, but my junior high school principal, Brother Brian, or church volunteers usually made sure we didn’t go hungry on Christmas.
We made turkey and stuffing and plopped in front of us on a couch or plastic chairs to set in front of a TV where we watched It’s a Wonderful Life or the Charlie Brown Christmas Special or Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer.
“You kind of look like him, Shan,” Mom said.
“Your nose gets red like that in the cold,” she said. She started to crack up, and the gap in her front teeth showed.
“No, it doesn’t,” I said, smiling shyly at her.
“It does, and you have a dimple on your forehead too.”
“You know a lot about my face!”
“When you frown I can see it. It’s cute, Shan,” she would say. “It’s where your brother kissed you before you were born and came to me from heaven.”
Most years, instead of decorating with lights at home, we went to see the city’s most famous tree at Rockefeller Center, a few blocks from Saint Patrick’s Cathedral. It towered over the ice skating rink below, and both Mom and I stared wide-eyed at it, year after year: the giant, multicolored bulbs, the dark space between the branches, the giant toys. It was the real-life version of what she imagined a good monument to Christmas to be, better than any replica she could try to make with her hands.
“All we’re going to do is look at it?”
She said breathlessly, nodding, “It’s beautiful.”
Our last Christmas together, I woke up in the house of a family friend in Philadelphia, getting ready for church after a house full of children had been up for hours ripping open presents and running around the house. I had been sleeping on a twin bed in Rita’s home for almost three weeks, missing my own bed back home in Austin but afraid to leave since we didn’t know how long Mom would be alive.
My phone broke around the same time, and my big sister Rita teased me about the way I wrestled with the broken buttons before giving up. I held onto it for a few days too long because everything in the world seemed broken. Mothers leave their children; they die before we do, yes, but Marguerite was not yet old enough to leave me. Our lives were still broken in a way I believed only she had the power to mend.
I sat next to Rita at Stronghold Baptist Church, and I wept. I could only really cry in two places by then, in the house of God and at my mother’s bedside. For all my traveling and adventures, for all my ambition and making my way in the world, I was still a frightened little kid. We were in a season of celebration, and it felt like a betrayal to smile or give gifts. It felt like a betrayal of my mother’s life to even breathe, to just keep living my life as if it had meaning without her in it.
I needed the word, the exaltation of something much bigger than me, than us. I needed the infusion of glory and spirit, some light in a season of darkness to baptize me in a hopeful future. The present was breaking my heart. Whatever was coming for Marguerite had to be better than what she was feeling now. I was sitting in the pew with my sister, but my heart and mind were with Mom in that nursing home, so I asked Rita to take me there.
I cried tears of anger, release, and surrender. What if Mom made it through, by some miracle that she had always talked about, and she took medication, and we could be, finally, like all mothers and daughters? She hadn’t guided me like mothers are supposed to, but dear God, I was here and breathing and by most accounts a good human: that was something.
Hours later, I sat at my mother’s bedside. She had shit on her wrist again, which Rita wiped off with hard tissue. Mom’s wig was in the corner of her cubby. Rita sat staring at the television while I held Mom’s hand. Her fingernails were yellow but soft now; her fingers as thin as mine.
“I’m so happy to see you,” she said. She talked again about com- ing into money, about wanting to move into her house. “Maybe not that house. Well. God will take care of us,” she said, finally. She was high on morphine, and her eyelids would drop mid-sentence, like she was about to go to sleep.
I moved my chair up, trying to get close to her face. She couldn’t understand what I was saying when I asked what happened to her scarf. She was wearing a towel over her cropped gray hair.
“So are you going back to work or what?”
“I’m going to write.” I didn’t want to waste anytime talking to her about my future, knowing that she wouldn’t be around to see it.
“That sounds nice,” she said. “When are you coming back?”
After you’re gone, I thought. The next time I’ll be here is during your funeral. My eyes welled up, and I remembered that she hated to see me cry.
“I don’t know,” I said. I realized then that I could tell her what I wanted to tell her without saying goodbye. “I’m going to miss you very much,” I said. I told her I was leaving Philadelphia in a few days. In my head and in my heart I added, Goodbye.
She touched my arm. I rubbed hers, which was too thin, and moved from the chair to sit on the side of the bed, while she mostly stared at the television. She was curious about the coffee cup I had brought in with me. She looked at it and then me, and then she smiled, and I felt like she really saw me and really understood where my heart was. I smiled back at her, the most light I could muster.
“I love you very much,” she said.
“I love you, too, Mom,” I answered. I closed my eyes. I thought, I forgive you. God, please don’t let her feel too much pain. I hope this is enough, this sitting with her and kissing her on the forehead and letting her kiss me on the cheek.
She started to nod off. We left the nursing home, and for the rest of the night, I was in a fog. I wanted Christmas to come and go because I knew Marguerite wouldn’t live to see another one.