I am not a fan of the holidays. I wouldn’t necessarily call myself a Scrooge because I don’t try to ruin the holiday season for others or try to convince them that Christmas sucks but I can’t say I am a card-carrying member of the fan club of the months between Halloween and New Year’s Eve.
This time of year causes me to think about this time of year in years gone by. Right now I’m thinking of two Christmas holidays in particular… last year and when I was 15. Last year, I spent Christmas morning not sitting around a tree drinking cider and opening presents with my family but rather naked in my bathroom, shower turned up high and on the phone with Almost Fiance in tears because a child of divorce is never really allowed to grow up so long as she still has parents that will fight over who she gets to spend the holiday with. Fights with the family (I mean physical fights), separation from the man I was in love with at the time and facing his impending deployment to Iraq, a huge argument with my mother and still feeling like I was 5 years old and caught between to bitter parents… ahh yes, the joys of the holidays.
Then there was the Christmas I was 15. And I got to visit my mother in the hospital. Not one of those kinds where the nurses are kind old ladies with blue hair who sneak you extra pudding. I mean one of those sterile hospitals where they strap some patients to their beds in pretty rooms with soft walls and take your shoelaces from you as they’d done my mother. Fun times!
And that brings us to this Christmas, which, while uneventful, still came with it’s own set of issues. Awkward phone calls to people I didn’t wanna call but knew I had to anyway lest I get cussed out (yuletide tidings!!!), weird family stuff, a call from Mr. Wonderful during which I might have broken his heart a little (more on that in a later post). And then we went to my aunt’s house. Not one of the crazy ones who is actually related to me but rather my mama’s best friend who has been greater to me than those whose blood I actually share. When we get there, I sit down to eat (because apparently, I’m too small and must not eat in DC- hardly) and I begin talking to the older woman who is sitting down next to me. A few minutes into the conversation I realize she is deep into the furthest stages of Alzheimer’s. To look at her, you would never realize that she is 90 years old and deep within the clutches of dementia. But she is. As time goes on, she becomes increasingly out of it, trying to eat inedible objects, throwing things, getting fidgety. Her daughter comes over to her and says, “Mama let’s get you into bed.” She stares at her blankly for a moment before she replies, “Who ARE you?”
Before I know it, I am crying and, lest I embarrass myself in a room full of strangers, I run to the bathroom. After safely hiding behind the door, I take refuge in the fact that I am behind closed doors and I let the tears fall. The truth is, I am not crying for the confused woman sitting in the dining room. I am crying because she makes me think of my own grandmother who passed last year.
My grandmother was one of the most beautiful women I have ever seen with my own two eyes. And I’m not just saying that because she was mine. As a young girl she was the kind of beauty that made people openly stare. Even when she got older, as her hair turned gray and she began to get sick, there were still traces of the girl she used to be in her features. And she was funny. In a wry, sarcastic smart ass kinda way. There wasn’t a person in a 50 mile radius who could match wits with her because not only was she witty but she was smart. There’s a few more things you should know about my grandma… she was kind. And generous. She raised herself, her brothers and sisters, her own children and some children that weren’t even hers without complaint. She was fiercely independent. Even into her old age rather than begging someone to take care of her she would get it done herself in her own way. She never compromised herself. Never degraded herself. And she made the best damn cheese toast this side of the Mississippi.
I loved my grandma. Although I’d never admit it openly to anyone in my family, we all know I was her favorite. She took care of me when I was sick, fed me my favorite foods, taught me to cook, how to sing, played with me and talked to me like I was a grown up. (She also fostered in me a deep and abiding love for crossword puzzles and All my Children.) She lived so much life and shared so much of it with me so generously, that I only hope to grow up and be half the woman she was. I loved her fiercely.
Which is why I hope she forgives me for the way I treated her in the years before she died.
Right before I went to college, my grandmother started getting sick. Triple bypass surgery, diabetes, pneumonia, couple of heart attacks. To me, those were nothing. I never feared her dying. I thought she was too strong for that. Those were just minor things. I’d visit her at her bedside in the hospital (one of the only people in this world I will step foot in a hospital for) and she’d smile and take my hand and say in her deep country drawl, “I know everyone is scared. But that’s because they don’t know no better.”
And we’d smile, and laugh and a few days later we’d be back to cooking cheese toast and singing in the kitchen. The day I graduated from high school she looked so beautiful in her white suit, one of her signature big hats that older women from the south seem so fond of. She, my mother and I were getting ready to take a picture, three generations of beautiful women, dressed in white, smiling, laughing, enjoying each other. My grandma grabbed my hand and looked me square in the eyes.
“Candace,” she hissed. “What are we doing?” I looked at her strangely, confused. My cousin, Candace, wasn’t even in the house.
“Grandma why did you call me Candace?” She looked at me a moment. “Girl you know what I meant.”
I did know. And it scared me.
In the years that followed, I watched her slip more and more away from her magnificent self. She became more forgetful, more fidgety, more easily agitated. The kind woman I knew became prone to terrible mood swings, fitful bursts of anger at the smallest provocation. She was not herself. She began to forget where she was, where she was going. She’d leave the house and wander down the street until a neighbor saw her and brought her home. She began to forget our names and our memories. And it hurt me so badly to see her begin to lose herself to the onset of this disease and it hurt me to know that she would, one day soon, forget all the dear memories I held so close to my heart.
I am not proud of myself for my behavior. I pulled away, wouldn’t return her calls, was short with her when we did talk, would avoid seeing her on my trips home, which became more and more sporadic for that very reason. I tried to make myself forget all the good memories because I didn’t want to become slave to them, to live in them while she slipped further and further away from my grandma who taught me how to press my hair and make peach cobbler. I just couldn’t handle it. And I treated her so badly for so many years. I am beyond disgusted with myself.
My junior year of college my mother called me, told me I was coming home to see my grandmother because she wasn’t doing well. She gave me the no-nonsense tone she rarely uses on me because it rarely works and I started packing my bag as soon as she got off the phone. I slept fitfully that whole night and when I arrived in Atlanta, I was nervous, palms sweaty, heart beating irregularly. I couldn’t sit still in the car on the way to the nursing home we eventually had to put her in.
She addressed my mother by name in a weak voice as we walked in. She looked beyond her and to me. Stared at me. And I saw it there in her eyes; she didn’t know who I was. Had no clue. And I swear my heart broke in half. After a few moments and a little bit of prompting she remembered who I was and we tried to continue on with the conversation as though nothing had happened. But the damage was already done. I began to realize that my grandmother wouldn’t make it a year to see me graduate from college as she’d never done, she’d never see me get married or have kids or babysit them and sneak them candy from her purse that always smelled like juicy fruit and peppermint. She’d never see me win any awards or be there when I needed parenting advice or when I wanted to know how to make a peach cobbler for my own family. And I… well there are no words for how sad I felt that day. I vowed that I would come home for Thanksgiving and I would spend so much time for her, singing and talking to her and doing crossword puzzles that she would beg me to leave.
Thanksgiving never came for her.
Just a week later I was back in Atlanta, this time standing outside a hospital room with the rest of my family, debating whether or not we would take her off the life support that was sustaining her. After she passed, the days flew by in a blur. I could hardly convince myself to be part of the planning and before I knew it we were at her funeral. I never cried until the moment they took her casket out of the hearse. It was so small. And for a woman who, in my eyes, had the power to harness sunshine and run through raindrops without getting wet, for someone who lived so much life for so many years, it just didn’t seem fair that somehow her whole life was supposed to be wrapped up in this one little box. I cried. I cried for hours. I cried through the church service and all the way to the cemetery. I cried when they put her in the ground and when they threw the first shovel full of dirt onto her beautiful head. I cried when I threw a yellow rose (her favorite) down into the ground with her and realized that was the last time I could ever give her flowers. Because there, on the steps of the church she took me to when I was a little girl, as they carried my grandma past me in her casket, I realized that I treated my grandma so horribly and it must have hurt her so badly. And I don’t know if I can ever forgive myself for that.
Today while I was sitting there, watching them carry the little old woman to her room, I wanted so badly to get up and run from the house. I wanted to go to my grandmother’s old little white house and find her right inside the screen door, staring out into the neighborhood, fly swatter in hand, apron on, long gray hair pulled back in a bun. I wanted to walk into her small kitchen and cook and sing hymns and do crossword puzzles and sneak peppermints from her purse. I wanted to listen to her when she talked, watch All my Children with her and yell at the TV and talk about what I wanted to be when I grew up. But I can’t. Not anymore. And I shoulda been doing it when I had the chance.
I wish that I’d told the La from so many Christmases ago that things were going to slowly begin to change and that, before I knew it, time would have gotten too far away from us and I would have done things that I would regret. I wish I’d had the foresight to see that it wasn’t just about me, it was about us, our memories, our beautiful relationship, not just the hurt I was feeling. I wish I’d not been so selfish. I wish… I just wish I could have told me the things I know now.
So, maybe you don’t like the holidays all that much. And that’s okay. I don’t either. But spend a little time with your family and the people who love you like family. Because you only have one. And even with their faults, they’re irreplaceable. Play that video game with your little brother, learn that recipe from your mom she’s been trying to teach you, watch that football game with your dad. Because tomorrow, you may be throwing yellow roses into the ground. Don’t miss what you have already. Don’t let go of the opportunities to make right the things that you took for granted, that you made half attempts at correcting. Just do it. Just be there, be present and commit it all to memory. Don’t lose out on this time just because you’re busy or you’re tired or they irritate you. One day you’ll give anything to be able to do those things you’ll wish you’d done.
I know I would.