I used to love Christmas. There was a time when Christmas music being played ad nauseam from malls to drug stores would lift my spirits and put a bounce in my step. I’d take longer routes on the road going home just so I could see more decorative lights. I’d settle down with my younger siblings and watch the same Christmas specials on TV, over and over. I’d bake (and mostly burn) cookies, put up decorations and lights of my own around the house. I’d absorb the newfound, albeit short-lived, aura of peace and good-will that people would emanate. My family and I aren’t of the Christian faith so this particular holiday didn’t hold much religious significance for me. But I still loved it.
Until the Christmas of ’12.
A little background about me. They say it takes a village to raise a child. I was raised by a bunch of aunts and uncles and grandparents but two extraordinary women stand out in my life. My grandmother and my aunt (Dad’s sister). Both are my world. My grandmother loved me in the way that only grandparents can love you. My aunt though… with her I never felt as though I lacked a mother. With the love she unconditionally gave me, I never missed my own biological mother. Not even once. She was my rock, strong and steady, and always there for me whenever I needed her.
Back in December of last year, she complained of pain in her back and abdomen. After a series of tests, she was diagnosed with Stage 4 colon cancer with the metastasis to her liver so extensive that it was shutting down, something that eventually lead to her demise a few weeks later. She was in the hospital for about a week, while the doctors tried to figure out the best course of action for her. Up until then, I held on to hope that chemo, or maybe radiation, just something, could extend her life by a couple of years, at least just one year if nothing else. I remember praying… something I hadn’t done in a very long time. I remembered pleading and begging God for just a little more time with her.
December 24th is the day I became agnostic. I haven’t been a religious person for years but I thought to myself that if anybody’s prayers could be heard, it would be my grandmother’s. What’s more heartfelt than a mother’s prayer for her child? I can’t call myself an atheist because by that point, I didn’t even care about the existence of a higher being anymore. It didn’t matter to me any longer. Because that’s the day her doctors told me that my aunt didn’t qualify for chemotherapy. That any chemo given to her now would only kill her faster. That’s the day I sat with my aunt, held her hand, and explained to her what the doctors told me. That’s the day that, on the doctors’ insistence, I talked about a living will and if she wanted a DNR order. And that’s the day I realized, for probably the thousandth time in my life, that my aunt was no ordinary woman, when she was the one wiping away my tears. I’ve received more strength and courage from her than I ever have from praying.
That night, as I sat in the shuttle that took us from the hospital to the parking lot, I leaned my forehead against the cold glass and was thankful for the bus being mostly empty and dark, so I could shed a few tears in peace before having to go home and explaining to my grandmother, my aunt’s mother, why her firstborn didn’t have much time left in this world. As the words to “Silent Night” floated in the air, I watched a couple sitting in front of me, the woman’s head resting on the man’s shoulder and I had never felt so alone in my grief as I did in that moment.
They say time heals. And indeed, it does. But sometimes time doesn’t wait for wounds to close all the way, I guess. My grandmother suffered a stroke last month and has now been diagnosed with end stage cardiac disease. Her kidneys are shutting down. And I see her health declining a little each day. She sleeps more, eats less.
But I still put up lights this year. I still hung up some decorations. Just so I could see her eyes light up and see her sweet smile. The lights and the ornaments and the music were reminders of my aunt’s diagnosis a year ago and I thought I was done with all of that.
I’ll still put up these lights every year. Because every time I do, I’ll remember my grandmother’s smile. I’ll remember my aunt laughing at my burnt cookies. And I’ll remember my grandmother half-heartedly scolding me for spending money on decorations even though I knew she’d love them as soon as they were up.
I’ll do it to remember them.