I love December twenty-fifth but I hate December twenty-third. That’s the day my mother died. Each year on that day, people who know will ask me if I’m doing okay. And I’m fine. It’s just a day. It’s a reminder of a horrible day seven years ago but it only has as much power as I give it. Besides, the day after that is Christmas Eve and then it’s Christmas.
Christmas is my favorite time of year. It always has been. When I was a kid it was about presents and Christmas lights and as I got older it was about Christmas break and also presents and Christmas lights. The holiday season is like a bribe to get us through the first half of winter. It’s like we collectively decided to put lights on everything as it gets cold and the sun starts setting at four.
And it works. Maybe my love for Christmas is just nostalgia but, if it is, I’m perfectly okay with that.
I have no problem being nostalgic for snow or the smell of Christmas trees or the feeling of taking my last exam before break or for the Christmas Eve party that I’ve been going to for over twenty years. I will happily get excited about wrapping paper and flannel and frost on a windowpane and dinner on a dish that you only use once a year. I watch The Grinch and Charlie Brown and A Christmas Story and Elf. I even like the feel of being in a crowded mall with muzak playing and the faint smell of the perfume counter that somehow permeates the whole damn place.
I love it. All of it.
But this time of year always came with a darkness too, like Christmas’s shadow.
I remember one Christmas in particular in the early 2000’s. After September 11th, I was too afraid to fly for years, so, for Christmas vacation I would take a train home.
That year, my parents had either chipped in for or bought me an iPod. I went to the Apple store to buy it, so, I had it for my trip. I remember that iPod. It was the third generation one, I believe, with the black and white display screen and the four buttons underneath and the scroll wheel for searching songs. It was awesome. I swear that all of my music sounded better. I found myself scrolling through the titles and remembering songs that I had added and thinking “oh, I love that song!” A new song would come up on random and I would think, “oh, man, I love this song too! iPod, you are a dream!” Regardless of age, a toy is a toy and this ranked easily in the top three Christmas presents of all time, up there with my GT Performer and Sega Genesis.
The train would have me home in Rochester around dinner time. It was important to get home around six because, in a calculation that at that time I wasn’t able to admit to myself that I was making, that’s when my mother got home from work and I knew that she would be sober.
Much like the most important warning given to Billy in The Gremlins about the mogwai – never feed them after midnight – there was a similar rule in my house. Never leave my mother alone in the kitchen. The kitchen was my mother’s woman cave. She sat at the kitchen table with library books and the television playing re-runs like white noise and an ever growing mound of menthol cigarette butts and secret stashes of wine. I started looking for hiding places in roughly the fifth grade and my mother’s hiding skills grew as a result. My mother’s ability to hide alcohol was much like David Blaine’s magic. At first you’re really impressed. “Holy shit, how did you do that? I was just in here and now you’re drunk, that’s amazing!” But after a while, it’s just painful to watch and you think, “you’re just hurting yourself and no one wants to see this.”
One year we went to pick up a Christmas tree at the church on Monroe Ave where we always went. We ambled around looking for the right tree. I was pissed off. It was noon on a Saturday and she was already slurring her words. I was sulking and being short with her.
Over the years I learned that the answer to my mother’s question “what’s wrong?” was never, ever, “you’re drunk.” I mean, that was the answer but I could never say it lest I face my mother’s matinee performance of The Falsely Accused! It was a tour de force! It started with the look of horror on her face that such a hurtful and baseless accusation could be hurled at her! And by her son no less! And then her impassioned monologue that included, but was not limited to, the phrase “you have broken my heart.”
Later that week there was an editorial in the paper describing a family looking for a tree and how stereotypical it was of the sullen teenager with the floppy bangs to not want to be there. My mother read to me the description of the day, the location, and the scene and we couldn’t know for certain but we were pretty sure it was us. It was pretty funny. But the author didn’t seem to notice that my mother was drunk. In fact, I thought that no one could ever tell and that it was my secret to keep forever.
So, for that year, I wanted to start Christmas off right. I wanted to get home and get as much sober mom time in as possible.
But then, only an hour outside of Rochester, the train stopped. I didn’t know why. We just came to a rest. We had stopped in Albany for a transfer or something but this was different. There was some trouble on the tracks up ahead and we wouldn’t be moving for a while.
I called home from a pay phone on the train just to let my parents know that I would be late. My mother answered the phone and, as was custom, said, “wait for your father to get on the other phone,” so we could all talk. They said to call whenever I got into Rochester so they could come pick me up. “Okay, honey,” she said, “we can’t wait to see you!”
She sounded sober but the clock was ticking. I needed to get home in an hour or so if there was going to be any chance.
Word spread through the train that there was something on the tracks up ahead. So, I went back to my seat and listened to more music. I hadn’t eaten anything and when I went to the food car, everyone else had been there first and the only thing left was candy. I had Skittles for dinner. Then word spread that the thing on the tracks was a car. Someone had parked on the tracks. The train coming in the opposite direction had played an unwilling part in someone’s suicide.
We ended up not moving for three hours.
When we did, we slowly crept forward and on towards Rochester. I stared out the window and saw shards of glass and the blinking red lights of cop cars.
My father picked me up from the train station and I knew that my mother had had three hours alone in the kitchen. When we got home, she was wasted. She was in a heavy robe and sitting in the kitchen, slurring so badly I could barely understand her. She was offering a cold dinner that I did not want. I was hungry and I wanted something more than Skittles but, mostly, I just wanted to be away from her.
And she cried. She cried when I said that I just wanted the damn car keys so I could go find something to eat. “Why is he so awful to me?” she asked my father who was so infuriatingly neutral. That’s why, for years, it was so lonely. I would plead with him, “look at her, she’s drunk!” And he would say, “well, I’m not sure, Rob, I think she’s only had one glass of wine and it’s interacting with her medication, so…” I never knew if he was being obtuse, oblivious, or just trying his best to cope.
As much as I love Christmas, that was always part of it too. The year that someone’s holiday suicide prevented me from seeing my mother sober wasn’t the worst Christmas but it’s the one that I can’t deny. Looking back, I realize that my mother had ruined most holidays. She would sit down to dinner drunk and my father would say nothing and I just had to sit there and take it and wait until, mercifully, she went upstairs to go to bed and I could breathe again.
Years later I would come home a couple of days before Christmas to be at my mother’s side in the hospital where she passed away. My parents hid a lot about their health from me in their later years. I listened to an ICU doctor in his manner of straightforward medical sympathy tell me that my mother’s body was shutting down due to kidney failure and a cirrhotic liver.
And that’s when I knew that every single time that I thought she was drunk, she was. It wasn’t medication and it wasn’t my secret. Everyone knew.
Eventually, after explaining how the human body shuts down, the doctor said something I’ll never forget, something both sympathetic and practiced that he had surely said to other people facing the death of a loved one. “Well,” he said, “life is a terminal disease.”
I still love Christmas. The twenty-third can’t ruin that. The past few years, I’ve bought a tree for my apartment. The first one was small, just something with a few lights, but each year, I’ve gotten a bigger tree. I have lights and ornaments, four of which are those Starbucks cups and mugs you can get in the store (hey, man, it’s my tree). I decorate it with my girlfriend while watching A Charlie Brown Christmas on DVD.
And, for the record, I also remember my mom singing along to whichever Barbara Streisand album she happened to get that year and the time she teared up when I got her a “Cornell Mom” sweatshirt.
It’s just that now the memory of December twenty-third is in there too. It’s just a day. It’s an awful day but it’s just a day.