If I had to be honest, I would say that Christmas and I are not on speaking terms right now.
It wasn’t always this way. Christmas used to be my favourite time of year – a holiday anchored in family and laughter and tradition.
For decades, the festivities would start on Christmas Eve with my maternal grandparents. My two brothers and I would tumble out of the car and crunch through the snow to the back door of their cozy house, which was surrounded by pines and decorated with Christmas lights.
Aunts and uncles, cousins and other guests would fill the small house with energy and love. The sounds and smells of the holiday – turkey and pine, laughter and conversation – would waft over us. For a child who didn’t have or expect much growing up, this was everything. In a way, I was blessed.
Christmas morning at home with my parents brought a flurry of presents and lazy breakfasts – the one morning when my father, who ran a tight ship the rest of the year, would relax and embrace the season. Christmas brought out the best in him and he and my mother approached the holidays with much enthusiasm.
My sister-in-law picked up the mantle after my grandfather died in 1997. She was the consummate host and her holiday dinners were legendary.
Then Christmas stopped for me.
It’s hard to put my finger on exactly when that happened, but I’m sure it was death by a thousand cuts, starting with my father’s slow decline into vascular dementia. Eventually, he was transferred to a long-term-care facility in 2006 at the age of 83.
My grandmother, who lived a productive and happy life for another decade after her husband of 60 years died, started to decline in 2007. The dimming of her physical energy and, more worrying, her spirit over several years added to the stress that lodged in the pit of my stomach whenever I thought of home and family.
Nobody was at fault. It was just life getting in the way of living.
Visits home to Thunder Bay from Toronto, including those at Christmas, became extended encounters at the facility that housed first my father, then for a short time my grandmother. Walking down the sunny hallways between the dementia wing and the long-term-care wing, I would often have to pause for a break.
The guilt over not being closer to them or not being able to do more was crushing.
The first sight of my father or grandmother during those visits was always the hardest. I would try not to cry and, failing that, would move to the hallway to let it out before heading back for more.
The tipping point was Christmas Eve, 2007. I was due at my brother and sister-in-law’s home for dinner, but first I decided to spend some time with my grandmother, who was in a rehab hospital recovering from a fall.
It wasn’t much of a Christmas Eve for her as she had been bedridden for many months and was sometimes confused because of her medication. Although she was cheerful as always, her energy for life seemed diminished and she was not hopeful for the future. I wasn’t sure she would be with us much longer.
Sitting at her bedside, I felt so very sad. Darkness had fallen and, as always, dinner was being served at an early hour. I fed and chatted with her as she ate what could only be described as mush masquerading as turkey dinner.
She didn’t seem to mind that this is what it had come to – her alone in a rehab hospital during the holidays with her oldest granddaughter feeding her. There was to be no family celebration for her, no crackers or conversation. In spite of all that, she didn’t seem to mind. But I did. I minded a lot.
I tried my best to be light and cheerful and entertaining. She finished dinner and I tucked her in for the evening and sat with her as she dozed off. “I love you, Gram,” I whispered as I quietly walked out the door.
Leaving that hospital room with my grandmother sleeping was the final straw. The immense sadness for all that once was and would never be again engulfed me.
At that moment, my heart broke, and Christmas died for me.
When I arrived at my brother’s home, my sister-in-law, always intuitive, gave me an extra-long hug and a large glass of wine. I got through the rest of the holiday and have been getting through them ever since. Through the death of my grandmother, my favourite uncle and my father a year ago, the holidays have become something to endure.
It’s not because I don’t have people in my life who love me or want me to be happy. It’s because I can’t seem to find the “on” switch for the season.
And so, this year, I’ve decided that it’s time. Time to reconnect with my inner child and recapture some of what got away over the past decade.
My husband, my daughter and I are staying home for the holidays this year. We will miss my mother and the rest of the family, but it’s time for me to start traditions of my own. I will get a tree and cook some meals and contemplate the spirit of the season – what it meant for me all those years growing up and what it can mean in the future.
I know it’s there. I just need to find it.
Kerry Harris lives in Toronto.