An Unforgettable Christmas


A few brief weeks ago, my mother-in-law, Gloria, asked for shortbread. I got out the butter and the icing sugar and the flour one evening after supper, and mixed up a batch of dough. My daughter and I packed up the cookies and took them over to Grandma and Grandpa’s condo while they were still warm.

Gloria’s health had been in decline for the past few years. She had a chronic, slow-moving form of leukemia. Even so, she had enjoyed relatively good health for the first long stretch of time after the diagnosis. Since last summer, however, her health had been deteriorating. Chemo and radiation had had no effect on the disease. Suddenly, she had become very weak and frail. She slept constantly. Sometimes, she fell. She needed assistance with baths. And she had to go on oxygen. Most of the time, however, her sparkly, quirky personality remained intact. Her humour had not been affected at all. And in spite of how tired she was, she never missed an opportunity to tell one of her stories.

Gloria’s hand plunged into the cookie tin and she pulled out a shortbread cookie, and with great pleasure, she bit into it. We had brought the cookies in to her bedroom and she sat up in bed to enjoy her snack. By the time the cookie was half-eaten, she had drooped back into the bed, and was continuing to nibble while flat on her back. I sat on the bed and propped her up against me so that she could eat her shortbread sitting up.

Earlier that week, Gloria had quietly requested that her sister find her a palliative bed. The disease had progressed to the point that she couldn’t manage at home any longer. Her 87-year-old husband was no longer able to provide the care she needed in the advanced stage of her illness. Early the next morning, she woke up violently ill, which settled the issue. The ambulance came and carried her off to the hospital. She was placed in a semi-private room, and was put on a waiting list for a palliative bed.

Once in the hospital, Gloria rallied a bit. She ate voraciously, relishing the food that came regularly on trays, exactly to her specifications. We brought her chocolate, which always enraptured her. And she cleaned the kitchenette out of cranberry juice. She drank it over ice, right from the pitcher. The nurses affectionately called her their “cran-a-holic.” She had a phone hooked up, and enjoyed many chats with friends and relatives, and family went up often to visit with her. I took my pen and notebook up one Sunday afternoon to fulfill a promise I had made to her, to help her record little notes and anecdotes for her five sons to read after she passed. Her stories were endearing and sincere, interlaced with fondness and good humour.

The parish priest came up one afternoon to give Gloria the sacrament of the sick, formerly known, if I am not mistaken, as the last rites. My husband, two of my daughters, and her husband were present for this little ceremony. The priest expressed how pleasantly surprised her was to find her so “herself” and remarked that she seemed to have lots of life left in her still. It was an accurate observation. Gloria was lucid and talking and laughing, continuing to provide her own particular brand of commentary and observation.

My oldest daughter had painted for her grandmother a simple watercolour landscape–trees, water, a setting sun. It sat on a shelf in the hospital room. When the priest finished administering the sacrament, he asked the others present in the room to say a silent prayer for Gloria, and they all bowed their heads.

After the ceremony, the people in the hospital room engaged in some casual chat. Suddenly, Gloria interrupted the conversation to ask, “Who is that little girl?”

The visitors looked around, and seeing nothing or no-one, brought a card over, asking if the child on the front was the girl she’d noticed. Impatiently, Gloria shook her head. After some more investigation, it was ascertained that the little girl she’d seen was in the landscape my daughter had painted, although Gloria was the only one who could see her. She indicated that the child was in the water, wading. My daughters asked what the girl looked like, what colour her hair was. Gloria appeared frustrated when she couldn’t determine those details, but indicated that the girl was dressed in gold. Then, she announced that the figure was gone. Everyone resumed conversing, and suddenly, Gloria blurted, “There, she’s back. She’s moved to a different spot.” Again, the painting was scrutinized, but no-one could see anything. Then, Gloria said something decidedly odd. “She must put on the gold shammy tomorrow.”

Out in the car, my oldest daughter, stunned by the experience, announced that when the priest had requested silent prayer, she’d prayed for an angel for her grandmother. Gloria had always loved angels.

That night, when her eldest son visited, Gloria remarked on how bright the lights were in the corner of the room. When her son looked, he saw no bright lights, just blank wall space. Gloria indicated that she was tired. She asked her son to let the switchboard know that she didn’t want to take any more calls that night. He did so, and went home.

Shortly before 5:00 a.m. the following morning, the hospital called, urging us to come quickly. My oldest daughter had returned to London, but my second daughter was home, so she and my husband tore off while I called my father-in-law. After speaking briefly to him, I followed in a different car.

I found my husband and daughter at the bedside, each of them holding Gloria’s hands. Even though I was there, seeing it with my own eyes, I could not grasp that this could be happening, when short hours before, she had been so alert and cognizant. We knew that her days on Earth were numbered, but we’d all expected several more weeks, still. It wasn’t to be. We weren’t there more than ten minutes, when Gloria opened her eyes briefly, looked up into the corner of the room. Lights? I wondered, in awe. Angels? Her eyes closed and Gloria took her last breath in this world and stepped into the next.

Everything I had ever experienced at funerals and visitations, any aspect of those customs and traditions I had ever known as “good-bye” were in that moment completely rewritten. Through tears, I looked at the quiet little form on the bed, the shell of the person who had faced her struggles and hardships with such patience and bravery, even humour. The moment her spirit left that little body was the essence of good-bye. We lifted her hands in ours and lay them in God’s.

Even in the face of that utter finality, a new chapter was being written.

Not two hours later, I was in the staff room at school. It was the last day of school before Christmas holidays, and there were so many things that needed doing. The children in my class had made macaroni wreaths for their parents, and hand-made gift wrap. I numbly began to wrap the wreaths. After awhile, a co-worker came in. She’d lost a dear one in another Christmas season. I told her what had happened, and she went to get some tape and helped me to finish the task.

Back at home, the funeral director arrived. I extended my hand, but he grinned and pulled me into a hug, then sat down at our kitchen table with a cup of coffee. We went over some of the details–not many, as Gloria had ironed out most of them months earlier, right down to the songs she wanted sung at the funeral and what the church ladies would serve for the lunch. He stayed for a long time, sharing stories and philosophies, making us smile–even laugh. It was an hour’s break from death and its demands. I found my head clearing a little.

My mother arrived at the front door with a pan of delicious “Dutch Lady” soup and some banana bread. Then she marched up the stairs to clean the bathrooms.

The doorbell rang. A beautiful fruit basket from the staff at my husband’s school. The doorbell kept ringing. Cabbage rolls, lasagna, shepherd’s pie, chicken and dumplings, gift cards for food, baked goods…

A dear friend arrived with a dozen beautiful deep-red roses. She was sick with a sore throat and preparing for a massive “Messiah” concert that weekend. But, there she was.

People delivered Christmas gifts from our students, since we’d missed the last day of school before the holidays…carefully chosen and sweetly offered, their dear names printed carefully on cards. My husband’s students had all made sympathy cards with tenderly inscribed messages.

The priest, who only the day before, had been at Gloria’s bedside, remarking on her vitality, arrived. He sat with us at the kitchen table, offering words of great comfort. He told us we should not refer to Gloria in the past sense, that although she was no longer with us, she was still very much alive in Heaven. We talked about the angel and the lights she had seen the night before she died, and the comfort of that experience. He gleaned some details from us that he planned to use in honouring her at her funeral celebration.

It was because of these people who made sympathy not just an expression, but an action, that I found the strength and the perspective to get me through those next difficult days.

I decided promptly and without struggle to fulfill my commitment to sing in the “Messiah.” What could be more comforting than the hope found in this beautiful oratorio? Angels and prophesies and trumpets sounding, raising the dead “incorruptible.” I sang the Amen at the very top of my lungs.

The visitation was the following day. My three daughters and I bedecked ourselves with Grandma’s bling–big rings and necklaces dripping with beads and sparkles. My oldest daughter made picture collages and procured a book of Gloria’s stories she’d written over the years for display at the funeral home. Before people arrived, the family listened to an Irish song that Gloria had chosen and insisted be played at some point following her death. She chose it to honour her Irish grandmother and in the spirit of reconciliation. When Gloria’s mother had been dying of cancer in 1986, she had expressed a regret that she hadn’t made more of an effort to be kind to her Irish mother-in-law. This regret had resonated with Gloria, and she wanted it to be a part of her memorial. The funeral mass followed the day after. The priest had woven our talk at the kitchen table into a lovingly accurate picture of Gloria that made everyone in the church smile. Gloria’s two oldest sons presented a eulogy that she would have applauded and then bragged about to everyone she met. How she loved to be the centre of attention! As the oldest of eight children, she proudly proclaimed herself the matriarch during all family gatherings. We ate the lunch she had provided for us, and then went home to have drinks with Gloria’s siblings and extended family.

The day after, it was Christmas Eve. There were preparations to make for the meal the following day, with 23 people expected. My usual complaining spirit was thankfully quiet. Or, maybe, the experiences of the preceding days had rendered it permanently mute. I hope so. I found myself looking forward to seeing family outside the context of the funeral, and not worrying too much about the work that had to be done.

I went to mass that night with my husband, daughter, and father-in-law. A candle was lit, her name offered up in prayer. The poinsettias in front of the alter overflowed red and green, where the day before, her coffin had been sprinkled with holy water and enclosed in the aroma of burning incense. Already, time was marching forward. “Angels, We Have Heard on High…” and then, GLO-O-O-O-RIA! They were playing her song.

Every Christmas for the rest of my life will carry Gloria inside it. Every time I sing of angels, she will sparkle between the notes. The scarlet and green leaves of poinsettias will become for me her memorial flower. Handel’s “Messiah” will remind me that Heaven is not just a hope, but a truth, realized.

Merry Christmas, Gloria.