Track 7: Christmas & You – Des O’connor
Parting Gifts By Melanie Jacobson
I threw the glossy circular down. It landed on a growing pile of newspaper advertisements full of shiny appliances and trendy clothes. Every department store I had ever heard of and a half dozen I was sure were made up had squeezed their ads into today’s paper. The Wednesday before Thanksgiving is the Super Bowl of newspaper advertising. I had friends who would spend their whole post-Thanksgiving-dinner lazy time prowling ads so they could plot their Black Friday shopping attacks. My cousin would probably be back home with a trunk full of DVD players before I even got out of bed tomorrow morning. Never mind that she wouldn’t need twelve DVD players. The point was to get the deals, even if it meant a closet full of stuff she didn’t want.
A long-ago stint in retail had cured me of the desire to be anywhere near the Black Friday madness, but in general, I like Christmas shopping. For years, our family has had an unspoken competition to pick the very most perfect gift of the season. I won two years ago when I bought my mom Christmas china. My brother and sister conceded defeat.
Usually my brother gets the top “prize”—if you consider the warm glow of being awesome a good prize because that’s all you get. You know it’s yours to claim when you get the “Whoa” from one sibling and a nod of confirmation from the other that, yeah, you nailed it. Last place goes to my dad. Every year. For my thirtieth birthday, he bought me caulk. Two tubes. And he was excited about it.
But there would be no gifts for him this Christmas. He died two weeks earlier when a flu proved to be more stubborn than even he was. I’d love one more Christmas with him where I would get to open one of his head-scratching gifts. “A Clapper? Thanks.” But it wasn’t going to happen, and it was too raw to think about. I needed to focus on my mom’s gift, and nothing I saw in any of the newspaper inserts would work. She either already had it or didn’t need it.
Although that wasn’t exactly true. Only one person could grant her what she really needed, and He had chosen not to do so for His own reasons. So here I sat on the cusp of the last holiday season I would ever spend with Mom, wondering how long it would be before her chemo failed and my brother and sister and I became official orphans. Grown up orphans, yes. But orphans.
Have you ever tried to buy a Christmas gift for someone who may not even make it to Christmas? It’s kind of hard to figure out what to get them. A scarf? My mom greeted all her visitors with a huge smile and a defiantly bald head. No scarves for her. A sweater? She liked her quilted bathrobe and a blanket.
No point in getting her anything for the kitchen. She was too weak to cook and too nauseated to eat what we made. Ditto her art and craft projects. She wouldn’t be picking up her paints or pulling out her sewing. The previous year, we had bought her a new sewing machine intended to last her another decade. We didn’t know it would outlast her by nine years. This was the trap I wanted to avoid, buying her something that would linger after she was gone and remind me that she wasn’t here anymore.
The flip side was that any gift would be an implicit reminder of that anyway. “Here’s an X-Y-Z you’ll use for a month and never again. Merry Christmas.”
Watching my mom die was killing my Christmas spirit. That was the root of my humbugishness. I didn’t need a therapist to connect those dots. In frustration, I scooped up all the ads and shoved them in the trash bag already full of paper dessert plates. I reclaimed my piece of carpet and leaned back against my fiancé’s knees, determined to refocus on something more productive and solve the gift problem later. I pulled out my wedding checklist. Four weeks to go and lots of tasks to do still before I got married: pick a veil and make wedding favours, choose a first dance song, and squeeze in a bridal shower. That was just for starters.
The next two weeks flew by. I tore through my grading at school like a possessed English teacher and then dove into wedding madness when I got home. I stopped often to check on my mom in her room, sometimes ignoring a stack of spelling tests in favour of climbing in bed with her to watch a cheesy movie and laugh.
Even my best avoidance tactics couldn’t keep the gift issue totally at bay, though. As I picked out cufflinks for my soon-to-be husband and a funky shirt for my hipster brother, I assessed and discarded a dozen more options for my mom. There were life lessons in there somewhere—like don’t buy a dying woman a keepsake engraved with the date. Because . . . yeah.
I resisted practical gifts. She liked movies but buying her one felt like wrapping up the elephant in the room. “Here’s a gift without any sentimental value. What do you mean I’m not confronting reality by acting like it’s every other year?”
A couple of weeks before Christmas, she decided she was done with chemo. She didn’t want to spend the time she had left dealing with the miserable side effects. I nodded when she said she wanted to do hospice. “I think that’s a good choice,” I said. I climbed into her hospital bed and watched a morning show with her. When she fell asleep, I stepped out into the hall and cried.
When we brought her home from the hospital for the last time, suddenly I knew what I wanted to give her: comfort. Comfort and a little bit of prettiness and luxury for the woman who didn’t have a decadent bone in her body. But I’d have to disguise the indulgence as practicality. It was a challenge worthy of Santa’s cleverest elf, and I wouldn’t let an imaginary elf beat me.
Over the next week, I aimlessly wandered through department stores whenever I had a spare half hour, waiting for inspiration to strike. Finally, it did—in the home goods aisle of our modern day general store (it rhymes with Shmarget). Throw pillows. Big, gorgeous throw pillows to brighten the dilapidated sofa where she sometimes received visitors. Throw pillows with shiny bits and delicate bows that she could touch and then, after admiring them, could tuck around herself to cushion her sore spots and bolster her tired back.
I saw the perfect one, a poofy square confection in a beautiful pale green shantung silk. I scooped it up and tilted it this way and that, watching the tiny beads on it catch the anemic fluorescent light above me and toss it back. I needed these pillows. It took several phone calls and trips to a few different locations, but I tracked down four and boxed them up. They sat in bright silver paper under the Christmas tree.
With that out of the way, I threw myself into the last-minute wedding preparations. Time moved all too quickly because we moved our date up three months (at the advice of my mom’s oncologist) to the Friday before Christmas. It was the last day before my winter teaching recess and the only date we could schedule our sealing before the temple closed for the holidays. The date landed squarely on my parents’ thirty-second wedding anniversary.
On that incredible day, as I knelt across the altar and clung to my new husband’s hand, I saw my mom’s face reflected in the mirror in front of me. A little lace cap perched on her hairless head, a bright red coat lent colour to her cheeks, and her smile illuminated the entire room. She cried even as she smiled. Was she missing my father who had been gone only six weeks now?
When our eyes met in the mirror, though, I saw only joy in hers. Everyone filed out of the room until only she was left. I leaned down to hug her in her wheelchair, and she enfolded me in her strong embrace. “Your dad was here,” she said. “And he was happy.”
She had the only gift she needed, I realized. The one our Heavenly Father gave us all, the promise of eternity after a temporary separation. She glimpsed forever that day in the sealing room. She saw it, and it gave her peace. As much as the Christmas holiday is about celebrating Christ’s birth, His greatest gift was the sacrifice of His life for ours. For a quiet moment, we felt the full measure of that gift. And Christmas was complete.