Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Day one thousand one hundred and five . . . My Epiphany

I'm a bit out of sorts today.

I'm not looking for any sympathy or to have my hand held, my back patted, or my head rubbed.

But I just don't really know what to do with myself.

Today is a big day in my little world.

It's my good friend Steve's birthday. Sto lat, my friend. Sto lat.

It's also the day I can officially say that Jodi and I met and spoke at length, getting to know each other as guest judges at our local battle of the bands. We will have been together for two wonderful years next month.

But more than all these milestones January eleventh is the day when four years ago, my mom, Judith Ann Johnson, passed from this world that she had lived in for sixty five years.

Those who have followed this blog will undoubtedly know some or most of the story. Those who don't, I'll try to give you the short version.

My mom fought a fifteen month battle with pancreatic cancer. She had been rear ended in September of 2005 while waiting at a stop light. Though it was a small accident my mom was concerned with some pain she incurred where the seat belt had gripped her on impact.When the doctors took cursory x-rays they found a small lump on her pancreas which they deemed "treatable and curable." But when they went in there and took her apart they found out they had been mistaken: it was not as small as they had expected, and it was spreading.

The news was anything but good.

She beat the odds and hung in there to be with her family for two Christmases after her diagnosis--an unheard of length of time for that particular cancer. Through it all she barely complained once in my presence. Through four full New England seasons she lashed and swung at death with all her might. She laid traps and put out poison for the monster every day. She was smarter, she was patient, she was as sneaky as she could be. But she was, ultimately, no match for the spreading terror. And after a serious fall on December 28th, 2006 she was forced to be hospitalized again. From that moment I watched her slip away--a little more each day--for two weeks until I walked to the rehabilitation center she had been staying in and was knocked in the head with a baseball bat wielded by the head nurse.

She was gone.

I don't cry often.

In fact, I almost just cried writing that last paragraph. It choked me up just a little bit, but I couldn't commit to the tears. Sometimes this kind of stuff worries me and I wonder if I'm properly adjusted or if I ever fully grieved for her. After all, I spent over a year self medicating with some heavy duty pharmaceuticals crossed with all the rest of the items on my daily checklist.

But I think I came to the realization the other day that I don't cry because I don't feel like she's gone. I really and truly don't have that pang of loss that I did for the first year or so.

I have pictures to look at. I have clothes she made me. I have cards she wrote me. I have her forehead, her stubby little fingers, and her potato-farmer size 9 and a half feet.

And I have her inside of me all the time.

So I don't cry--or I haven't in a long time--because I have managed to turn the loss into a legacy. And as long as I am walking, talking, singing, snoring, and smiling I have her here on earth.

I'm just glad I came to a realization that she actually was as wonderful as all that. I suppose if she wasn't and I was her here on earth I wouldn't be as happy about it all and neither would you.

But I digress.

I never used to know when to take the Christmas tree down.

All my life, it seems, it just kind of stayed up for a while until the needles started to secede and travel south. And then it was always a kind of lament because it meant that Christmas was really over and if I hadn't found that gift that had slipped under the tree skirt (I was always sure there was one left for me) then after the tree was gone I would have to give up all hope for another year.

Every year on Christmas Eve I have lit a bayberry candle. It used to be my mother who lit the match until I grew old enough to light it myself. We never kept lighters in our house growing up--just big, bulky boxes of Diamond matches--and so the lighting of a match was always such a strange occurrence inside the house. The flash, pop, and sizzle of that match head followed by the immediate rounded glow cast on the sideboard was a magic trick all itself. And it was treated as its own endangered species--this match aglow--with a lifespan of all of twenty seconds. And when it had served its purpose it was always an awkward situation trying to find a place for this match--not the trash can, heavens no! But there was no need for ashtrays, of course, and so it was wrapped in tinfoil and placed on the kitchen counter for a while until it posed no future threat.

My mom would offer up the lighting of the candle to respect those who were with us, those who have passed, those who were far away, those who had come before, and those who were yet to arrive. She would always say, "the lighting of this candle signifies the beginning of the Christmas season." And then she would hold me close and she would cry softly. Sometimes I would join her in tears; sometimes I would just stand silent and stare at the flicker of the candle flame.

It was and is one of my favorite things to do.

But it always puzzled me that my mother would call December 24th the beginning of the Christmas season. Because, to me, Christmas began the day after Thanksgiving--typical kid rationale.

Just the other day I learned that there is a day called Epiphany, where the Magi was supposedly introduced to baby Jesus presenting him with his royal gifts. And I guess that the legend has it that if you take down your tree and your decorations before January 6th then the Wise Men would not be able to find their way.

I don't know how I feel about any of that.

What I do know is that it gave me an idea.

I still have my tree up. I've been meaning to take it down for a week now. I water it each day and make sure that the lights go on each night so Jodi and I can enjoy it. I don't know how many people in my neighborhood have theirs still up but I see one every once in a while.

But I just decided that I am going to leave it up for one more night--tonight--in honor of my mom.

In fact, just as I was writing the last paragraph I decided to turn the lights on as it's starting to get dark already. I would have done it anyway but I felt it was worth noting.

Tomorrow I will wake up to about a foot of snow if the weather men are correct. I'll open the forty year old Bowax with Lanolin and Sears and Roebucks and Co. boxes--browned, bent, torn, and crushed but still serving their purpose--and carefully re-wrap the delicate glass ornaments handed down over three generations. I'll pluck off the plastic and syrofoam based gems from the 70s and place them in layers separated by tissue. Those are still important but, thankfully, a bit more resilient.

There is a whole new layer of them added to the collection that Jodi and I have been given and picked out over our two Christmases together. They'll get put away, too.

And there is one that I made for all of my friends the year that I had neither my mom, my aunt, or my Jodi in my world. It was made of paper, cut out and covered in laminate.

All of these will go away for another year.

And this is the great part of my plan: that I have a day I can call the day. And it's not the day because of a supposed event from 2000 years ago.

It's not determined by the way the weekends fall in a particular year.

It's not a day that works best for people who have to come from far away.

It's not a day anyone gets off of work.

And it's not a day that can be put off until next week.

It's the day I became a little more my mom.

It's the day she stopped having to fight.

It's my Epiphany.

And I'll leave the lights on for one more night so she can see if she wants to.

Well, what do you know . . . here come those tears after all.

Thanks for reading,


Judith Ann Johnson May 14, 1941-January 11, 2007

PS: On this day I usually donate to Dana Farber Hospital in Boston who helped keep my mother here for longer than we could have expected. If you would like more information on pancreatic cancer click here.

To donate to help fight this disease and many others click here.

Thank you.


Jamie Quinn said...

I like the reasoning for keeping your tree up for an extra day. And your own personal Epiphany. And it is wonderful to hear how much you honor your Mom. She truly did a great job!

At our house, it is my request that the tree stays up until my birthday. It's a simple thing really, but it gives a little magic to my big day.

And on your Mom's comment about Christmas Eve being the start of the Christmas season, remember that the 12 days of Christmas song starts on Christmas and ends on Epiphany (January 6th).

F. Alex Johnson said...

Happy Birthday, Jamie.

You're one of the good ones and I'm glad to know you.