When I was younger, we used to spend Christmas at my grandma’s house in the country. It was a big old farmhouse, filled with spiders and dust and a whole bedroom of mysterious collectibles that belonged to the grandpa I never met.
Along the upstairs corridor there was a window, its sill scattered with ornaments and sprigs of plastic flowers in glass jars. And every Christmas Eve, I used to sit and stare out at the darkening sky, straining to hear the sound of Father Christmas’s sleigh flying overhead.
I remember the feeling in my stomach, that big ball of excitement and tantalising hope at what was coming; a feeling that, strangely enough, never really ended up complete or satisfied by the close of Christmas Day. But it was a wonderful feeling nonetheless, and one that had always returned by next year.
In 2008, on Christmas Eve, I sat and waited on the stairs of my house in London until my dad came through the front door. It was dark outside, but the house lights were off. He walked into the living room and started crying instead of speaking.
Being told that your mum is going to die is never easy. Being told on Christmas Eve makes it even harder. And two weeks later, as I stood in the rain at the side of a grave in a pair of black Italian heels belonging to my grandmother, I’d never felt so bereft of Christmas spirit.
It’s four years later now, and I still don’t remember that feeling from my youth. Or, rather, I don’t let myself feel it.
For four years I’ve watched the tinsel and the bobbly reindeer headbands, heard the carols and the corny Christmas songs, and seen the excited faces of children and loved up couples wandering the London streets. I’ve gritted my teeth as people jokingly ask me why I don’t seem Christmassy enough. I’ve carefully avoided discussing anything to do with loving this holiday, the wonderful family traditions everyone’s planning on re-enacting yet again – and if it gets tricky to keep out of it, I simply lie.
Sometimes I honestly cannot be bothered to ruin someone’s happiness by explaining that this holiday fills me with dread more than excitement, because I know that there’s a huge hole in the holiday where my mum and her ridiculously overexcessive celebrations of Christmas should be.
Six months ago, one of my best friend’s mums passed away. She was, in turn, one of my mum’s best friends too. Talking to my bereaved friend on Christmas Eve, knowing that she doesn’t really know how, or want to, open up about her feelings to anyone, made me reassess how I feel about it all.
I don’t have a problem with talking about my mum’s death – I’m even writing about it here, with no qualms at all – but when I’m brazenly discussing it, telling the same story time and time again that I know automatically by now, I seem to bypass the pain of it. The memory of that nightmarish fortnight. And how I feel, still, four years on.
But yesterday afternoon, feeling heavy lidded, stone boned, lethargic and glum and apathetic, I lay down on my bed and suddenly realised what was happening.
In my effort to avoid the dreaded Christmas feeling, I’d somehow got myself right back into the energy I’d had to endure when she died. An all-encompassing feeling of futility, heartbreak, and the sense that nothing would ever feel normal or even bearable, ever again.
December is always a hard time for me, but it’s been a different kind of hard this year. I’ve known for a while that I want to be travelling long term, and I think this could well be the last Christmas I spend at home, with my dad, in our little family of two (plus cat).
It’s a hard thing to explain to my dad; that I’m actively planning to not be home next year. But with that difficulty comes a sense of freedom and growth, the chance to take another step forward into the life I have to accustom myself to, without her in it.
The grieving process is a bitch. Just when you think it’s started to dissipate, it comes back with a vengeance, bites you in the arse and ruins your Christmas.
But I think I needed a day like that this year. I needed to remember why I made a promise to myself to do what makes me happy. Life’s too short to waste your time on things you think are suitable, just because the status quo dictates it.
Which is why I’m writing this at 3am, living up to the example my mum set for me of being a nightowl. And despite wishing she was sleeping in the room next door, I know that I’ll still be learning from the examples she set for me for the rest of my life.
Merry Christmas, mum.