Christmas is fast approaching and this time next week most of us will be sharing the day with loved ones, be it friends or family. The expectation is always that it is a happy time, but in my experience it is often a time of contrasts; light and darkness, tears and laughter, joy and sorrow.Which is why my Christmas books tend not to be fluffy and sparkly, though they have elements of it. I find I can't write about the turn of the year without examining the shadows that hover in the corners of the warmth of the fire.
Make a Christmas Wish starts with a tragedy - my heroine is killed in the most prosaic way doing her Christmas shopping. It's a shitty thing to happen at any time of the year ... but at Christmas? Somehow it makes the pain worse.
I haven't experienced that particular situation, but this time four years ago, my beloved mother in law was dying. We were given the news that she had incurable leukaemia in the May, so it wasn't a surprise, and it came on top of several years of her health failing involving many many trips to hospital. Three years earlier, she was taken ill just before Christmas. She'd had a couple of funny turns - one at a family party, and one when I found her sitting on the floor having passed out - but she seemed to have got over them. But that Christmas I went to pick her up as she was staying with us for the festive period, to find her sitting in her dressing gown in the dark, unable to move from her seat. I remember particularly how she sat staring at the shaft of light coming through the curtains and telling me how pretty it was. She had a particular genius for finding the light in the darkest of moments. I went into her kitchen and discovered complete chaos. From being able to manage on her own, suddenly it was clear that the effort of tidying up after her had become too much. It was a heartbreaking moment. Rosemarie was an independent strong woman, and from that point she lost a lot of her independence.
After calling the doctor out, I managed to get her back to our house, and she rallied a little. Displaying her usual cheerfulness, and responding with joy to all the things the children had made her. One of my daughters (who'd been there the day I found her on the floor) made her a little angel on which she'd written, Omi, I will always look after you. She was eight years old, and that made me weep. We got through Christmas Day, despite the children taking it in turns to come down with stomach bugs, and then when I went into Rosemarie on Boxing Day I discovered that she'd been sick in the night. Typically, she hadn't wanted to disturb me. Boxing Day was a total nightmare, as we spent the day tending to her needs. We were due to spend time with my family and had to put them off. On the 27th we were seeking for emergency social care cover, which understandably wasn't forthcoming, but thanks to my brother in law stepping in, we were able to get away for a couple of days. We had a happy time with my family, but it was all the while tempered with our worries about what was going on at home.
The following year things were worse. Rosemarie had a fall in the autumn, and spent time in and out of care homes and hospital till Christmas, when it was deemed she was well enough to come home (she wasn't). We were going to have her for Christmas, but she told us she didn't feel well enough. So we decided to take Christmas to her. We only lived up the road, so I cooked the turkey and we had planned to take it round to her, but when we got there, she was in no fit state to celebrate. She was in a lot of pain and my brother in law had had to call out an emergency doctor. So we had lunch at home while my bil sat with her, and then swapped places, taking the children round to open presents as she lay in bed watching us all. At times like this, having children around is a definite bonus. It was important to us that despite the drama, they enjoyed the day too, and again, they came up trumps, showering Omi with hugs, and giving her little gifts they'd made, including a tiny doll sized pillow that she kept close to her bed ever after that.
The rest of the Christmas season passed in a horrible blur, we had to call the District Nurse out one day, and she had two trips to Casualty ending in her being hospitalised again. Fortunately, she rallied round after that, and we had a very special year in 2009 when she was 85 and we managed to give her a wonderful party, and enticed some of her German friends and family over. That Christmas, she was well enough to come to us, and we had a lovely time. No one was ill, Rosemarie loved being there; darkness and light. That year was pure light.
However, the following spring it was clear that her health was deteroriating, and it was then that we found out about the leukaemia. She declined slowly over the summer, and by the autumn, much as she wanted to stay in her little flat, it was clear that she couldn't stay there any longer. So she came to stay with us. By then we knew that we were looking at a matter of weeks, and it had been our hope that she could die in our home. However, along with the leukaemia she had huge mobility problems, and in the end we couldnt' manage her care in the way she needed us to. So after a bad night when she turned to me and said, "I think I should be somewhere else", reluctantly we accepted that the best place for her was the hospice.
It was the end of November 2011. Christmas was fast approaching, and with it all the same chores that needed doing: present buying, card writing, getting a Christmas tree. All these things needed to be done, but at the same time, we didn't know how long we had left with her. The hospice she was in, The Princess Alice in Esher was utterly amazing. The staff were kind and thoughtful, and loved Rosemarie, who was a model patient, and even when she was feeling dreadful could always raise a smile. I realised once when I visited her, that her eyes danced across her face. They always expressed love, laughter and courage. She was really the most amazing person. And in those darkest of moments, she taught me how to be strong, how to love, and how to face the future when it seems at its bleakest.
Weirdly, a lot of the time it wasn't sad visiting Rosemarie . We had some very funny moments with her, and a particularly riotous visit when we got out her old accordian and my daughter played and we all laughed a lot. It seemed extraordinary to have these moments of deep joy in the midst of our abiding sadness, but they came these occasional flashes of beauty, and I remain grateful for those memories.
The week before she died, I took one of my children in. It was clear now we were in the very last stages, and I was praying that she would go soon and quickly, while at the same time yearning for one more day. I can't remember what we said to one another, but it was a very happy visit, and as we left the hospice a rainbow appeared, which somehow seemed fitting.
By the Wednesday, she was deteriorating rapidly, and finding it hard to talk. One of the doctors came in and with extreme gentleness, held her hand, and said softly, "That smile is still there, but a little less energy today."
The following day, the day she died, was utterly harrowing. Rosemarie could barely talk and was in great distress. I was exhausted and desparing and didn't know what to do. That time, my youngest daughter, with the simplicity of a child took her hand and just babbled nonsense at her. I came away thinking, I can't do this anymore. A selfish thought perhaps, it wasn't me dying, but I couldn't bear to see her pain. A very dark moment indeed.
Fortunately, I opted to go back in the evening with my husband. By then Rosemarie was on a morphine pump and unconscious, but she was peaceful, and not most importantly not in any pain. So our last sight of her before we left, was a comforting one.
That night we had a call at 10pm to say we should prepare ourselves. Our eldest daughter was out, so I went over to fetch her home. And then we waited for the phone to ring. At 11.45 the call came. The older three all got up, and our oldest daughter insisted on coming with us. It turned out they had discussed it and decided she should come to look after us. Just writing those words makes me well up. We left the other two weeping and comforting each other with huge bars of chocolate (which I'd bought in advance in case of such an eventuality).
The journey to the hospice was swift and silent, but I was struck by how loud the birdsong was as we got out of the car. Rosemarie would have loved that, she was always keen on wildlife. We were met at the door by the staff, "We're sorry, they said, "your mother passed away five minutes ago."
So we went into see her, lying in the room we had visited for so many weeks. Radio 3 was playing and as per our instructions, the window was open to let her soul fly out. It was a deeply sad moment, but at the same time I felt at peace knowing she finally was.
Dark and light, tears and laughter, joy and sorrow. These are always the things that will stay with me about Christmas now. And for that reason I will cherish the moments I have with my family this year, good and bad. We have to hold on to those we love. They will not be with us forever.