Going home for Christmas

The prickling sensation that something was wrong started when I got off the train – seven months’ pregnant, lugging my big bag, waddling through the ticket barrier at the familiar suburban station. I looked for my father’s face, but instead saw my brother’s. ‘Where’s Dad?’ ‘He’s had to take Mam to the hospital.’ ‘On Christmas Eve?’

Mam barely ever went to the doctor; she certainly didn’t go to the hospital. Christmas Eve was the day of hunkering down. The front door would close to the world at mid-morning, and we would turn in on ourselves. The rest of the world could do church, or pub, or extended family, or whatever the hell it is other people do at Christmas; we didn’t really care.

‘Why is she at the hospital?’

‘These headaches she’s been having. They’re not going away. Dad’s really worried.’

We reached home – the house my parents had moved in to when Mam was pregnant with me. I walked into the kitchen and saw a packet of Mr Kipling mince pies on the side; shortcrust had never seemed so sinister. My mother was a stupendous cook, and spent the pre-Christmas week nursing syllabubs, steeping herbs, marinating steaks. And yet here was Mr Kipling, which could only mean one thing: dad had been doing the food shopping.

Looking back, that was the last time I ever went home for Christmas. At the hospital, Mam was being told that there was a shadow on her lung on the x-ray, and that she needed an MRI. In mid-January the consultant would tell her that she had Stage IV lung cancer that had metastasized to the brain: two fat tumours were causing the crashing headaches that had put a stop to her shopping. Later, she would stand in front of her wardrobe and laugh quietly, pulling packets of paracetamol out of every pocket in every piece of clothing. ‘You would have thought I would have worked out that something was up.’

‘I can’t die now. My daughter’s about to have my first grandchild.’

‘When’s the baby due?’

‘In six weeks.’

‘We might just about be able to get you there. But you won’t survive much beyond that.’

But she did. She saw her first grandchild born, and two years later she saw the second one. Of the first one: ‘This one is clever.’ Of the second: ‘This one, not so much. But he’s a pickle.’ She outlasted the consultant’s prognosis by over five years. The nurses at Charing Cross used to say: we’ve never seen a lung cancer patient with a file as fat as yours. The files are usually very thin. And Mam would laugh, and say, have you checked the name on that bag of chemo? Because there was that time that you nearly gave me someone else’s.

When I was in my twenties I adopted a runaway cat who turned out to be pregnant. As labour approached, I went around the house trying to find her a place to have the litter: all the books said, the queen will want somewhere quiet and dark, away from humans. So I opened cupboard doors, lifted up valances, showed her little spaces between pieces of furniture. And she would have a sniff, and I’d walk away and find her trotting behind me. After a while I realised that as far as she was concerned, I was her safe place – she was going to labour on me.

And now every Christmas I’m a bit like that cat. The tree is up, and the presents are bought, and the meals are planned. I’m a very lucky woman with no major troubles or worries. It’s just that I can’t go home for Christmas.

Mam 1

7 responses to “Going home for Christmas

  1. Gosh- she was so beautiful R, and you look so like her!
    Here’s to her memory, from another that cannot go home for Christmas.

  2. Five years and three babies after my beautiful mum died, I still can’t feel anything but odd & displaced at Christmas. I wonder if this will change as my children grow and we develop family traditions of our own. We also became aware that something was very wrong at Christmas time (she spent the whole day in bed), with a cancer diagnosis in January. I miss her so much at this time of year, I suspect I will always feel sad, but I realize I need to try to be Christmassy for my own lovely boys.

  3. Wow, what an amazing account of your amazing Mum – MAM! I loved it. Thank you for sharing.

  4. Such a poignant story, and how beautifully put. So glad Mumsnet Bloggers have led me to your blog. Merry Christmas to you and yours… x

  5. Its beautiful, how you’ve written all about your brave and amazing Mam. My own Mum died when I was 17, after nearly five years with Breast Cancer. The ‘C’ word, for me, at least reminds me of the extraordinary Courage and Calm poise of my mother, who I was so fortunate to learn from. About Life, Love and how to Live. Life will never seem the same, but will always be beautiful, as I see things from her eyes now….
    A big hug to you, this Christmas.

  6. Wow. Bored, and putting off meaningfulthingstodo, I was rambling through youtube vids and came across David Sylvian -Forbidden Colours. And of course, even after all these years, I thought of you. (confession: I always liked that song, but teasing/arguing with you was always much more fun!) Google led me here and to your story about Mam and not going home for Christmas.
    In Dad’s case, it wasn’t a prickling sensation, but more a sense of inevitability. We have a Trini concept called “travelling” – to describe the behaviour of people who sense they are on their way out, typically out of character comments or gazing absentmindedly into the distance (although as I write this it could just describe dementia, but we prefer the romantic self-reflective version).
    One December day, in his kitchen Dad said “Rick, I just want you to know that I’m really proud of you”, which might have been the most peculiar thing he had ever said to me. My response was some version of “Que? Thanks”. Dad and I had always been buds, he was my champion, guide and my most trusted friend. His statement was weird because it was unnecessary, our appreciation and love for each other was long past unshakeable. Still, I thought little of it, and I left him gazing out of the window deep in his own thoughts.
    A week or so later, I was visitng my sister, who lived next door to him (we were a tight unit back then) and she told me she hadn’t seen him for a couple of days and was a little concerned. We joked that he was probably involved in some undercover affair – he had form – and left it at that. Leaving later, I went to Dad’s front door (I still had keys) stood outside for a moment then decided against going in and went home instead.
    Two days later my brother found him upstairs on his bed feverish, too weak to move or raise an alarm. Like Mam, Dad never went to see a doctor, (the only time I saw him in hospital was in 1975, non-illness), so a call from one of my siblings to say he was at St Mary’s was enough to set off panic.
    But the panic was needless; my brother had found him in time, and although very dehydrated, I found him sitting up in bed on his way to a full recovery, giving instructions to my sister-in-law on what food to bring in for him tomorrow. We chatted for a long while by ourselves, especially about the riot in Brixton that week, and the solution to dealing with racial discrimination. Everthing was normal.

    I was busy with work and stuff for the next couple of days, getting regular updates from Sis on Dad’s recovery, and deciding what type of tracking device we would install on his person. Everything was normal.

    Late Saturday morning, I was still in bed when the phone rang. I was living in a shared flat at time so it could have been for any one of us. Maybe it was a prickling feeling after all – but from the first bell I knew not only that the call was for me, but who was calling and why. Stubbornly, I tried to ignore the inevitable under the duvet, hoping a flatmate would take the call and prove me wrong, though each subsequent ring was a confirmation. I let it ring about twenty times before answering. The conversation was calm and lasted 15 seconds. My sister told me that Dad had taken a turn for the worse, been moved ICU and to come now.

    In his weakened state, Dad had caught an infection in hospital, and he did not regain consciousness. Family were given a couple of days to say goodbye whilst he was on life support, and he passed on the 18th December.

    Since ’95, I don’t go home for Christmas anymore myself, phonecalls on the day wishing family and friends well suffice.

    I think of both Dad and Mam often, about how they were and how much I learnt from both. As other posters have pointed out Mam was truly beautiful (and yes, so were/are you), but she was so much more than that.

    Wise, patient, funny, generous, principled, strong, brave.

    I used to regularly bunk off school mid-afternoon just to sit with Mam in your old dining room, radio in the background, drinking tea and smoking Bensons (ouch), cracking jokes, telling stories, sharing my latest adolescent angst. I adored her.

    And while I hope that this is as unnecessary as my Dad’s declaration of pride, I couldn’t have loved Mam anymore than I did, I do. For a beautiful while she was my Mam too – and it was a joy to share in the lives of your family.

    Thank you for sharing your story about Mam (Christmas and untimely passing, Black women in Tesco’s – ha, Brixton 95, so many crossovers).

    Much love to you and yours

  7. Blimey Eric – how lovely to hear from you. Thanks so much for this. x

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