My daughter and I hung Christmas decorations today. We strung lights and situated our stockings on the wall above the piano. We placed ornaments on the tree. We put dozens of glass and plastic pieces on our artificial spruce, and we sang carols, because why not? ‘Tis the season to be joyful.
But while our home is full of Christmas cheer, one thing will be noticeably absent on Christmas morning: my mother.
Her absence isn’t because she’s no longer with us, though. In fact, she is 60 and in decent physical health; but she is mentally unwell and has been for years. And unfortunately, her illness hasn’t just swallowed her, it’s separated her. The wall of depression is high and thick and nothing I do or say can help. I cannot pull her back.
My mother hasn’t always been sick, though. When I was little, she was happy. Granted, she was a bit unstable and erratic, but she was happy. However, shortly after my father died, things changed. She changed.
That year, the mother I knew disappeared. Depression left a shell of the woman I once knew, and she became distant as the darkness swallowed her.
I tried to get her help. When I was 16 or 17, I suggested we all go to family counseling or therapy. But my mother refused. In her mind, she didn’t have a problem, I did. And so, when I turned 18, I got out. I left my home state for good, hoping the physical distance would help heal us both.
But over the years, our interactions have been inconsistent, at best. While some days are good, or even great, most of them are strained. And there have been some moments that have been nothing short of painful, because the truth is, my mother just isn’t there. Literally and figuratively. My mother is more than “just depressed”, she’s struggling with an all-consuming illness that has made basic living feel impossible. Even small tasks like showering have become insurmountable. As far as I know, she hasn’t showered in over two years. She barely eats or sleeps. And most days, she is physically incapable of leaving her home.
Even with my assistance, there are days she will not leave, on account of the physical pain of depression.
Of course, I know what you’re probably thinking right now: What does all this have to do with Christmas? Well, nothing — and yet everything. Because while her disease affects us year-round in a million little ways, her absence is felt most strongly at the holidays. The happy family images we see splashed across ads and in movies all season long cuts me deeply. I long to share some eggnog with my mother while cuddled on the couch, watching It’s a Wonderful Life, but I can’t. And while our estrangement is nothing new, I still grieve for her. I want to be the family we could have been — should have been — and not the distant one we’ve become. And I want this most of all for my daughter.
I know it may seem selfish to worry about superficial things like a missed meal or holiday, when my mother is suffering so greatly. And maybe in some ways, it is. But I’m not worried about the event so much as the moments … the missed opportunities for my daughter to see, love, and play with her grandmother. To grow up with her as a part of her life.
Because these “moments” have been happening all year: my mother missed my daughter’s birthday and her first dance recital. She left early on Easter and grimaced through Thanksgiving, and now she will miss Christmas because she is “tired.”
Mentally, physically, and spiritually she is drained.
So what will I do? What will we do? Honestly I don’t have the answer to that one. I will carry through the day per usual, with a smile on my face and laughter in my heart; but deep down we all feel her absence. I know she is missing, my daughter knows she is missing, and we all feel the void. There is sadness and emptiness in the space she should be. In the dinner chair her small frame should sit.
And try as I might, I just can’t make that wound heal.