There are some Christmases where the best cause for celebration is simply being alive.
By Liz Montgomery
Growing up in New Jersey, I couldn’t wait to open the Christmas cards with their festive images of reindeer, snowmen, and Santa. Now I cringe at the sight of friends’ children donned in their Sunday best wishing me “Happy Holidays,” their smiling faces a reminder that I’ve spent the past seven Christmases in the hospital.
At age 38, I was diagnosed with appendicitis and eventually a malignant appendix. I underwent a brutal 10-hour surgery in which heated chemotherapy was poured directly into my abdomen. I lost most of my non-essential organs, but I was alive.
The following year is mostly a blur due to the morphine and methadone I took to quell my pain. Unable to eat or drink, I required 12-hour-a-day tube feedings. My physician husband, who I’d married just six months before, was unable to help me while he finished his residency in NYC. I moved home to New Jersey with my parents. My mom took care of me, along with my 70-year-old father who was diagnosed with stomach cancer. It felt like we were living in a nursing home.
My Brooklyn-born Irish Catholic mother, aptly named Theresa, sat on the corner of my bed. Holding my hand, I confided in her that each night I prayed to die and that every morning I awoke angry.
“C’mon kiddo, I know you can do this,” she said.
Some nights I asked her to sit with me longer. I didn’t want to let go of her hand because I thought I might never get to touch her again, fearing I wouldn’t live through the night. I did wake up, and there she was, waiting to unhook me from my feedings. Grasping onto her thin arms, she lifted me out of bed and walked me to the bathroom. She showered me, and dried me with the thick, plush, beige towels she’d warmed in the dryer.
Gently she brushed my remaining jet-black hair, until we realized it was time to shave it. When the last bit of fuzz came off my scalp, she said, “Only someone with your beautiful bone structure could pull this look off.”
I shook my head. “I’m not a kid, stop treating me like one!” But I was a child again, unable to do anything without my mother. One day, watching her prepare my medications, it struck me that I would never be a mom myself because of the cancer.
I couldn’t relate to my childhood friend, who just gave birth to her first child. She gushed, “I never knew what love was like until my daughter was born.” I did know this year I’d be receiving a Christmas card with my friend’s new bundle of joy gracing the cover.
When my husband visited sporadically, I wasn’t good company. My father completed his thirteen weeks of chemotherapy. Back to his baseline old-man grumpy self, playing solitaire on his computer. He was uninterested in anything going on around him, yet at times appeared jealous at the attention my mom was giving me. One day I was in intractable pain, crying, telling him I wanted to die. He looked at me and finally said, “You can’t die, because Mom will die if you do.”
I ruined the holidays for him that year, because I was in the hospital. My mother was there with me.
One morning looking at the white board in the room, the date was: “December 25, 2010.” I glanced over to my 72-year old mom, sleeping upright in an ugly olive green pleather chair. Wearing a pink fleece and jeans, she looked so tiny, cold and exhausted. Her paper cup of tea from the night before sat on the windowsill beside her. She must have sensed my stare as her eyes opened.
“Merry Christmas,” she said, as Santa Claus and the FDNY came in my room to sing carols. I felt horrible for her. I feared she was getting tired of this burden.
It would be better if I just passed away so she could move on with her life. I wanted to tell her how much I appreciated her sacrifice. “Mom..I”, with tears in my eyes and without hesitation she responded, “I know. I love you too.”
In April of 2010, eleven months after my surgery, my appetite slowly returned. My mom cooked me my favorite, grilled cheese and tomato soup. At first I only took a bite, but she was excited that I was able to eat at all. Eventually, I didn’t need the tube feedings.
By the end of May, I was back in my NYC apartment. Unfortunately, my spouse and I grew further apart. In an attempt to bring us closer together, we got a puppy. We named him Huxley, after the author Aldous Huxley. Yet our marriage was too young to withstand such a grave illness and the time apart. A few days later my husband moved out. Without missing a beat, mom moved in for a month to help me heal my emotional bruises.
The scar tissue over the past seven years has led to uncountable hospitalizations, surgeries, and tube feedings. I’ve lost friends, while others have become like family. The one constant in my life has been my mother, now 78 years old. She spent every Christmas with me in the hospital. She answers the phone when I have to share that I watched Love Actually for the twentieth time and that it still makes me cry. Her ears endure the intricacies of my Bumble dates or my excitement at the new black dress I just bought.
This year I plan on celebrating the holidays. I know that no matter where I spend Christmas, even if it’s in the hospital, my mom will be an unruffled fixture in my room. No one can tell me I don’t know what love feels like between a mother and her child because I feel it every time I look in her eyes. It’s the only Christmas gift I’ll ever need.
Liz Montgomery is a registered nurse. She is currently writing a memoir.
Article photo: “St. Paul’s Hospital Christmas Lights” by Thomas Quine