Today is Monday, and it is also the 1st December. The first day of summer for those of us in Australia. The first day of the advent calendar countdown for Christmas.
It is a good day to begin the process of contemplation. Contemplating the year that was. Contemplating the year that might be.
On Friday, our family came over for BBQ. It is a fortnightly thing. The entire family comes over after work and we eat and talk and laugh and connect. It is my most favourite time. We don’t put in much effort – it is very much a “just rock up and have whatever is going” affair.
My mother-in-law has Alzheimers Disease. I have known her for nearly 20 years and she is a shadow of the person I once knew. If you ask her directly about people, places and events, her recollection is very hit and miss. But she can still hold a conversation as long as the topic isn’t too specific.
On Friday, she noticed that I was looking a bit sad. I told her that Christmas has lost some of its sparkle for me since my mom died four years ago. When she passed, I broke down and I guess, whilst I have glued the pieces pretty much back together, it isn’t the same. And at this time of year a kind of melancholy, uninvited, unwanted, seems to settle on my shoulders.
She looked at me, telling me how she understood. She used to love Christmas, she said.
“Christmas was such a special time. We were never allowed into the front room, ever. That room was for Best. But at Christmas, oh we were allowed into that room then. I remember all of us being in that room. The christmas tree, the presents. I don’t know how mum did it, but it was always a special time.”
As she spoke, my mother-in-law’s eyes lit up. She clasped her hands together, savouring that moment, that bygone era. As I looked at her, I imagined a young girl in the 1950s, warm fire going, with her parents and three sisters. Times were tough for people after the war and it is times like those Christmases that people allowed themselves to relax, to enjoy, to savour life.
“Those Christmases were special. After that it all changed. My one sister found a new family and we have never heard from her since. And my other sister didn’t have time for us, her working class family.”
Neither of these statements are really true. Her one sister married and moved to Australia with her new family. We have since moved to Australia ourselves and she has seen her sister at least twice since being here. Her other sister remains in good contact and is in fact quite concerned about the mental health of my mother in law.
But in that moment, in that statement, in our conversation, I realised something. I realised that what I can say with certainty right now is that it doesn’t matter what we do, where we go, or how we act, it is the feeling we leave behind that is the most important.
Moving to Australia in the 1950s was a big undertaking and communication would have been scant at best. I realised that mother-in-law, as the youngest child, felt abandoned by her sister, probably not understanding the situation. Even as an adult, knowing full well that her sister emigrated, that original feeling of abandonment never left her and now she doesn’t remember the emigration, just that she “never heard from her again.”
My mother-in-law cannot remember specific details. She was asked how many children she had and their names recently in yet another assessment. She became agitated because she could not remember them, despite two of them sitting in the room with her.
But if you listen to her talk about her children, she remembers them by how they made her feel.
“Oh Mr A always sends me flowers on Mother’s day.”
“Ms M always used to go shopping with me.”
“Mr D was always so helpful, never gave me any trouble.”
If you asked her what shops she went to with her daughter, or what flowers were her favourite, or what things she used to do with Mr C, she could not tell you. Those memories are long gone.
But what is left, what is indelibly marked onto the neurones of our brains, and is so evident in my mother-in-law, is how a person makes us feel.
And that bares thinking about, don’t you think?
So often we say and do things without really thinking. We live in a culture that says our needs and wants should come before all others. We plunder along, believing in our right to treat others as we see fit, because, well,l it’s important our voice is heard and by god, we are going to make sure it is. We do this without consequence, without thinking how our words and deeds might make others feel.
We don’t think it is important, but it is. It is so very important. So very very important.
When all is said and done, when we have lost our minds and our memories, all we have are our feelings. All we have is how people that we knew made us feel. They are our last bastion, those feelings. They determine the quality of our final years. Are we left all warm and fuzzy, or cold and stark?
Kindness and consideration costs nothing. But the impression left will last a lifetime. A simple letter to let loved ones know how you are doing, a simple phone call, even a simple smile. All of these things add to the feelings we create in that other person.
I know that as I go about my business this coming silly season, rather than snap at my children or my husband because I am feeling sad at the loss of my own mom, or tired with all the work this time of year brings, I am going to practice more patience, more gentility in my words, simply more kindness. Because I know for certain that, when their memories of me as a person might be gone, I want them to feel warmth when they think of me. That is the feeling I want to leave behind.
Have a wonderful Monday lovely.
Until next time,