Christmas in July

For Mom

As a kid, my mom always made me feel smart. I only ever really felt stupid when I was forced to wear something I hated for a particular occasion. I suppose all kids feel this way — it’s a loss of control over one of the few agencies you have when you’re young.

I felt especially stupid putting on my starched white dress shirt, royal blue sweater vest and red tie for boys choir concerts, especially when that meant missing Little League games, wearing that uniform instead of my jersey. Those concerts were never as plentiful as they were during the Christmas season. As one of the only non-Catholics — not to mention non-Christians — it all felt so ridiculous, traipsing from one event to the next, more performances than days on the calendar in December, singing Christmas songs in that outfit.

Mom hated Christmastime. It meant family gatherings and fake niceties and lots of other things that made her uncomfortable.

She suffered in her life, more than anyone else I know. But where most of us turn to distraction, or pleasure, or anything else to escape the pain, she steered into it, taking on others’ suffering as her own. Our family didn’t lose anyone close on 9/11, but she was the most distraught person I knew in the aftermath. We didn’t know anyone in New Orleans, but she lined up to adopt and house a family of six after Hurricane Katrina, trying to offer shelter until they landed on their feet.

We bonded over two things, mostly — baseball and music. One song in particular we both connected with was “Long December” by the Counting Crows, a melancholy song of loss. So it was something of a relief, then, that she passed away not during the Christmas season, but quickly, unexpectedly, in July. She always made me feel smart, but I’ve never felt as stupid or helpless as I did trying to pick out an outfit to go watch my mom die.

Like any major life event, death never looks quite how you expect it to, and you never really know it’s happening until it does. In Mom’s case, it came in a nondescript hospital room, the halls a monotonous scheme of beiges and browns. It came amid a conspicuous absence of wires and beeps, nothing but a little extra oxygen coming through a tube. It came from a body that had lost so much weight that it disappeared below the sheet fold into the contour of the bed, a tilted head, the top of the night gown, and nothing else to speak of.

But it came in other, unexpected forms. It looked like an angry refusal of the chaplain, coupled with a bad joke, from a helpless husband. And like a young doctor with big, curly hair that I’d never seen before and will likely never see again.

The doctor’s eyes glistened with the sheen that fights through our attempts to hold back tears as he explained, just a couple minutes after meeting me, what I already knew. There was no hope of recovery. The cancer had spread to her brain. There would be no more A’s games, no more green enchiladas at Juan’s. That was expected. But there would also not be more of anything, including a two-way conversation.

And so, suddenly, there you are, feeling very stupid again, and underdressed, speaking to someone who you’ll never be able to know if they’ve heard you, and who will never speak back to you again. You do the best you can; you thank them, for everything. In the end, you say “goodbye,” which feels like a stupid thing to say to someone you won’t ever see again.

You wander the streets of a blustery San Francisco, where July is always winter, the city tucked under its customary shroud of gray-white mist. You stumble into an old bookstore, the kind that doesn’t exist in most towns anymore, only to find out it’s having a going-out-of-business sale, a sanctuary of knowledge sighing its own final breaths.

Your eyes glaze over the rows of vertical slabs stacked on cedar shelves and you find yourself pulling a pale blue, textured edition from the wall. It’s an ancient print of The Old Man and the Sea, Hemingway’s final published work before he died.

You shuffle to a familiar place, taking your wife for the first time to see an old friend. Book resting beside a mid-afternoon Irish coffee — an attempt to warm both the body and spirit from the chill of the day — the phone rings. You won’t be upset that, while the doctor told you it could be anywhere from 12 hours to three weeks, it’s happened now, right now, just a couple hours gone since you’ve walked away, not more than a few blocks on the other side of Golden Gate Park. You note to your old friend and wife, that the establishment is a fitting one to receive the news: The Bitter End.

You’re still not sure if you believe things happen for a reason, but you can’t deny that they happen. You recall that the last time you actually spoke with your mother was two weeks prior, to tell her you’d gotten married. Still cold, and numb, and bitter, you’ll discover later that evening that Hemingway passed on that same day, July 2, in the same year your mom was born.

Later, as you’re still struggling with the idea of saying “goodbye,” you’ll learn that it was originally a contraction of “God be with ye.”

And maybe none of it makes sense, still, and maybe that’s ok. At least the pain and suffering are gone as well. At least it’s July.

“Now is no time to think of what you do not have. Think of what you can do with what there is.”

— Ernest Hemingway, The Old Man and the Sea



Professional writer, amateur chef, professional-amateur adult

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