In the picture, I’m a smiling girl of six. Raven hair in loose curls swaying down my back – I remember the braid I wore to her funeral – staring up at my mother with stars in my eyes. Someone had the good sense to snap a photo, to capture this moment of love between mother and daughter. Thank God they did, because six months later she died.
The Christmas tree with its brightly colored lights and cool, silver, tinsel frames us, wraps us in an eternal glow. Me in a fancy dress, taking in my world. Her frail frame a shell of what it once was, gazing with love on her baby. Our last Christmas together. The doctors allowed her to leave the hospital for a few days, her first time out in months. A Christmas miracle, it turns out, since she would never walk through the doors of our home again.
For years after when the doorbell rang at Christmas, my heart leapt with the impossible hope of her. Sometimes my father came for Christmas, usually dragging his drugs and drama behind him. Other family came and went, but still I clung to the painful hope that my love could awaken the dead, a jagged shard of glass cutting rivers of blood through my heart, year after year. But the dead will not awaken, and still we must live.
The twenty-seven Christmases that have passed since that photo were filled with toys, tears, ugly sweaters, and no matter what else, a hole where she should have been. Daughter, mother, sister, friend. In “It’s a Wonderful Life” the angel Clarence tells George Bailey that one man’s life – when its gone – leaves an awful hole. He was right, as angels always are and that Valerie shaped hole is my family’s ghost of Christmas past. This photo is a haunting – beautiful and heart-breaking – a reminder of all that has been, which serves as a reminder of all that never will be again.
I’m thirty-three years old, and have had many more Christmases without my mother than I did with her. In those twenty-seven years since I last saw her face I grew up and those holidays saw parties and formals, kisses and broken hearts. Christmas Eve masses as the lone Catholic in my family saw me singing “O Holy Night” with my adoptive parish family. My life these days, is Christmas Eve mass with my young family, incense and red velvet bows, plaid ties and poinsettias. Always the specter of my ghost of Christmas Past, as I watch grown daughters and their mothers, holding grandchildren while they say the prayers of our ancient faith. An image I see, but will never inhabit.
Now Christmas holds the promise of the future and the joy of the present. A moment of joy, my six-year-old daughter, in her fancy Christmas dress, long curly hair swinging down her back, looks at me with eyes so full of love I can barely contain the exquisite pain and longing. Grief and joy live side by side in my heart: Christmas and so much else has taught me to give them both room. As I watch my children open their gifts with that unadulterated joy that only Christmas morning can bring, I can’t help but think of that Christmas so many years ago when I was the child and the gifts I wanted most of all – a healthy mother, an intact family – would never be found under the tree.
Maybe, just maybe, I’ll light a candle on Christmas day and invite my ghost of Christmas Past to come in and stay a while. Maybe, just maybe, she will.