When the Tree Just Won’t Come Down: Creatively Holding Onto Memories
They got her home just in time for Christmas. It was her favorite holiday.
She loved nothing more than to see the decorations and lights glisten on the tree, with memories shaped like 5-year old’s handprints and sports figurines. Each one had a story, of the 42 years she had with him until 3 years before, and of their 4 kids and 8 grandkids.
My friend was exhausted from long weeks at the hospital until the doctors said it was time to go home with hospice care, but she was determined to get the tree up for her mom. She was too tired to say “no” when we showed up to help.
As her mom slept off the ambulance ride home in the next room, with a baby monitor on her bedside table, my friend directed us in putting together the tree, covering it with twinkling lights, and making sure the favorite ornaments were front and center.
The durable medical equipment company arrived and set up the oxygen unit and other equipment in the living room, with the hospital bed sitting in the middle of all the activity, directly facing the tree. After the nice young men left, we worked together to get her mom into the electric bed where she could be adjusted to both her comfort and that of those caring for her.
She was too weak to do more than smile at the dazzling display in front of her, but her eyes caressed each story hanging from metal hooks and yarn loops and glistened with love and pride for those whom she loved.
One last time, she enjoyed the sounds of her family’s laughter and delighted squeals ringing out over the crumpling paper and once-a-year songs and holiday specials. She absorbed all of this with her eyes now closed, lifting her nose to catch wafts of freshly popped corn, dressing, spiral-sliced ham, and pumpkin pies brought and shared around her by family and friends.
Three days later, more nice young me came in and carried her mom gently from her bed, as the family quietly wept and walked her out to the dark van.
The medical equipment and unused supplies were packed and moved. The bed went last. But the tree still stood.
“Not yet…”, my friend said.
“I just can’t.”
“I’m not ready.”
Her beloved had an idea, and invited our help. From a box in the attic, construction paper hearts cut carefully by small pairs of stubbed scissors and two generations of tiny hands over the course of 40 years came down. Macaroni necklaces on red yarn, and other valentines, found their way to dangle amongst the twinkling lights of the tree.
We carefully wrapped Christmas on February 13th, putting the boxes not too far away just in case this was too much, too soon.
When she came home, she stopped where her mother’s final bed had been, facing the tree. Too full of emotion to speak, her eyes caressed each story hanging from metal hooks and yarn loops and glistened with love and pride for the memories of the mom whom she loved.
“It’s perfect”, she said.
For a full year, family and friends in various groupings would come take part in this ritual of re-decorating the tree for holidays, anniversaries, and birthdays. With each one, there was more laughter, fewer tears.
The bitter never left, but there were fewer cracks left for it to dwell amongst the loving memories that kept her alive in and among them, glistening so vibrantly inside that the outside ornaments finally weren’t needed anymore.
The tree eventually went down after one more Valentine’s Day. They were ready. It was time. And it was all perfect.
Rev. Carla Cheatham, MA, MDiv, PhD, TRT has served hospices as a chaplain and bereavement coordinator. She’s the Section Leader for the Spiritual Caregivers Section of the National Hospice and Palliative Care Organization and an adjunct professor at the Seminary of the Southwest. Through her Carla Cheatham Consulting Group, Carla provides training and consulting for professional caregivers nationwide. She is the author of Hospice Whispers: Stories of Life and its companion volume, Sharing Our Stories: A Hospice Whispers Grief Support Workbook. Her next book, On Showing Up with Suffering: Others’ and Our Own, is set to publish in 2017.