I sent Nick off to bed as the last hours of Christmas day dwindled; his eyes had grown heavy while he rested on the couch. I was tired too, but I was feeling too anxious to sleep. I decided to watch a movie instead—I have watched very few this year. As The Christmas Shoes began to spin, I positioned the tissues close to my hand.
Now, it’s not all that common for a straight-to-DVD movie to be on my scroll of must-sees during the holidays. (It’s hard to stand up next to Jimmy Stewart, Bing Crosby, Fred Astaire, Cary Grant, and Danny Kaye, after all.) This movie, however, touches a nerve. It’s a story based on a song by the same name. A little boy’s mother is dying of heart failure, and he wants to buy her shoes to wear once she gets to heaven.
It’s sweetly innocent… and heavy (at least it is for me). It probably doesn’t help that it was around this time six years ago that I realized that my mother would be leaving. Soon. I dissolve whenever I hear a story about a child losing his or her parents…really, a story about anyone losing someone who they loved. I cannot help but be empathetic to that overwhelming sensation of loneliness, and I cry raw tears—as if it were only yesterday when Mom took her final breath. I don’t let myself reside in that place of despair, but the memories of those emotions are vivid and easily summoned.
The movie is incredibly touching, and I don’t think anyone is immune to the breadth of emotions it stirs. I seem to get caught on a different part of the goodbye every year. This year, it was her husband telling her that he and their son were going to be fine…that it was okay to go. I remember visiting her in the hospital on January 19, 2006.
My brother and I were in the hall outside her room when one of our aunts came out. With a hand on each of our shoulders, she told us that we needed to tell her to go.
Everybody else had already told her, but she continued to fight against the inevitable…so that left her children. Charlie and I couldn’t tell her that day. We hugged each other and cried because we knew we would have to find the strength to lie. We would have to tell her it was okay to go when it really wasn’t. It wasn’t okay at all. On that day, our tears would have betrayed us and our best attempts.
She came home on a Saturday. Hospice nurses came to our house and made the living room into a makeshift hospital room. We all kept vigil around her, not wanting her to feel alone when she left. On Sunday, my pastor took me and Charlie aside and reiterated that we needed to tell her to go. “She’s holding on for you,” he said. I remember his eyes shining with unshed tears as he swallowed hard and said, “I wouldn’t be able to leave my children either.”
She wasn’t herself by that stage. She was looking through us as though seeing something that we could not; her eyes did not focus on us as we leaned over her bed. Yet, there were words that everyone said we needed to say…words that felt sharp and jagged in my throat. Charlie went first.
After about three minutes, I heard the door slam from where I sat in the far south-eastern corner of the house. Everything seemed to rattle as my brother ran as fast and as hard as he could away from the house…the room…the bed…her. I was rattled too…by the strength and the violence of his feelings. Stumbling a bit, I made my way to her bedside.
I sat next to her and started talking. She was non-responsive, and I wasn’t sure that she could hear me or comprehend what I was saying. Nonetheless, I told her how she inspired me. I told her what her love meant to me. I told her that I wanted to live up to her example. And, on a sob, I told her that I was going to be okay. Suddenly, profoundly, she opened her eyes and pierced me with her gaze. I watched as twin tears gathered in her eyes, and we stared at each other for several seconds. I saw the question in her eyes. Will you really be okay? they asked. Slowly I nodded, realizing only at that second that it was true.
Then the moment was over. Her eyes closed, her head lolled to the side again, and her clenched fist loosened. I kissed her cheek and felt my heart break.
These images replayed in my mind as I watched that scene last night. When the story ended, my tears had not, so I watched the scene again (and again and again) until I was finally spent. I went up to bed feeling lighter and less burdened. For once, I fell into sleep immediately and did not wake for almost seven hours. I can’t remember the last time I slept so easily or for so long. I have so many hurts that still need to be soothed…but I keep forgetting that they are there. How many memories have I put on a shelf to deal with when I felt less vulnerable?
The cry felt good…cleansing…and afterward, love filled the void where the grief had been.