Dear Readers, it’s 6.30 a.m. on a Saturday morning and I’m sitting in the office, listening to the thin, sweet song of a robin. Outside it’s still dark as pitch, but a runner has trudged past, taking advantage of the quiet street to jog up the middle of the road. And I have been thinking about Christmas, and how different it will be this year, not just for me but for many of us. This is my first Christmas as an orphan, and the idea is taking some getting used to.
Until a few years ago, the weeks before Christmas were frantically busy for me as I tried to get everything in place for Mum and Dad’s visit. We already had the stairlift so that they could get upstairs, but there was the commode and the reclining chair to get, the temporary registration of the pair of them with my doctor, not to mention the food and the presents and the cleaning. The wheelchair had to be rented and popped into the hall, ready for action. The night before they arrived I would be nervously eyeing up everyone who parked outside our house – we don’t have a car, but it’s a long tradition that you can ‘save’ a parking space by popping a couple of wheelie bins into the road, and with Mum and Dad unable to walk very far it could save a lot of worry.
And then they’d arrive, usually driven down by my brother, and the work would really begin. Everything had to be perfect, of course, just as it had to be perfect when Mum used to be in charge. I wonder why I didn’t learn from the way that she often had a migraine on Christmas Day from sheer stress? I remember one day when Mum was in a particular tizzy about something. Dad was sitting in the armchair with a purple paper hat slightly askew on his head, a gin and tonic in one hand and the cat on his lap.
‘Syb’, he said, patting the chair next to him, ‘Just come and sit down for Gawd’s sake. The brussel sprouts can wait for half an hour’.
‘No they can’t!’ she said, and burst into tears.
And so by the time Christmas was over, Mum was worn to a bit of a frazzle. So maybe it’s no surprise that I remember the days after the big event with particular fondness – the days of eating cold turkey, hot potatoes and pickle, playing Trivial Pursuit and watching the obligatory James Bond film with Dad.
And, strangely enough, it’s not the big things that I remember about the Christmases that I hosted either.
It’s the afternoons when Mum and Dad both had a doze, Dad in his recliner, Mum on the sofa, both of them snoozing along peacefully.
It’s the morning that the great spotted woodpecker turned up on the feeder and I gave Mum my binoculars so that she could see him properly.
It’s the night that the International Space Station went by on Christmas Eve, and Mum and I watched it go sailing past.
This year will be the first Christmas in a long, long time where I don’t have anywhere to go, or anyone apart from my husband to cater for. I am lucky to have him, I know.
The losses pile up, and the difference between the Christmas gatherings on the television advertisements and my quiet, subdued bittersweet Christmas could not be starker.
But I know that I am not alone – for so many of the people reading this, there will be an empty space at the Christmas table that can never be filled. And so this is to say that I see you, and I’m holding you in my heart. Grief is the tax that we pay for loving people deeply, but bereavement is a bitter path to walk, and attention must be paid to what we’re feeling at this time if we’re to bear it. There is a time for distraction, and a time for weeping, and only you will know which you need at any given time, but my advice would be to make room for both.
And unlike so many, many people, I don’t have agonising choices to make about who to see and how. I have not spent the year worrying myself sick about elderly relatives that I can’t see, children who haven’t been able to go to school, or who have gone and then been sent home because of a Covid outbreak. I’m still in work, and still housed. I see you too, trying to make this very different Christmas work because other people are depending on you. Please be kind to yourselves. The brussel sprouts will wait for thirty minutes while you have a cup of tea and watch something ridiculous on the television.
Outside there’s the slightest hint of a lightening sky, and the robin has stopped singing, duty done for another morning. In a few days time we’ll reach the winter solstice, the longest night for those of us in the Northern Hemisphere, and the light will gradually come back, until one day we wake up at our usual time and hear the dawn chorus, not a solitary robin. The world turns whether we want it to or not, the bulbs are already starting to stretch and yawn in their loamy beds and life will carry on. Let’s take things both lightly and with deep seriousness, with a sense of fun and with a sense that what we do matters, because it does, more now than ever.