It was during that period of time after the hungry feasters snaked through the line of platters, bowls and trays of assorted delights, but prior to the point when the reality of the quantity eaten exceeds the norm. Just a glance at the dessert table with enough confections to put even the most sedentary soul on a sugar high is incentive enough to linger in hopes that the consumed food would shift downwards and leave a gap for the addition of a dessert.

Having dutifully polished off the usual turkey and dressing (et al), I took the advantage given me as a first-time visitor to the home of my husband’s cousin for a holiday feast. I strategically positioned myself at one end of a sofa nearest the roaring fire and realized that my location provided me with a bird’s-eye view of all in attendance. The ongoing football game could be heard, but in the background only – not as an attention grabber. Being a people watcher by nature, I found myself observing interactions between friends, between family members and strangers (I include myself in this category), and most importantly, between members of the same families. It was as if an old 45 record had been played at the speed of a 78. No rushing through the meal to get elsewhere. No importance placed on the ongoing football game, other than occasional glances. Children mingled with family pets both inside and out, as multi-colored leaves continued to float gently to the ground from the plethora of trees outside the picture windows.

“Straight from a Rockwell painting” I began to think, until the sight of what was to become my undoing shot through me like an arrow.

Let me first clue-in the reader to the fact that I’m an only child – or I was prior to losing my father in 1981 and my mother in 1999. I no longer am a daughter to anyone. The loss of my mother was devastating to me and still is in many ways. Since the year immediately following her death, during which I refused to participate in any holiday festivities, I have slowly realized that I do have a husband who, although outdoes himself in the patience department, is also a functioning part of my life and one who needs emotional support. Therefore, following the first anniversary of Mother’s death, I have made a valiant attempt during each holiday season to “be there” for him, whether it be a functioning part of me or not. During that first year, I read the grief books on becoming an “orphan”….I attended grief counseling sessions at my church….I gave Oprah my undivided attention when she aired shows dealing with the loss of a loved one. I feel as if I did everything I could do to get past the fact that the one person with whom I had been a best friend with for my entire life was no longer present to share the good or the bad times with me.

I realize the operative word in that sentence is “me.” “Me” is the problem. “Me” builds the walls around which no one can advance. “Me” cries the tears that are in no way meant for my loved one. They are meant for “me.” Who is the one who gets hurt when a memory invades an already-delicate holiday festivity? It’s certainly not the loved one who has transitioned to a place about which I’ve only read.

In returning back to the sight in which I felt the piercing of an arrow in my heart, I hasten to add that I’ve not been exposed to many family gatherings since the passing of my mother. Obviously I’ve chosen to avoid them consciously, rather than submit to heart-tugging scenes which would not only ruin the occasion for me, but could possibly effect whoever else was in attendance. No one deserves to sacrifice a warm and fuzzy moment with a family member because of a woman who becomes slightly deranged due to a deep emotional loss in her own family.

Today, I made an exception. I chose to accompany my husband to this festive occasion during the holiday season, and was welcomed unconditionally by members of his very loving family. But as they say, nothing lasts forever. From my perch in my cocoon on the sofa, I observed a woman of my age – 50ish and very effervescent – walk behind her mother and gently lay a hand on her mother’s shoulder. Such a minimal effort for such a huge statement. The daughter continued to speak to a small group of people who had gathered behind her mother’s chair, but the hand remained on the shoulder. No words were exchanged between the two women, but then none had to be. And in a flash, I was taken back in time to the days when I would have made such a gesture to my mother. The last few years seemed to disappear as I actually felt my mother’s presence in that warm, love-filled room.

Before much time passed, as I continued to observe mother and daughter, I witnessed the exact same thing occur between my hostess and her sister, both of whom are indeed over the 65-year old range. Although they live an hour’s distance from one another, and although both have suffered life-altering illnesses within the past several years, they easily reach out to touch each other whenever they are in close proximity. Loving touches. Hands that reach. Silence is, as they say, golden. During these moments, actions speak volumes.

I retreated into my own thoughts at this point, no longer noticing those near me. Memories flooded my heart, and although I was thankful to be amid such a warm and spontaneously loving group of people, I knew I had to deal with “me” at that point. I had been a caregiver for my mother for much of my adult life, even as she remained in her own home and continued (on a limited basis due to multiple eye problems) to drive locally. Her last 6 months were spent as a resident in my home, however, and it was during that span of time that I learned what the meaning of “caregiver” truly was. I couldn’t walk away if her inabilities irritated me. I couldn’t slam the door and jump in the car if her forgetfulness got the best of my usually-patient nature. This was a 24/7 responsibility, and remained as such until she drew her last breath lying in my arms.

So much has been written about the holiday season as it pertains to caregivers and those who have had recent losses in their families. In my opinion, a loss doesn’t need to be recent to be painful. I believed wholeheartedly that I had passed the point of emotional meltdown during the holidays, but today’s events made me face the fact that we may never move past the memories that are imbedded so deeply within us that cause our grief to take on new meaning at this time of year. Initially, I felt guilty for again letting the visual bonds between family members cause such a deep pain within my heart. However, I am beginning to realize that the depth of my pain is in proportion to the depth of the love I felt for my mother, and that love provided both of us with years of happiness. I believe that today was a breakthrough for me, and I wish that all caregivers who are facing a loss that could plunge them into an emotional abyss would take advantage of the “here and now” and let your loved one feel the emotional bond between you. Words don’t come easy to many, especially words dealing with emotions. No words need to be said when a hand is laid on a shoulder…when one hand reaches for another…or when one opens his/her arms to enfold a loved one in an embrace.

Patti St. Clair