The last Christmas was bittersweet, but infinitely more sweet than bitter.
After a 21-year battle with breast cancer, we knew that it would be our last Christmas with my sister-in-law.
She was diagnosed when our children were in pre-school, just two years after she and her family emigrated to the U.S. In those early days, her most urgent hope was to see her husband and kids settle into their new home and make a circle of solid friendships to grow in
She was well. Then came high school, when her cancer metastasized to her spine. She prayed to see her son and daughter graduate. Her cancer slept quietly until both had graduated from college. A year ago, when both kids had settled into good jobs and established their own homes, the cancer awoke and treatment options dwindled.
Sue had two final goals; to celebrate Christmas one more time, the way we have always celebrated it, and to return to Ireland one more time to hold our newborn grand-niece.
So often, the loved ones of my patients say to me, “If only we had just one more….” If only we could savor one more anniversary, holiday, trip to that special place. My family was blessed with that “One More Christmas.” and we relished it.
The Christmas tree sparkled in its usual corner. The fireplace crackled in the living room. There was turkey, two kinds of potatoes — it was a lavish spread, just as ever, yet we savored it for longer.
Plum pudding. Trifle. Dessert was the same, yet only sweeter. Gifts more elaborate and carefully chosen, because we know they would be the last. Then, the singing began.
Sue made it back to Ireland. She saw the people she wanted to see and relished every moment. She held baby Azima. Her home-going was just the same as always – except different. She returned to find that there was no more chemotherapy to try. Her husband called for Hospice.
As a hospice chaplain, I’ve had the privilege of being with literally hundreds of people when they took their last breath. Those sacred final days of watching a person prepare to leave this life are most often full to overflowing with grace. Slowly, gently, we let go of all that we have known and loved, as a soft blanket of holiness descends.
Sitting on Sue’s bed with her husband and children as she died was at once so familiar and so new. Although the care and keeping of dying people is my calling, I had never been with someone I loved before, as they died.
But sure enough, the familiar peace that passes all understanding filled the room. Gently, gently, with her children and husband and me sitting on her bed, praying and loving, Sue left us. It was bittersweet.
It is kind of a cliché, perhaps, but having been on the receiving end of a “one more time,” last Christmas, I wonder; what if we really did live as if we were dying?
This is what I know; the laughter is more joyful, the tears more free to flow, the love more easily spoken, the joy of living enough. Would it change anything for you, if you decided to live today as if it were “the one more time”?
The Rev. Rona Tyndall is pastoral care coordinator of Hospice of the North Shore.