Visitors for Christmas

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Here I go again.  It’s that most wonderful time of the year.  Anticipation of and preparation for the season awaken my creative energy and unlock my secret longing for perfection. I envision a totally unique greeting card, individual well-selected gifts, an enormous glittery tree, a front porch to rival Southern Living, and a simple but elegant dinning table. I am dimly aware that frustration, angst and tension may quite possibly be the end result, but it’s still early and hope abounds.  Armed with an arsenal of ideas from Pinterest, I get busy, going through box after box deciding which treasures will go back to the attic and which ones will come out for this year’s grand decorative theme. Gas logs blaze and Christmas music plays, enhancing my yuletide experience.

I fondle some precious ornament, perhaps the one my daughter made in grade school. I hum along to some unnamed melody that suddenly turns sad and familiar at the same time.  I’ve been set up, the trigger is pulled and he appears. He, as in The spirit of Christmas Past, stepping forcefully into the room dragging his good friend Melancholy with him.  After years of futile resistance, I now consider them odd little friends.  My only concern is how long they will stay.  It may be hard to shoo them away this year, because this is the first Christmas without Mother.  I greet them with a sigh and give them time to properly air the memories so that they can leave and I can get on with the present.

They ask me to pause over this red crinkled glass ball,  an ornament from my childhood.  It hung on mother’s tree. Remember that Christmas when Daddy bought Mom all those fancy clothes?  She good-naturedly tried them all on, making the living room her runway, and her children her adoring audience.  The next day she returned everything, anticipating an enormous credit card bill.  Remember the story of how Papaw made Daddy promise to bring Mother home to see him every Christmas before he granted permission for Mother to marry him? How about my first Christmas as a wife of just one month?  We had that crazy little tree with no ornaments so we hung fruit from the branches.  Daddy made such fun of that tree.  I crossed-stitched and framed a dozen ornaments like this cardinal to hang on our next year’s tree.  Here is the wooden rocking horse that reads, “baby’s first christmas”.  Our first baby, my baby girl.  And then two boys. Children, turned teenagers and now adults. I can see their toddler faces on Christmas morning surveying three separate piles of toys from Santa, and that slight pause before they recognize theirs and dive in.  Then all the other Christmases we excitedly wait for each of them to come home because none of them live with us anymore. Now they bring their babies.  We have grandchildren, lovely, loving grandchildren.  One, so new he has no teeth, one has all his baby teeth, two are already middle schoolers, in braces.   They’re growing so fast. Everyone grows so fast, grew so fast.   Mother, you tried to tell me that.  I heard you then,  I believe you now.

Memory hits me hard and brings out a year’s worth of carefully checked emotion.  My senses are all hyped-up.  I see Christmas in all it’s  hysterically twinkly sparkle, it’s spectacular calm and its remote sadness.  I hear choruses radiating throughout the atmosphere and penetrating deep inside my head.  Christmas is strangely new and comfortably familiar.  It feels like long hugs, quick kisses and an achy gut.  It tastes of all things wonderful.  Christmas fills me up and breaks my heart.  It smells like pine trees, cookies, apples and mother. Yes, it sometimes smells like mother.  Mother and Channel no 5 , a fragrance she defines.  That perfume was probably under every one of the trees of my youth, wrapped in department store paper next to her box of Whitmans Sampler.

I get up and go to my room.  The bottle that I took from her house when we packed up her things is on my dresser.  I take it in my hand and unscrew the top.  I ceremoniously put a dab of her scent on my wrist and rub it against my other wrist the way she used to do.  I lay down on my bed and try to smell her, let her presence surround me.  Mother and the memories of 64 Christmases become this moment, this Christmas, and suggest the probability of future holy days.  

In a little while, a new guest arrives.  Her name is Gratitude and she is powerful.  With her in the room, I can allow the Spirit of Christmas Past and even Melancholy to stay.  They expertly choreograph the delicate dance between what was, and is, and is to come.

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Painful Questions

I think we’ve stopped. I can’t believe we’re not moving. Is it rush hour traffic, an accident? Where are we? Why aren’t we moving?
“Streets flooded,” answers the young man who has been taking my pulse, asking me questions and trying to keep me calm.
And I know exactly where we are. It happens every time we get too much rain in too little time. We are on 75, close to the West Paces/Northside exit and the dad gummed drains are clogged and water is spilling onto the interstate. It takes all of my energy and focus to maintain my grasp on anything except the searing pain, but I do find myself wondering why in all these years someone hasn’t done something about those drains. Perhaps this is where I’ll die, on the way to the hospital, in a white ambulance, on a rainy night in Georgia.
I try begging the medical man once more for some pain meds, but he answers in his calm manner, “Sorry, can’t when it’s stomach pain.” Then he asks me something, the same three somethings that I remember answering before (even though, admittedly, I’m not very clear in the head right now).
“What’s your name? What’s your birthday? How’s your pain on a scale of 1-10?”
Name? Easy. Check that off. Birthday? Give me a minute. I have to moan, toss, breathe, writhe, moan some more, grunt out my birthdate, done.
But how is my pain level? Let me think, I knew you were going to ask me this. I conjure up the mental visual of the smiley face chart that they have in doctors offices and I remain completely stumped. I grab for an answer and mutter, “I don’t know,” which I promise you is not my voice at all, but my mothers.


“Excuse me?”
“I said, I sound like my mother.”
“And on a scale of 1-10, how would you rate your pain level?”
No wonder mom just says I don’t know all the time. I get it mom, I really do. Let’s see. There is having a baby pain. Is this as intense, or is it worse? Is having a baby a 10 or an 8? Pant, moan, gasp, moan, thrash. This is definitely worse than that! Or did I just forget what having a baby feels like? Man this hurts.
“Mam, can you tell me where it hurts the most?”
Okay, okay, I’m thinking. It hurts all over, like I am going to explode. But what if it’s nothing, like the time before when they tested for everything and found nothing? Maybe, I’m just a horrendous baby and they’ll say it’s just gas or something and I’ll be so embarrassed. But it can’t be. I’ve had three babies naturally and I just left home in an ambulance and scared my grand babies to death, lying there on the ground wrenching around and moaning. I would never frighten them like that unless I was having at least a pain 9 experience.
“Mam, what is your pain level on a scale of 1-10? ” Now, I begin to panic. I’ve got to pick a number. I want to say 10 but I’ve heard of pain so great that you black out and do I really want to know what a 10 is? Okay, okay, I choose 7 though I don’t know why. I hear the medical man say into his cell phone, “severe abdominal pain.” Great, I’ve communicated through this agonizing, pain-induced fog.
“May I please have some pain medicine?”
“No mam, not when it’s stomach pain.”
I finally get to the ER, see a doctor, receive some morphine (ah), have some tests, go to surgery, get knocked out, lose my appendix, wake up, go to a room for 6 hours, return home to recover. Post surgery, not one person has asked me the pain questions, but I have a sudden need to tell the world. “My name is Gwen Bullock, my birthday is November 10, 19?? And on a scale of 1-10 my pain level is zero. My gratitude is at another level, entirely. It is off the charts!