Christmas time has arrived and with it a new kind of love. This love is hungry and desperate. This love wants to capture and preserve everything about your Grandma Lynn. If it wouldn’t remind everybody that this is probably our last Christmas with Mom, I would record every second of it. Maybe this is what prayer is; love that is begging.
Since I leak tears almost constantly, I have taken to wiping my nose on the hem of my pants or the bottom of my shirt. It is a good thing I am flexible. And that I don’t mind being covered in silver swabs of snot.
I remember coming home for Christmas one year from college. Rusty wasn’t there when I arrived, but when he came in later I went to hug him in the doorway. It was a shock to find that he was bigger than me. I said, “Hey Rus.” And then he said “Hey Hope.” And Holy Moses. His voice was suddenly about two octaves deeper. It was the kind of voice that rattles you in your own breast bone. The round-edged kid I had left a few months before was completely gone. No softness around the chin, no pneumatics around the waist. Rusty was broad shouldered and butt-less like Dad.
It changed things, to not be the biggest anymore. We have always been a very physical family, always wrestling or competing and suddenly, I was not the winner any more. My meanness and willingness to cheat kept me in the running for a year or two, but my long reign of terror was officially over.
Your mother likes to tease me and say that I am the shortest Cheney kid, but I would like to point out that I was the tallest for about twenty years and nobody has broken my record yet.
A serious disadvantage to not being the biggest kid anymore came in the form of Peanut Butter Torture.
Imagine that you have come home from college. Something happens to your metabolism when you return home that makes you revert to a larval stage of life. You eat. You sleep. You eat some more. You nap. Imagine you have made the tactical error of falling asleep on the couch in the living room. If you are alert, you will be awakened by the sudden silence, if not, your first warning will be a shout. “Grab her legs!”
Your legs will be straddled and immobilized by one brother. Your socks will be yanked off. Another brother will spread peanut butter between your toes. You will fight and kick with all your strength, but by the time the dog comes over to lick the peanut butter from between your toes you will give up. The dog, Tucker, has the world’s slipperiest tongue. Imagine the properties of frogs eggs and slug trails and jelly fish and eyeballs. With every lick he will leave behind a coating of warm glutinous saliva that chills immediately. He will be very thorough. By the time your brothers spring away from you, out of kicking range and laughing, the tip of your foot will be encased in a cold, slimy film. You might say that this Christmas, my self-inflicted coating of slime is a form of nostalgia.
It is hard to stay firmly in either camp of Presents-Don’t-Matter or Presents-Bring-Joy. I split the difference by spoiling the kids and short changing the adults. Mom loves presents and loves to open things even though she almost always guesses what it is before unwrapping. I give her a book about brains and coloring books so that she can practice using her right hand again. They are presents I got when I thought she would get better. I cannot think of what to get somebody who is dying.
I cannot separate the grief of Rusty from the new grief I feel about Mom, but Mom makes us all act as though we are only sad about Rusty. She has continued to be the most highly sought after entertainment among the grandkids. None of them mind that she gets words wrong or that she stays in her Lay-Z Boy chair. I keep up a constant psychic scream at Forrest, Grace, Lyda, Winter and Isabella: Remember this!
On Christmas Eve at dusk I look out the front window and notice a line of cars parked along the side of the road. “Somebody’s having a party!” I call. “Let’s go crash it.” About fifteen minutes later I look out again and this time I see a crowd of people, probably more than a hundred, coming down the street towards our house. “There’s a bunch of people coming this way!” I say. “I think they’re coming to our house. Get Mom.”
We help Mom get bundled up and then bring a chair for her out to the porch. The whole village is there, and more. I see neighbors, former teachers, families I used to babysit, church members, volunteer fire fighters, everybody is out there before dinner on Christmas Eve to sing for our mom.
It might seem like something as simple as caroling is just sentimental, but it was deeply powerful. If I may go back to my tidal wave idea, we are floating, buoyed up love we had not expected. This is what you give to someone who is dying.