I spent Christmas Eve day making a wall mounted coat rack for my husband. I did everything by hand. I did everything last minute. That is how I roll—on deadline. Christmas Day was my deadline. My in-laws were put on help orders. My husband was ordered back to our house—no entering my in-laws garage, under any circumstances. Santa’s workshop was in use. I had full access to my handy Italian father-in-law. We made several trips to Lowe’s for lumber, paint, nuts, bolts, washers, screws. He had all the necessary supplies: saw horses, screwdrivers, paintbrushes, tarps, etc. We made several trips to Hobby Lobby for decorative items: knobs, hooks, photo sleeves and crazy glue.
After I finished working all day on my husband’s awesome handmade gift, I took a photo of my hard day’s work. I put a big red bow on it. Christmas 2012 was ready. Now it was time to wrap my two-and-a-half-year-olds gifts and get Christmas ready.
Growing up, Christmas Eve was always special in our house. My mom made it a big deal. What I remember most about Christmas is spending time with my family and the magic of Christmas Eve—the joy of spotting Santa in the sky and the holiness of the night as it curved into dawn of Christmas Day. Mom had the house filled with Christmas smells and spices. My favorite was a mixture of orange peels, cinnamon sticks, and cloves simmering on the stove. We would bake Christmas cookies, taking turns rolling out the white dough and sprinkling green and red sugary crystals on top of each cookie—snowmen, Christmas trees, bells, Santas, and elves.
With a fire crackling and the lights shimmering, we would sing along to Christmas carols on the radio and shake our presents to “see” what was inside. Mom was Christmas Eve.
When I finished my gift for my husband, I asked my brother-in-law to drive me home. Santana’s Jingo played on the stereo in his 2000 Bronco. I had missed my nephew’s call on my cell; I called him back.
“Grandma is in the hospital.”
My heart just about burst.
I called the nursing home to get more information. They said that she was fine just yesterday. The last time I spoke to my mom was on her birthday, December 22. She seemed fine; she was so alert. If I had not been in such a rush, I would have talked longer. I remember thinking: I should interview Mom and ask her to tell me some stories because she sounds so lucid.
But all I was able to do was confirm that she got the Christmas bouquet and tell her I loved her. “Mom, I love you. Happy birthday. I will call later.” I was rushed for time; I was collecting materials for my Christmas gift project. I made sure to tell the florist, “I want something that smells really good and smells like Christmas. My mom loves Christmas. She is pretty much blind, so make sure the birthday bouquet smells delicious.”
My husband rushed to the store to get a camera so we could Skype with Mom. I was able to Skype in and see my mom for the last night on Christmas Eve. She looked confused and kind of scared. Her blue eyes burst through the screen. I wanted to hold her, hug her and kiss her just as she had held, hugged, and kissed me so many times in my life.
I waited for a while after getting off the Skype call and wrapped presents with nervous energy and tied red bows on my son’s presents with nervous loops and curled ribbon with delicate care. I asked for everyone to pray, soliciting prayer chains on Facebook and Twitter. I paced the house, feeling helpless as I was 1,775 miles away.
The hospital called me and said that my mom didn’t look good and her vitals were bad. The nurse said, “It looks like your mom is going to pass tonight or early tomorrow morning.” The hospital put my mom on the phone for me. “I’m holding the phone to her ear,” the nurse said.
I said what I needed to say, “Mom, I love you,” my voice choked and tears fell. I knew this was it. This was going to be the last time I spoke to her.
I better make it good. All the right words came out of my mouth, marinated with the au jus of my broken heart. Elephant hooves stamped on my chest.
I said to her, “You did everything for us as kids and you were such a great mom. You sacrificed so much. If you are ready to go to Heaven and catch a ride on Santa’s sleigh tonight, it is alright. It would be just like you to make such a dramatic exit from this life. Now, don’t give Santa too much trouble.” I took a deep breath. I continued, “I am happy, Mom. I am really happy with Rich and Ben and the life I have made for myself. We all know you love us. It is alright for you to let go and be with Dad.”
Somewhere in those sentences she did let go and she passed. I knew I had said my peace. “Nurse. Cut. I am done,” I said. There was a deep silence on the phone, perhaps in my heart I felt it or knew she passed.
The nurse got on the phone and said in a shocked voice, “I can’t say for sure but I think your mom passed when she was on the phone with you.” I about fell over. Like a Christ revival, I felt the Lord. I don’t know what I felt. The nurse said, “Let me check, but I am almost positive your mother passed away while on the phone with you. I will call you back in a little bit after the doctor checks and announces the time of death.”
I raced my little feet that felt like they were four to my husband’s arms. He had just got out of the bathroom as he had a terrible case of a stomach bug. I called for him, shrieking, “Rich, where are you?” He was not in the bedroom bathroom, nor was he in the bedroom. I went out to the kitchen. He was drinking a glass of water and looked awful and in need of a deep sleep. “My mom just died,” I exclaimed. I jumped into his arms, wrapping my own around him. He held me as I wept.
It was almost a relief. I had been expecting my mother’s death for the last 13 years since her diagnosis of brain tumors in 2000. The expectation of death was heavier than the actual announcement of it. Nonetheless, my heart was on the floor.
The nurse called back and confirmed that my mother had in fact died while on the phone with me at 11:58 EST on Christmas Eve 2012—two minutes shy of midnight. She was in Colorado and on Mountain Standard Time, but she was always on EST as a born and raised New Yorker. So I went to Facebook and posted:
“When you see Santa in the sky tonight, know Betty’s got the reigns. She died while I was on the phone with her at 9:58 MST/11:58 EST (the nurse held the phone to her ear.)
Believe it or not, it gives me great joy and peace that she passed on Christmas Eve, exactly two minutes before midnight East Coast time. She has always been on EST as a New Yorker at heart. RIP Betty. No star ever shone brighter than you. I love you always.”
The nurse told me, “Your mother was gasping for breath and when I put the phone to her ear and she heard your voice, she was so calm and her breathing was regular.” Puffy snowflakes fell outside her hospital window as there was a blizzard. I imagined this as a scene from a dramatic movie—some after school special that was my own.
I spent most of Christmas Eve crying and wrapping presents. I talked with my nephew for almost an hour. One year my mom and I planned a surprise for my then two-year-old nephew. I was home from college (1995) and dressed up as Santa. My mom woke John and encouraged him to come downstairs to see Santa. He peeked into the African decorated den, my mom’s favorite room in her house. He held his grandma’s hand and saw me dressed as Santa placing presents under the twinkling tree. My mom and John hid on the stairs and I pretended not to see them.
Saying goodbye to my mother was not the bravest thing I have ever done. Getting up the next day and putting on a brave face for my two-and-a-half-year-old was.