The Christmas tree had always been a pain to put together. It seemed that every year, the pre-lit tree that my mother had purchased 15 years earlier had been a thorn in my side. The very first time trying to put it together seemed to take forever. The metal trunk did not fit quite as well as it should in its base and trying to line up the network of plugs and wires to get all 3 sections of it to light up properly was a headache. As I would lay there on the floor by myself, and in later years joined by my son, Bennett, I would mutter and curse under my breath as the branches scratched my forearms and hands to pieces as I tried to line up the screw in the stand to the hole in the trunk that wasn’t drilled all the way through properly. By the second year I had to re-drill the hole and put a bolt in it. I honestly thought the tree had it out for me. Every…single…year.
My mother had me help her pick the tree out at our local Target store in 2004. My parents had to move back to Minnesota after a scant two years of living in Florida. I received a call from my father in September of that year that his bladder cancer had returned after almost 7 years and it was now in his lumbar area of his spine. My father told me that he needed my wife, Coleen, and I to find them a house in the town we were living in . We looked at a dozen or so houses and finally found one that was one level so it was easy for my father to move around in. He was now using a walker and his mobility was decreasing daily it seemed. Also, my older handicapped brother, Dean, who my parents had cared for since being injured in a car accident in 1986 needed a house that did not have a lot of steps. We were finally able to find them a house and worked as middle-men to help facilitate the sale. A few short weeks later, Thanksgiving weekend, they were back in Minnesota with help from two of my older brothers who helped to move and drive them back.
That Christmas, which would end up being the last one that we would celebrate with my father, my mother wanted a new tree, a pre-lit one that she would not have to string lights on. We took a ride to Target and after helping her pick one out she purchased it and I loaded it into her car and brought it to their home to set it up. I then made the trip to the basement to grab the multiple tubs of Christmas decorations. After hanging up the ornaments, some that had been in our family for years, we strung the new garland that she had bought around the tree. The last thing to add was the angel topper that my younger brother, Darren, and I had bought for her when we were kids at the Hallmark store in Owatonna, Minnesota, where we grew up. After plugging the tree in we stepped back to admire the neat LED lights and I put the tree skirt around the bottom of it. In my inner Linus Van Pelt voice, I decided it wasn’t such a bad tree after all! My father agreed, as well!
The following August. my father lost his 9 year battle with his bladder cancer. It was the hardest thing I had ever been through. Seeing a man who was so strong and so skilled be defeated by such a horrible disease was almost too much to bear. I held his hand as he drew his last breath and bid goodbye to this world and the pain he had been living with for years.
My oldest brother, Steven, had a plastic Fischer Price grandfather clock that he had received as a present from our mother’s parents when he was a toddler. On the face of the clock were the words, Tempus Fugit. The phrase comes from a line from the poet Virgil’s epic agricultural poem, Georgics. Translated it means, “It escapes, irretrievable time.”
Tempus Fugit. Time Flies. It was a team that my mother and I would utter to each other all the time. Whenever another year would pass and we would think about the highs and the lows or the ones we had lost it never seemed to fail that one of us would utter the phrase. Tempus Fugit.
That year I set the tree up again, having to drill the aforementioned hole in the trunk for a bolt to be inserted in it to stabilize it from swaying too bad. It was tough doing it without my father there. The holidays would never quite be the same again. He really was just a big kid at heart. His family did not have a lot growing up and he always did his best to make the season bright for everyone.
My mother never enjoyed the holidays as much as she did before my father’s passing. She had a lot on her plate taking care of my father and older brother. My brother should have been placed in a group home facility years ago to give him a chance to have a life of his own. It also would have given my parents a chance to have a life of their own, as well. But, being cut from old New England cloth, family took care of family. While I loved and admired their determination, this hindered them all in a lot of ways.
Being the only local child in the area ,my mother leaned heavily on me for all kinds of things from shopping, filling her car up with gas to taking her or my brother to doctor appointments. This also included frustrating things like when either her or my brother would hit the wrong button on the television controller at 9 o’clock on a Sunday night and they would call me and I would have to run over to their house to reprogram it, or in most cases, show them the wrong button they had pressed.
While this was frustrating, it even became more frustrating when my wife and I had children. I began to feel like I was being pulled away all the time from my fatherly and husbandry duties to help my mother and brother. I was torn, at times, as I struggled with establishing boundaries between my mother and my family at home. I wanted to honor my mother and brother but I found it increasingly hard to do it with such a young family. Anyone who knows me knows that I love to make people laugh and smile. Humor has always been my defense mechanism when I get nervous and I do my best to avoid conflict when I should be tackling it head on.
My mother would never ask me to put her and my brother before my family but as she got older, I saw her losing her independence more and more by having me do little things for her. Even running to the store for a loaf of bread or a gallon of milk was just one more thing that she did not have to do for herself. A few years ago she fell at home, one of several that she had, and fractured vertebrae in her back. Her osteoporosis did not help matters and she developed a hunch in her back and one arm was becoming hard to use as she had injured that as well in another fall.
Almost every year I would set the tree up and take it down. There were only a couple years I didn’t as one of my other brothers had volunteered to do it. The more and more I did it, the more and more patience I would lose. While I liked to help her set the tree up, I found the act of getting the tree up in a timely fashion to be annoying. Every year it seemed to get a little more difficult. Inside I was struggling more and more with being the only local family member my mother had to help her. To be fair, besides my brother Dean, I have three other siblings in the state. They would help as much as they could but a lot of it fell on my shoulders as I was the only one in town. It was not all bad, of course. My children got to know their grandmother and their uncle. Mom was always quick to give my children a dollar or two to buy something at the store or would offer me gas money for running errands for her. Even if I refused, I always lost the argument.
Like the annual frustrating tree ceremony, I found myself struggling to witness my mother’s health decline at a pretty rapid pace. The last few years the change had really seemed to have sped up. My siblings and I did our best to tell my mother that she really needed to get Dean placed in a group home facility and that she should get an apartment as she could not take care of the house anymore. But her and my brother were so financially and emotionally attached to one another that it was almost impossible to separate them after all those years. Plus, even though my mom knew she could not take care of the home, the sense of pride of knowing it was her house was something she took seriously. No one was going to tell her she had to leave. She would make that decision herself at the time she saw fit and it would be on her terms. To have these conversations, we must also confront our own mortality. No one likes to think of these things but they are inevitable. There is no way to escape it but it does not mean it is not a struggle to swallow our pride and to face it.
The night before James Hellwig passed away he gave his final in-ring speech and he touched on coming to grips with our own mortality. He really nailed it on the head when he said to all of his fans,
Every man’s heart one day beats its final beat, his lungs breathe their final breath. And if what that man did in his life makes the blood pulse through the body of others, and makes them bleed deeper, than something larger than life, then his essence, his spirit, will be immortalized by the storytellers, by the loyalty, by the memory of those who honor him and make the running the man did live forever.
My brother Nathan and I finally had one last conversation with her in August of 2019. We tried to get her to talk about things, explaining to her in one last ditch effort how her not wanting to talk about what needed to be done would just end in a tragedy. We told her as my brother’s conservator for so many years she had done an amazing job and if something were to happen wouldn’t she like to have some say as to the type of facility that my brother would be placed in. She saw our points, acknowledged them, but was not sure. She was scared. Scared to live on her own, to have to more than likely live ina senior building or nursing home. We understood her fears and did our best to gently persuade her to think things over. Finally, Nathan was blunt with her and explained what would happen to both her and Dean if something happened to her. He said they would both end up in facilities and their choices would be limited as neither of her children could take either of them into our homes. We would be stuck with the task of having to decide for them. I could tell that she did not like us saying this to her but she realized that we were right.
Last Christmas I was late getting the tree up. She had called me a few times to set it up for her and I finally found a time to do it for her. One more time I got it into the wobbly tree stand, secured to bolt and decorated the whole tree by myself. I had grabbed the multiple boxes, bins, and totes of her Christmas decorations and lugged them up from her basement and set them up. She was not able to help much as it was getting harder for her to do many things. She told me to not worry about setting too many decorations up as she wanted to do some herself at a later time.
Last Christmas was a busy one but we found a chance to get together and exchange gifts. She did not want to come over to our house for dinner as her back was bothering her even more but we all found a time for us to get together at her house to celebrate with her and my brother. It was around this time that talk of a new coronavirus from China was beginning to spread and that it was expected to reach other countries as it spread globally.
My mother was also experiencing some vision problems and scheduled a surgery date in February to have cataracts removed from one eye and a stent put in her eye to relieve the pressure of her glaucoma. When that eye was healed they would do the other one a few weeks later. She was having a very hard time keeping the dates straight. It seemed that as of late her memory was not as sharp as it normally was. She would repeat things, tell the same stories, etc. We were not too concerned and just thought it was the boredom of being housebound and the stress of just thinking about the surgery.
I was not able to get the tree down right away after Christmas and it did not bother my mother much since I was late getting it up; point in fact, it just gave her and my brother more time to enjoy it. I kept telling her that I would get it down when I could. I was dreading it, to be honest. I kept telling myself that it would be a whole afternoon spent wrapping each individual ornament and packing everything up before unplugging all the cords of the tree, taking it apart and trying to stuff it into the storage bag. My mother just said to take it down when I could.
The date came for my mother’s surgery. My sister, Jill, came to stay with her and my brother for a week and to help them out after my mother’s surgery. My mother was unsteady enough as it was so her having to have anesthesia, and her vision being affected, was not a good combination. My mother was glad that Jill could help out. Jill called me later that afternoon to let me know that our mother was a little groggy and but that her surgery went well. She was going to make them all dinner and they would settle down for the night.
Later that evening, our mother fell.
Jill called me to let me know that she had been out of the room for less than a couple minutes and she heard a loud crash. She went into the living room to find my mom on the floor. Against the orders of my sister to stay put, my mother had gotten up to make herself a cup of tea and had reached for something, lost balance and toppled over with her walker, her head just missing the stone hearth in the room. She was rushed by ambulance to the local hospital and we received bad news. Her hip was shattered.
A couple days later. my mother received a hip replacement and was sent to a nursing home to rehab. My brother Dean ended up going to a local facility that specializes in traumatic brain injuries. It was determined that my mother was a fall risk and would not be able to return to her home. To make matters worse, my mother was now displaying very obvious signs of early dementia. Reluctantly, she accepted the fact that she could not go home and stayed at the facility she was rehabbing at, going into the long-term care program.
Then the COVID-19 pandemic exploded and my brother and her were restricted at their facilities. Not only was that stressful, but since my mother and brother could not return home, we now had to make the tough decision to clean out their house with very little input from them and to get it listed on the real estate market . It would be hard because they could not be there to help and to really have a say about what to do with all of their belongings. Plus, being my mother’s power of attorney, I was beginning to crack under the pressure. I was not sleeping well at night and often woke up, unable to sleep as I lay there thinking about everything. I could not turn my brain off at all.
As we finalized the plans of when all of my siblings could gather at our mother’s house, it was suddenly April. There was one thing I had to do. It wouldn’t be easy but there was no avoiding it. This time I was dreading it more than any other time.
I stood staring at the tree for a long time, not wanting to touch it. I understood what I had to do. I was about to take down my mother’s tree for the final time. As much as it frustrated me at times, there was no mistaking what I was going to have to do, alone. I was the one that helped my mother pick out the tree, the first one to set it up, and I would be the last one to ever take it down. As the weight of the responsibility hit me, as I was taking down the ornaments that had always been on our tree growing up, I broke into tears. I cried like a child. Why had I complained so much about setting the tree up in the past? Why was I not more patient? Where had my patience gone? The uncertainty of the future of my mother and brother, the weight of responsibility that I could not run away from, the stress of the global pandemic, everything just hit me at once. I never felt so alone as I did that day.
After the tree was down, stuffed in its bag, the ornaments all wrapped, and everything stored again in my mother’s basement, I picked up rest of the Christmas decorations and carried them back down to the basement. After locking up the house I cried all the way home
A couple months passed and my siblings were finally able to help clean out my mother’s house so we could get it listed on the market. A large dumpster was ordered and we began filling it with all of the things that we did not want or could not donate. It was sad to see so many things get hurled into the dumpster but the reality is most of it meant nothing to us. We were able to divide up the heirloom objects. The stuff bound for the dumpster was more than I thought.
I stood in front of the dumpster with the Christmas tree bag I had just hauled up from the basement. I was hesitating a bit to throw it away. This tree meant a lot to my mother and brother. Paranoid that I may have forgotten an ornament on it I unzipped the bag and looked everything over. After I was satisfied that I had not missed any ornaments, I could not stall any longer. I threw the tree away.
A couple months later after the house was entirely cleaned it was listed on the market. My mother’s dementia, coupled with the COVID-19 pandemic, made it hard for her to sign papers so as her power of attorney I signed the closing papers for her. I felt a huge weight lifted from my shoulders. It was an odd moment as I thought about being one of the people who found the house for my parents, I was now the one who was selling it for my mom. Very similar to the situation with her tree.
My family decided to purchase an artificial tree this year. My wife and I made sure it did not have a plug system like my mother’s tree had. This one went together like a breeze. When I told my mother that we had bought an artificial tree this year she asked me what had happened to her tree. I paused a moment before telling her that I threw it away. She got quiet and I told her that it was starting to shed, which it was, and that it had seen it’s better days. She understood but I could tell that she was disappointed.
Today my mother and brother are still in their prospective facilities, unable to currently have visitors due to COVID-19 cases in their facilities. While I am glad that they are safe, the isolation from family is affecting them greatly. My mother’s dementia comes and goes. Some days she is great and others she is struggling. My brother is keeping a positive outlook but he has always been an optimist.
My children and I were able to visit with my mother today at her facility. We sat outside her window and chatted with her on the phone. We had given her a bag of gifts that her nurse had set on a table in her room. Bennett asked her if she could open them while we were there but she was not able to get up and get the bag as her legs were bothering her. Bennett understood and asked her to let us know how much she likes them after she opens them on Christmas. It was so hard to see that, my mother, one so strong and proud, now frail and unable to stand. I wished I could have been in there to help her but I could not. I felt not unlike the ghost that Jacob Marley showed Ebenezer Scrooge in A Christmas Carol. The distraught ghost who saw the poor mother holding her infant close to her as she huddled on a cold doorstep, and was unable to intervene on her behalf. I worry that I may never again be able to just give my mother a hug, to comfort her. She was always there for her children when we needed her and she needs us now more than ever.
I have often heard it said that next to losing a child the hardest thing in life is seeing our parents age. While I have never lost a child and cannot imagine the pain one goes through with that, watching my mother grow old had been devastating.
A renowned chef that I worked for years ago once told me after a very stressful night of cooking, the first really busy dinner service I had ever been involved with, that time has no conscience. He pointed at the clock on the wall and said that it would eat you alive if you did not respect it. The older I have gotten I realize that truer words were never spoken.
Tempus Fugit, My Brothers.
Source: Millennial Freemason