The last time I spoke to my mother was December 2014. She had called me in her usual cheery way to make final arrangements for Christmas day.
“I’ve made the cake and pudding,” she announced, referring to the culinary staples she produced every year that were a favourite in the family. We discussed other details; who was bringing the prawns, the bonbons, the cherries, and whether we’d risk it and set the tables up outside or believe the weather forecast and stay indoors.
A few days later – exactly one week before Christmas - Mum died. She’d been feeling “a bit crook” (in our family parlance) and ended up in hospital for tests. After a while hospital staff sent Dad home, telling him to come back after dinner when Mum would be feeling better. He reported to me that she would be home in a few days, and I planned to visit her over the weekend.
Dad left the hospital and drove the short distance home. He’d just got there when the phone rang, heralding the terrible news that Mum was gone. There were no last words or goodbyes, no opportunity for final arrangements.
Just nothing - and the empty expanse of Christmas now stretching out before us.
There were other factors too. This happened in the same week as the Lindt Café siege in Sydney. Because Mum died so suddenly there had to be an autopsy, but Sydney’s morgue was very busy and the abrupt death of an elderly lady wasn’t considered a priority.
I spent Christmas Eve arguing with morgue staff about whether they would release Mum’s body so we could go ahead with her funeral the day after Boxing Day. At about three minutes to their closing time on Christmas Eve, they agreed to release her.
I also spent the few days before Christmas calling Mum’s vast network friends (details neatly alphabetised in her Teledex). Every one of them reacted with shock and denial, as they had just received her Christmas card in the post. She sent them out each year like clockwork. “No, she can’t be gone – I just opened her Christmas card this morning!” or variations of the theme, over and over.
I explained the circumstances as patiently as I could. By about call number 20 I had the spiel perfected.
Hardly surprising, then, that our Christmas Day was subdued. The family gathering was more an opportunity to finalise funeral details. But what we did have were Mum’s Christmas cake and pudding, lovingly and efficiently made in advance. She never got the chance to ice the cake, so my sister took on the challenge of replicating the icing with that special, familiar flavour.
Those traditional treats usually vanished quickly in our household, but this time I wanted to keep the last traces of Mum’s Christmas efforts forever.
Everyone has a story at this time of year. Maybe yours is full of joy and expectation, with all the sentiments encouraged by the advocates of the festive season. For many others, this is a time of sadness, loneliness or painful reminders of loss.
What I’ve learned is that the close of one year and the dawn of another is a gift; an opportunity to regather and plan for all the wonderful possibilities that will unfold over the next 12 months.
I didn’t have a great Christmas two years ago. The whole experience made me reluctant to even look at a Christmas tree, let alone feel excited by it. But it has taught me that inner strength has a marvellous way of showing itself when you most need it. While I haven’t decorated my house or sent any cards this year, I’m looking on Christmas with a sense of optimism for my life, my health, my family and my business.
Life is fleeting, but it can also be wonderful. How we shape it is up to us. You have an opportunity to reflect on your 2016 and craft an incredible 2017.
I encourage you to seize that opportunity - and if the sentiments of the season drive you a little crazy, use that energy to drive you forward into the future you deserve.