Christmas Memories: A Season of Loss and Light

Editor’s Note: Our friend Judy Brooks, who does our “Wild Woman Wisdom” podcast series, shared this deeply personal story with us. We’re posting it here because it’s certain to resonate with many of our readers this season. Wishing you all a warm, lovely holiday.


Christmas was my mother’s favorite holiday. Every foot of our house was decorated, always with my mother’s favorite kind of white flocked Christmas tree (she liked the all-white look with the ornaments all one color). Every year my dad would make a case for a green tree with tinsel and colored lights to no avail; she had the look she was going for and didn’t consider decorating the tree any other way.

To say my mother liked Christmas shopping would be an understatement. Actually, she liked to buy more than shop. In later years, catalogs took the place of stores. Our tree was obscene, with presents spread out to the middle of the living room and hardly enough space for the designated Santa (usually me) to disperse all the gifts. They never all fit under the tree but flowed out into the living room as if Santa had dropped his whole sack at our house.

Before my sister Nancy was born when I was ten, the tree was always full of presents just for me. It was exciting but overwhelming. Like most children, I would get tired and cranky. Mom would also be tired and cranky and inevitably share how ungrateful I was for all I’d received. This was always confusing because she was the one buying all the gifts. It was such a mixed emotion to be excited about my gifts, but to feel guilty for having them.

I followed in my mother’s footsteps and always felt I had to do so much for everyone on my list; the pressure took a great deal of pleasure out of the holidays for me.

As I reflect on Christmas this year my mind takes me back to four years ago. I was waiting for an appointment to get a second opinion on a recent cancer diagnosis. The plan I was being offered by my oncologist was 6 months of Chemotherapy and about 20 radiation treatments starting on the 2nd of January, 2019.

Roy and I went to San Francisco for my second opinion to meet with a specialist. We planned to have a Christmas lunch after the appointment with our good friends.

His recommendation was almost unbelievable. He said, “If you were my patient, I would not give you chemotherapy. I would give you two very low-dose radiation treatments to deal with the tumors, and if that works, we will just manage your disease.” I thought Roy was going to get up and kiss the doctor. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing, and yet here was this world-famous specialist saying he didn’t feel we needed to treat me with a sledgehammer.

Having been someone who has had a natural health TV & radio show for years I was obviously not eager to submit my body to the harsher treatment being offered.  I felt that I might not make it through it, or ever be the same. Let me be clear, I believe in cancer treatments, and definitely a second opinion. I am still shocked at how I could have been offered two such different options for the same situation.

That Christmas lunch was one of the best celebrations we’ve ever had with our friends. The heaviness had been lifted; I called all four of our children to tell them the good news: I wouldn’t be getting a port on January 2nd, we have a better option. Our holiday dinner was one of the best ever; we had so much to be grateful for and we didn’t even know if it was going to work (luckily it did).

As I sit here four years later, I feel like I got a new lease on life. The treatment worked, the tumors went away, and I have been blessed at this point to just be managing this diagnosis.

The angst of the holidays once again made me reflect on Christmases past and how big a role this holiday has played in my life. As I said, it was my mother’s favorite, and every year, I’m reminded of that because she chose to make it even more special.

Sixteen years ago after Thanksgiving, my mother went home not feeling well. When I was helping her into the car, she took my face in her hands and said, “I don’t know what I did to deserve such a wonderful daughter like you.”

Those words penetrated deep into my being, I knew how much my mother loved me, but we had always had — shall we say — a complicated relationship. It would be fair to say I had waited most of my life to hear her say something to that effect.  She had not been well for a while and with my younger brother’s death in June of that year, she had lost her will to live.

As soon as she was home, her doctor checked her into the hospital. When I arrived, he told me her kidneys were failing, she had congestive heart failure and was anorexic. It was all shocking to hear. Her doctor said I should call hospice, take her home and keep her comfortable.  My sister flew up from LA, and we both moved into our parent’s house, took care of her, and waited.

She was adamant that she did not want decorations or a tree. There would be no Christmas at her house this year — which meant no Christmas for us either.

We had finally brought in a caregiver to be with her at night, so Nancy and I could get some sleep. We had been sleeping on a mattress in the living room next to her hospital bed and tensions were high. It was a very stressful time.

Every day she got weaker and slept most of the time, until about the 20th, when she rallied. She got up for the first time, sat at the dining room table, and started making a list of gifts she wanted to be bought for people. She was giving orders and taking charge. It was like a little miracle since she’d barely spoken in almost a month.

About four days before Christmas, she decided she was going to be in Sonoma with us, so I headed home bought a tree, decorated the house, and prepared for a family Christmas.

Mom and Dad arrived by limousine (a gift from our son Michael). The halls were decked, the tree was big, and the fire was burning. It was, as the song goes, beginning to look a lot like Christmas.

Christmas Eve, we opened a couple of presents. Mom sat in front of the roaring fire and asked Roy to fix her a Screwdriver, after which we had a big family dinner before we all retired.  At six in the morning, Paw (her caregiver) came to our bedroom, woke me, and said “It’s time. “

The family gathered around her. I was leaning over her when she took her last breath. I was thinking, “Oh my god, Mom — really?  Christmas morning?” But as she was leaving her body, I felt a light breeze pass by. Clear as a bell, I heard her voice in my head say,  “Oh, come on — you always like things done in a big dramatic way.”

When I reflect on Christmas and the role it has played in my life it’s no wonder that I feel mixed emotions, as I imagine many of us do.

For me now, it’s about the gift of family and friends, not the gifts under the tree. It’s a time to be grateful for all of the love we have.  Even when it doesn’t feel comfortable during changing times, we can still find a little magic when we focus on what’s working in our lives instead of what isn’t.

We’ll all be making new memories this year celebrating at our son Patrick and Denise’s new home, which is decked to the rafters with holiday cheer. Mom would approve. They actually have several trees, including a big white flocked tree in the living room just the way mom liked them. We’ve dubbed it “Nana’s Room.”  We feel her presence there already, holding court, just waiting for the laughter, fun, and gratitude to begin.

My wish is that we find ways to open our hearts to the love and light that is available to all of us during this season.

-Judy Brooks

Photo: Bigstock


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