I had never seen anyone die.
The rasping I read about in fiction was unmistakable. I was the first to hear it. The other women in the room were chatting, doing their best to keep spirits bright.
“Uh, I think it's near.”
I moved over to the bedside and listened to my aunt's breathing. My cousin and my aunt's friend gathered close. I held my aunt's hand. Her respiratory system spasmed. It's an uncanny sound, the death rattle. It's a signal for loved ones to ready themselves.
Around the corner from my apartment is an old house. It is home to a couple of professional set designers. This time of year the house is transformed into pure magic. Why they arrange and construct such an elaborate display and rack up enormous electricity bills year after year, I don't know. All I know is that it brings such inexplicable joy to my heart.
Auntie Martha was what my mother would call a “grand dame”. She never had kids and she had been widowed twice. She loved to travel and collected unique artifacts from her adventures. She loved the ballet and theatre. She had an archness I found admirable. She didn't take herself too seriously. But she was complex in her own way, hard to really know. I had to respect that. For some reason, she asked me to be her power of attorney for health. The honour I initially felt turned to distress when I realized the extent of the responsibilities. Could I do it?
I studied what was my aunt. She had been unconscious for awhile, probably left us some time earlier in the day, but her lungs continued to squeeze out breath. The gasps became fewer and fewer and at longer intervals. Then, one long sigh, and nothing else. I watched her shrink back into the hospital bed. “I'll go get the nurse,” I said to my companions. Not knowing what else to say, I made note of the time. “4:10 p.m. Christmas Day 2016.”
Riding the subway home from the hospital, I saw my aunt's house in my mind, with its bright Christmas decorations, its big red stockings, Santas, and candy canes. She lived alone for years, yet always decorated for the holidays. She had just left the house a week earlier. The little twinkling Christmas tree still stood by the front window. I wiped a quick tear away. Some power of attorney I was. There was no negotiation, not even a plea bargain. I couldn't stop death.
What do you do when you've just witnessed a loved one die, it's Christmas day, and you're on your own? For me it was one of two things: anesthetize myself to blunt the sorrow, or search for beauty to make sense of it all.
Almost every inch of the Christmas house is thoughtfully lit, the colours carefully schemed, the effect glowing. From front to back, lights are arranged in little snowflakes, snowmen, and candy canes. It is my ideal Christmas house. It fills me with awe. This is my hope for Christmas. It was my hope for my aunt that dark, cold night last year as I wondered through shining eyes at the mystery of it all, if her essence glowed in those lights.
Last month I happened upon the fellow from the Christmas house toting a ladder, string of lights in tow. I stopped and told him about my aunt's passing last year, and what comfort his Christmas display brought me that night. I thanked him from my heart, and for the happiness he and his partner bring to the neighhourhood. I could see he was visibly touched.
More than ever, I understand the spirit of Christmas.