The Ghost of Christmas Past

Mum has always hated Christmas. The excess of it, the surprises, the people we are expected to see, the mess, the noise . . .

For most of our adult lives, my sister and I have not been able to understand her attitude towards it. Why, for example, would she insist on calling at the beginning of September to ask us our plans? Why would she need to know that early on precisely where we would be convening and who would be invited? Why would she need to know exactly what we, our partners and our children wanted as presents?

‘Don’t tell me!’ I would blurt out, trying to interrupt her before she reeled off a list of the gifts that were all ready, wrapped and waiting in her wardrobe before the first leaves had fallen from the trees.

As children, my sister and I would be shielded from much of Mum’s festive-based anxiety. We spent Christmas either down the road from us at our grandparents’ house, or at our uncle’s. Mum was presumably thus spared much of the shopping and cooking and decorating and anything else that caused her stress.

Looking back, Mum is almost invisible in my early childhood Christmases. I remember playing games and watching Morecambe and Wise in my grandparents’ sitting room. I remember the tree, dug from the garden every year, sitting in its pot, covered in coloured lights and tinsel. I remember my uncle wearing silly Christmas hats. I remember him and my dad telling jokes and doing their Goon Show routine as they did the washing up together. I remember the meal around the dining table, its size struggling to cope with the extra people and food. I remember my cousins arriving when I was 7 and 9 years old, adding an extra layer of excitement to the anticipation of Christmas. And I remember the table eventually admitting defeat as we and our cousins grew bigger and the four of us took up as much place and food as our parents and grandparents. That was when we decamped to my uncle’s much larger house near Winchester.

My aunt always loved Christmas. In temperament at least, she was Bob Crachit to my mother’s Scrooge. She was an only child, and freely admitted that she was making up for her own childhood in the Christmases she now hosted. Christmas to her meant fun and noise and laughter and lots and lots of people. It meant dressing up for a lavish Christmas Eve supper. It meant a house decorated in every room, Christmas music playing and the largest tree I had ever seen. It meant ‘tree presents’ as well as ‘main presents’, midnight mass in the local cathedral, and food, glorious food. If there weren’t enough beds for everyone, beds were found or made up out of whatever was available. We played charades, went for long, frosty walks with their dog, watched films on the big TV in the converted attic room and we drank champagne long before we were legally allowed to.

And Mum could not cope with any of it.

My happy reminiscences of time with my cousins is marred by memories of my mother’s black mood which would usually kick in some time late on Christmas afternoon. I have no doubt that an excess of alcohol was the trigger, but it was a mood which had been cooking slowly along with the turkey since our arrival on Christmas Eve. No one was ever prepared for the explosion; either for what would cause it or how it would be manifest. One year it was simply the fact that my aunt had cooked ‘too many potatoes’ which then built to a full-blown rant on how my aunt ‘always did everything to excess’. Another year it might have been a rage over something that was happening on the political stage, prompted by an innocent opposing point of view from someone else in the family. It could also have been the simple case that my aunt, unlike my father, grandparents and uncle, had not spent years living alongside my mother, and therefore had not understood that the best path to take was often the one of least resistance. In any case, we were in her house, so why should she put up with my mother’s behaviour? And so the rows between Mum and my aunt usually escalated, scattering the rest of us to the four corners of the house to play with presents, watch telly, wash up or nap until the storm had passed.

As my teenage years progressed, I became more and more acutely aware of the effect of Christmas on my mother. It was a flashpoint in the year that I came to dread. Her depression would kick in around the time my sister and I went back to school and would darken and deepen along with the shortening days. By Christmas she was often stuck in a mire of misery that no amount of coaxing could shift. Until a match was struck and the rage was lit.

As adults, my sister and I tried to make things right. We invited everyone to our own homes, taking it in turn every year to have our parents for the Christmas period. But this seemed to make things worse, particularly if we introduced new ‘traditions’ or cooked food in an unexpected way. We grew to dread having our parents for Christmas and would phone each other after every visit for a post mortem, tallying off the latest transgressions and disasters.

The last time I had my parents to my house for Christmas, Dad was already very tired from managing Mum and was complaining of a sore leg. They both had chest infections. Mum was on antibiotics and obsessing over what time to take them, following me around like a lost puppy, whining and complaining and driving me mad. It was not a good time. It was, however, a million miles away from what lay ahead. Unbeknownst to all of us, we were about to enter the most frightening time of our lives. Mum was sliding towards a period of high anxiety which would lead to a diagnosis of psychosis and subsequent admittance to a mental health wing. And Dad was brewing a hideous form of cancer in his leg which would eventually claim him.

Last year was our first Christmas without Mum and Dad. Dad had passed away that summer. My grandparents are long gone and my aunt passed away unexpectedly six years ago. And Mum had already firmly turned her back on the world by then. Christmas is now a non-event, something she can choose to ignore. She stays in her room, as she does every day, and waits for it to pass.

I understand now that Christmas, for a person with Asperger’s, is something close to experiencing all their worst nightmares at once.The excess of it, the surprises, the people we are expected to see, the mess, the noise . . .

The irony is, Christmas in my house is no longer the noisy, surprise-filled occasion it once was. I have teenagers who sleep in and are no longer so enamoured with playing charades. It is a far more predictable event: a time for hibernation, reading and long walks.

Mum would probably prefer it.

 

The Road to Forgiveness

It is October 1999. I have just put down the phone on Mum after a furious row. It started, as family arguments do, with a slow simmer: the odd well-timed comment, the choice use of a sniff or a grunt of disapproval, building to a list of my shortcomings, tempered with soothing noises from me until a tipping point is reached and we are in the throes of a full-blown accusation-fuelled verbal fist-fight.

The house is quiet now. I am sitting in our one good armchair, staring at the pattern on an inherited rug, bathed in soft light from an inherited lamp. My husband and I have just started to build a life together in our first home; we have begun to build our own family. Our eight-month old daughter is in her cot upstairs. It is past ten o’clock and I should be going to bed. I have only recently gone back to work and I need to try and get some sleep before my daughter wakes me at 3 am. But sleep is far from reach now. My rage against Mum is at a rolling boil. If a stranger were to walk in now, they would think I had been the victim of an attack of some kind. I am hunched over, sobbing silently and hugging my knees. I could not begin to explain to anyone how I have got here in the course of a short phone call. It would take a full lecture course on the history of my relationship with my mother – accompanied by illustrated PowerPoint presentations – not to mention an in-depth analysis of how members of my family interact with and intercede for one another.

The fact is, at this point in my life, even I do not know how I have got here. I rarely argued with Mum when I lived at home – I actively avoided confrontation of any kind. I knew, implicitly at first, and then explicitly, that it wasn’t worth it. If ever I complained to Dad or Grandma I was told, ‘Just be a good girl.’ And so I was. And life resumed its ordered course.

Until now. Tonight I have had enough. I have had enough of playing this game, of being complicit in Mum’s strange behaviour, of pretending that her obsessions and paranoias are normal. I have had enough of the controlling, the haranguing, the bullying, the shouting, the accusations, the swearing. I am an adult now, a mother myself. I cannot be who my mother wants me to be. I have to be me.

**

Looking back at that night, with the benefit of hindsight and a formal diagnosis of Asperger’s for Mum, I can see this conversation as a key piece of a large, scattered jigsaw puzzle of which our family has tried making sense for years. Why was Mum such a controlling figure? Why did she seem to latch on to something which made her anxious and hammer away at it until either the problem went away or a bigger problem took its place? Why did unexpected, surprising acts or decisions make her agitated to the point of aggression? Why was she so damn rude at times? Why were we all so frightened of her?

Mum’s diagnosis came, initially, as a relief. It felt like validation – as though, at last, someone was listening to me and my sister and saying, ‘Yes, you’re right. Your mother sees the world very differently from most other people.’ We were able to rationalise her repetitive behaviours, her anxieties, her depression too. We could read up on it, consult with people who understood it, give it a name. We could step out on the first stretch of the road to forgiveness for all the pain Mum’s condition had caused.

But now, a year on, we simply feel sad. Especially now Dad has gone and never had the chance to hear the truth about Mum. Life could have been so different for Mum – for all of us – if she had been diagnosed earlier. She could have learnt coping strategies for her anxieties, ways of negotiating social situations which she found overwhelming. She might now not be lying on her bed, subdued by a cocktail of anti-anxiety medication, too closed-in to engage with the outside. She might not have been so frightened by the world and all the chaos it seemed to bring to her door.

Or maybe she would still be like this. But at least we might have been helped, as a family, to see the world through her eyes – and thus avoided furious rows such as that one over the phone seventeen years ago and the many that followed that night. We might have been able to forgive her more readily, and forgive ourselves too. We might have been able to love her more readily for who she was. Because now, love feels like the only answer we have to give – and yet it feels like too little, too late.

Walking and Talking

I have taken to walking the dog at dusk. It suits me not to have to nod and smile at other dog-walkers. The fading light and the moon’s faint beam and the chill in the air all fit my mood, as I walk and I think back over the past year.

Sometimes I call my sister, who, two hundred and fifty miles away, is often walking her dogs too. We walk and we talk, sometimes commenting on what our dogs are doing, sometimes commenting on the wildlife that we spot in the half light. Mostly, we catch up on the practicalities of on-going death-related duties: our parents’ house has still not sold and we are responsible for its upkeep. There is always some piece of financial business that must be discussed and we are still battling some institutions who refuse to show an ounce of human compassion when it comes to wrapping up a loved-one’s affairs.

And then there is Mum. And there is so much to say about her, that sometimes it is too much. And so we move on, invariably finding ourselves meandering along the path which leads inevitably to Dad.

‘Those last days were his Glory Days,’ my sister said on our last walk-and-talk session. ‘He was such a silent dad before he was diagnosed, but something happened to him once he went into hospital and he became extraordinary.’

He did. He rose to the challenge Death had set before him. He became a beacon to us: a shining example of how to live. And die.

We talk about how he was Mum’s SatNav through the tortuous paths of their life together. How he quietly stood beside her, a strong pillar next to Mum’s whirlwind nature. How he calmly navigated the storms of the early days of their marriage with no money, then on into parenthood, building a home, a career, caring for ailing elderly parents, becoming grandparents and succumbing to illness themselves. He rarely, if ever, lost his temper with us or Mum. In fact, his temper only became frayed in those fraught last three years. And who can blame him for that?

We go over and over these things. We talk about how we miss him too, how we hear his voice in our heads, how the image that we carry of him is not that of a frail and sickening old man, but of a vigorous, smiling, healthy father. We sometimes cry (at which point I am doubly thankful for the failing daylight).

‘He had to go when he did, you know,’ my sister often says. ‘He and Mum couldn’t have survived together much longer.’

I know she is right. I have read the heartbreaking journals which Dad kept during the last years when Mum’s mental health went into rapid free-fall. He was keeping it all hidden – all the stress, the worry, the panic over how best to help and care for Mum. Mum is safe now, well cared-for and not left sitting in a chair in the dark with no food in the fridge. And Dad is at peace.

I reach the summit of my walk and look out over the valley. This is where I often came to ring Dad when he was in hospital. Sometimes I come here and talk to him still.

The moon is bright, the rooks are flying home, tiny pipistrelle bats appear from the filigree trees and circle above me. The tawny owls begin their evening conversation and the last light disappears from the sky.

I say goodbye to my sister and loop back on to the path which takes me home. A whole year has almost passed with no Dad in it. And yet, for as long as my sister and I continue to walk and talk about him, something of him remains.