A Christmas Carol Without The Ghosts – Broken Hearted

Since my last post about my father’s devastating news, a lot has happened.

On August 4th, around noon, my father died. The last 36 days of my father’s life were pretty terrible. Although we tried to make the most of them…how can you possibly enjoy the moment when you know each moment could be the last you spend with that person. Obviously death is possible each and every day for everyone, but getting an expiration date thrown into the mix just makes it far more real.

After his death, nothing was the same. How could it be? The void left was infinite.

My mother did her best to cope, but after 53 years of marriage, it is hard to contemplate a single day without the person you spent so much of your life with. Zeb took the loss especially hard, because although my father was his Papa, he was also his best friend. So I spent much of the past 4 months, 24 days consoling both my mom and my son, all the while doing my best to come to terms with my own grief.

For the most part I thought I was doing okay. I planned activities for my mom and Zeb, I threw myself into cooking and baking, and I became very involved in Zeb’s school’s Parent Group and developing a website for them. With all this distraction, I really thought I was doing good.

With the holidays approaching, however, things got more complicated. They say that all the “firsts” after losing someone are especially hard. Christmas being a holiday that was always celebrated heartily in our family, I knew this wasn’t going to be easy. Still, I pushed forward. I bought tickets for all of us (including my Mom) to see A Christmas Carol play, to go to a theater to see a professional choir perform holiday carols, visits to local holiday displays and functions, and a trip to the Toledo Zoo to see their holiday light display and tree lighting. My mom was doing great, truly enjoying the events.

Being that there were so many of our traditions that my father was responsible for or a huge part of, I also took it upon myself to start a few new traditions, while letting these old traditions rest until we were ready to deal with them. One of them was to have a gingerbread house decorating contest. I cut out and baked three different house designs, assembled them (they would have to sit too long to dry before being able to decorate), and then assemble all the icing and decorations for the great decorate-off. This turned out to be an awesome new tradition that my mom is already planning for for next year.

With all the happenings for the past month and a half just for the holidays, I really kept all my emotions in check while still helping my mom and Zeb deal with the ever mounting emotions that were sparked by the upcoming holidays. Or so I thought.

For me, Christmas Eve marked the beginning of the end. It was the last “Christmas” event with my mom, as my brother was spending Christmas day with her. We were going to church for the Christmas Eve service at 3:00, then the traditional Chinese dinner back at my mom’s and opening presents, plum pudding, and relaxing. Christmas day I figured would be very calm because it would be just Hubby, Zeb and Grace. Easy-peasy.

Well, we headed to church at 2:30 and the moment we entered the parking lot, my anxiety level spiked. Walking into church I was immediately flooded with memories of my father and last Christmas when we went to church. Fighting back the tears began immediately. After finding our seats, my mother began to cry. Of course try as I might, at this point I could not control the tears either. For the entire service I sat next to my mother, trying to silence my uncontrollable sobs. By the end of the service, my head was throbbing and I was exhausted.

Once outside the church, I took a deep breath and regained my composure. We then drove to my mom’s while Grace went to pick up our Chinese food.  Everything was going good. We were laughing around the dinner table, enjoying a good meal, sharing memories about past Christmas’s with my father–handling it quite well.

With dinner done, we retired to the great room and began to open presents. First Zeb and Grace, then Hubby and I and then finally it would be Mom’s turn. Zeb and Grace finished their gifts, as did Hubby, but I was slowly unwrapping mine, feeling not quite myself. My head was hurting me, my chest was aching, and I was having a hard time breathing. Still, I pushed forward, thinking this was just because of the pending let down that almost always follows a holiday.

At 6:12 p.m. (I know this because Grace noted the time, knowing from her CPR classes this would be important) I opened a 12″ cast iron fry pan. Without commenting on the pan I asked Zeb to bring me some water. My mom turned and asked me if I was okay. I said, “No,” and grabbed my chest.

Hubby who was sitting next to me with his feet up, shot up, as did Grace who was sitting on the floor. In unison they asked, “What’s wrong?”

I told them my chest really hurt me. Then as I was talking I couldn’t catch my breath. Grace asked if my arms hurt. I told them my neck and jaw and ears were throbbing and hurt terribly. Hubby ran to the entrance yelling behind him, “We’ve got to go.” My mother wanted to call 911, but Hubby knew he could get me to the hospital quicker. He grabbed my coat, put on his shoes, and he and Grace got me to the car. By this time the pain was so intense in my chest, I thought it was going to burst.

It took 14 minutes to get to the hospital and the entire time I was hunched over in agonizing pain. At one point I really slouched, and Hubby told me later that he thought at that moment — That’s it! She’s gone. I heard him yell my name, and I lifted up slightly. I really couldn’t focus on anything. Everything was a blur.  Hubby tore into the Emergency entrance and Grace got a wheelchair. They pulled me from the car into the wheelchair and Grace ran as fast as she could while pushing the wheelchair into Emergency.

For the next seven hours I had three EKG’s, a CT scan, x-rays, blood drawn, and after nearly an hour and a half of sitting in the hallway they finally gave me a nitroglycerin pill and some baby aspirin. At about the hour mark, the pain lessened. On a scale from 1-10, 10 being the pain I felt while at my mom’s, I’d say it was a 7.

So what was it? Was it a heart attack? Was it just chest spasms? Food poisoning?

The unofficial diagnosis was Broken Heart Syndrome or a stress-induced cardiomyopathy. A heart attack in every way, other than there is far less likelihood of permanent damage to the heart and I have no blockages to my heart or in my arteries. A portion of the heart stops working brought on by stress and grief and the heart becomes inflammed and surrounded by liquid.

What a way to celebrate Christmas! Hubby tried to make light of my dismay later by telling me, “This will definitely be one Christmas we never forget.”

What now? Well, against doctor’s orders I checked myself out of the hospital at 1:30 Christmas morning. They wanted to keep me to do more tests, give me drugs for a heart attack, and basically treat me as if I’d had a heart attack with all the whistles and bells. I am not a doctor person. I do not like hospitals or trust that they are there to do much more than pad the bill for as much as they can. I’ve had too many bad experiences with both doctors and hospitals to take a risk like trusting them.

Hubby got me home. I laid on the couch with Zeb until he calmed down while Hubby sat on the computer scouring the internet for as much information as he could find on Broken Heart Syndrome, heart attacks, treatment, side affects, and risks for death, repeat attacks, and permanent damage. Knowledge is power.

Needless to say, Hubby got no sleep that night. I was so exhausted from the pain and emotional toll everything had taken on me that I did fall asleep but not before sobbing for fear of never waking up.  Hubby sat right next to me all night checking to make sure I was still breathing continually.

Obviously Christmas day there is no way to see a cardiologist (not even if I’d stayed in the hospital could they guarantee that one would actually come see me), so the day after Hubby called and talked to one in our area. He told them everything we had gone through, read the diagnosis from the doctor, and gave them as much information as he could. They scheduled an appointment for me for the 14th of January. I guess it’s not as serious as one might believe.

On the 14th I’ll go and have new tests done to get a completely unbiased opinion and take it from there. Hubby, Grace, and my mom have me on the couch until such time as they deem me better. I cannot eat much, as when I do my chest hurts. My chest is very sore and walking short distances winds me and makes my chest hurt more. I’ve rinsed a few dishes, but have little strength.

Our research tells us that it will take between 1 and 6 weeks for me to recover, but it could be a lot longer if by some rare chance there was damage to the heart. Hubby has made it clear that my days of consoling my mom and Zeb are over and it is time for me to concentrate on myself. My mom has not so much as mentioned my father since she’s had me to take care of.

I had a heart attack. Not for the typical reason (heart blockages) but real nonetheless. Broken heart syndrome can kill you, can happen again, and could increase my risk for a more traditional heart attack. I had my heart attack on Christmas Eve, the day more heart attacks happen than any other. My father’s death took more of a toll on me than I thought — it literally broke my heart. Now I am concentrating on building myself back up with meditation, calming exercises, laughter, rest, family support, essential oils, and love — no drugs. I feel really stupid for allowing this to happen. I keep thinking I should have handled this a whole lot differently. Well, duh! Hindsight is always 20/20.

As I sit here on the couch, listening to Hubby putz around in the kitchen and Zeb vacuuming the dining room, I can’t help but feel far more than Simply Grateful for this second chance. Stress and grief can literally cause heart attacks that induce blockages to the heart and kill you. Broken heart syndrome is bad, but this could have been so much worse. I cannot shut off the grief over my father’s death, but I know he would not want me to ruin or lose my life over it. If nothing else, to honor him and his memory I am going to do whatever it takes to get through this set back. Hubby’s favorite saying is, “When you lose, don’t lose the lesson.” Nothing about this will be lost on me. This was my A Christmas Carol without the ghosts and for this I am Simply Grateful. ~ Tilly

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Prelude To Christmas Decorating – Why I Do This

Tradition does not mean that the living are dead, it means that the dead are living. ~ Harold MacMillan

What is it about Christmas decorating that causes me to become consumed with joy from the moment I turn on the lights in my Christmas storage room until that fateful day sometime in late January when I finally turn that light off for another year?

Growing up with a grandmother who transformed her home with animated figures, rotating trees, flashing lights, and glitter on everything from ornaments to poinsettias into a Christmas wonderland, it was hard not to have some of the magic rub off on me.  Walking into her home Thanksgiving afternoon when all the lights were finally turned on for the first time, marking the beginning of the holiday season, made Thanksgiving my absolute favorite holiday.  I could hardly wait for her front door to open when we’d arrive for Thanksgiving dinner and be showered by the holiday spirit that began with the wreath on the front door and continued throughout every room.

From the tinsel curtains hung over every window to the rotating aluminum tree full of family ornaments to the light switch covers made by my grandmother, not a single detail was forgotten.  Banisters were covered with garland, windows were outlined with lights, and tables were transformed into scenes full of wonder and excitement.  Santa’s, angels, elves, stars, candy canes, carolers, and all the symbols of love and tradition that make Christmas special and irresistible could be found in every corner, in every room.  Everywhere you looked there was yet another reminder of why it was truly the most wonderful time of year.

In July 1999 we lost my grandmother, the matriarch of our family, the spirit that made Christmas more than presents, shopping, and hustle and bustle.  It was a devastating blow to our family, as is the loss of anyone, but the full extent of this loss was not to be felt until that November.  As I pulled the light cord in the Christmas storage area, a rush of memories flooded the room.  Standing there faced with boxes of decorations, frozen with grief, I cried.  Unable to bear the sorrow, I closed my eyes, pulled the cord, and shut the door.  How could there possibly be Christmas without my grandmother?  She was the reason I began decorating.  She was my inspiration.  She was Christmas.

The emptiness I felt from the loss of my grandmother was horrible but the loss of my Christmas spirit as well made it unbearable.  Days passed and I could find no joy…no reason to turn on that light in the storage room.  I pushed myself to get through each day, getting done what had to be done, but my heart ached and my will faltered.  Finding no solace in mourning, I began wondering what my grandmother was doing.  Was she watching me?  Was she anywhere other than in my broken heart?

It is my belief that no one truly dies as long as they are remembered in our hearts, yet the question remains, are they here with us, do they visit or is there reason for them to?  As I struggled to come to terms with the loss of my grandmother, I asked myself how my grandmother would feel if she knew the holiday traditions she had spent so many years establishing had died with her.

In the months after my grandmother’s death, I never felt her presence, only the emptiness. When I began remembering all the wonderful holidays I had with my grandmother, reminiscing about lighting plum pudding, decorating trees, singing carols, visiting her home and listening to the stories of every decoration–every ornament, suddenly I felt a warmth surround me.  I felt my grandmother’s presence as real as if she were standing right there.  Tears welling in my eyes, a lump hard in my throat, I realized I had to turn on that light.

Pulling out boxes of decorations and doing my best to carry on the tradition my grandmother has gifted me with, I know she is here with me, guiding my hands, holding the ladder, giving me inspiration.  I’ve even caught myself talking to her/asking for advise as I try to hide every wire or fix yet another set of lights.

My grandmother may not be here in the way that people readily accept, but there is no doubt in my mind that she is here. She is in every Christmas light, every mince pie, every strand of tinsel, every holiday greeting.  I know she will be forever in my heart and during the holidays her presence is strongest.

This year a new Christmas movie came out starring Harry Connick Jr. called When Angels Sing.  At the end of the movie, Michael, played by Harry Connick Jr., has a conversation with his son,

Michael:  Do you remember when you were in the hospital and you asked me ‘Do you think people can still see us after they die?’

His son:  Yes.

Michael:  I think they do, so let’s make it worth their while.

Every year I do my best to make my home look better than the year before and every year when I finally light the whole house on Thanksgiving day, I ask my grandmother, “So Gram, what do you think?”  As I stand there, looking at the memories filling every corner of the house I know my grandmother is with me loving every little detail.

I miss my grandmother every day, but know in order to keep her spirit alive I have to keep turning the light on, and for this I am — Simply Grateful.