A little bright happy tree is in the foreground while a hunched-over and dull-looking tree is in the background

Christmas Is Not Always Full of Happy Memories

From the time I was 8 years old, my Christmas memories were of my mother's constant fight to live. My mother suffered from Type 1 diabetes. I say suffered because of the complications of blindness, kidney failure, and overwhelming neuropathy.

From about 1965 until her death, my main memory of Christmas was wondering if she could celebrate Christmas in the hospital intensive care or if she would even live until Christmas Day or longer.

Memories of Christmas

Many a Christmas morning, I woke up on my way to Indianapolis (about 60 miles from home) with my dad, driving on our way to see my mother. Of course, there were also some daily passes when she got to come home. But, those were exceedingly rare. If mom was home (it was rare), the thought always was that this will be her last with us, so we needed to savor it.

As her condition worsened, the awful impact of gastroparesis took over her body. Many times, as her body chemical levels became imbalanced, she would suffer terrible distortions of perception, often communicating with people not in the room and never seeing or acknowledging dad or myself.

As a young kid, it was simply not joyful

Then after arriving home, there would be the questions. My relatives would call and inquire about what I knew about her condition; even my teachers would wonder if mom was still in the hospital or passed over break. As a young kid, it was simply not joyful, and it never got better.

Therefore, it is no surprise that my feelings about Christmas are not happy and that I associate the holidays with being unbelievably sad.

Especially since there was no logical outcome except death, it was not a matter of if but when she would have an early death. It could happen any day or year, but I was concerned about her passing during the holiday season.

My Type 1 diabetes diagnosis

When I was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes, I thought hers would be my fate. It was not and is not. One therapist said I was suffering from survivors’ guilt because I have not suffered the same fate as my mom.

Now 47 years post-diagnosis, I am healthy and aged 64. In comparison, my mom lived 24 years post-diagnosis, yet I have lived 47 years so far and expect to go on.

Then came RA

One thing that lifted my spirits during the holidays was when I was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis (RA) in 1999. To gauge how sad things were for me, consider that having RA was a positive thing.

In my mind, I equated having a second autoimmune disease as a victory. I had to consider how much my mother would have given to live longer, even if that meant having something like RA. If my mom had been given a chance, I know my mom would have chosen to live with RA for even a few more years.

Despite my mother's illness, she loved life and my mom LOVED Christmas. That gave me new hope and helped me put things into perspective a little bit.

Losing a parent

They say losing a parent is one of the most significant emotional events of one's life. I agree. I miss my mom and dad a great deal. But in a way, I lost my mom time after time for 20 years. I lost her every time the family would be called in to say goodbyes. It felt like I lost her each time she was in intensive care.

So yes, I recall the joy of Christmas. But I also know the pain, and if I seem a little dulled to the season, it is because I lost my mom. Not once, but year after year, which is the one memory I carry with me more than any other.

The lasting memory of victory

I also carry another memory of Christmas, that one in 1999, right after I was diagnosed with RA. That memory is of victory. I had lived long enough to have a second autoimmune disease, and I had something I could confront instead of diabetes.

My mom would have faced RA head-on, claimed it, and made it her mission to have the best life possible. I owe it to my mom and myself to confront diabetes and RA on the same footing, and I have learned to do so.

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