A lasting last Christmas

There is that song by Wham that seems to get stuck in my head around 1 December, and now, in early January, I still catch myself humming it: “Last Christmas, I gave you my heart…” But this Christmas, the first two words almost seemed prophetic. We had six patients for whom this Christmas would indeed be their last one. It is a rare privilege to be allowed into a space where people are standing on the edge of life as we understand it, but it is an emotional one too. People often ask me how we process these overwhelming feelings and the only way I can express it is that we allow ourselves to see the incredible blessings which accompany the battle; the beautiful with the brutal, the joy meeting the sorrow, the peace in the goodbye, the fear which can only exist because there was such love first.

Early on Christmas morning as I was taking all sorts of tinsel and toppings, kitch angels and Christmas crackers out of my car, I met the wife of a desperately ill patient. We did not need words. Our language is ill-equipped to express the magnitude of your human of 40 years slipping away, suffering from an inhumane cancer. We hugged and cried for each other. She knew it was my first Christmas without my dad. I knew this was her last Christmas with her husband. Then we burst out laughing at the ridiculous Christmas hats in my arms. She immediately placed a plastic crown with lumo lights on her head and we linked arms and walked together into a day that would take enormous courage, but that we did not dare miss.

We started blasting Christmas music (yes I unashamedly played Boney M and Mariah Carey) while the smells of gammon and cinnamon filled the dining room. I set a table for nine. Daphne (whom I have written about before) had requested that her family join her in the dining room for a Christmas lunch. Her son and his family were here from Europe and she wanted to make it special. I knew that her children wanted to celebrate the fact that she made it to Christmas. We were all told, with absolute certainty, that her cancer that had metastasized so aggressively would kill her in May already. But here she was, surrounded by her tribe, eating her favourite foods, which she requested from chef Dylan, while her daughter generously made her famous Christmas ice-cream for everyone at the lodge.

We decorated the room at the end of the passage, where we displayed another guest’s Christmas apron that she wore year after year while feeding her family on an IV pole. She is seldom awake and bedbound. Her brain cancer has left her non-verbal most of the time, but the streams of friends that visit her daily tell us that she was definitely not quiet when she was healthy. Her suffering has been long, almost three years. I chatted to her husband about his wishes for this Christmas. Everyone is so focused on his wife and her journey that I think the cancer has robbed him of more than just his wife. He wonders whether it is better to have a shorter illness, weeks rather than months or years. A sudden death like a heart attack maybe? I think it all sucks. There is no better option. Our society is so obsessed with positive thinking and optimism that we even seek it here, in death and in suffering… here in the abyss where there is only sharp edges and reality holds little grace. Her children and their families gathered around her. They fed her tiny little bits of a lavish Christmas dinner. Her grandchildren swam in the pool and played Marco Polo. We all foud reprieve in the mundane normality of their splashes. An African Christmas. My heart aches for them, but there is so much love in that room, so much grace.

A young guest from India, recuperating after complex surgery, faced Christmas alone. He will make a full recovery and go home soon. But still, he is far from his people and his country. His guilt in the fact that he is going to make a full recovery astounds us, but I know we all like to do this. We compare our journeys. Why should his journey be easier than others’? I laugh and tell him the only thing he should feel guilty about is the fact that he ruined a perfectly cooked Gammon with chili sauce.

Some of our other guests were taken out on a Christmas excursion. For a devout Catholic lady (who is more catholic than the pope) we planned, with military precision, an outing to her church and then to have lunch with family. We sent carers, rosaries, and two oxygen machines along and kept our fingers crossed. A frail man was collected by his nephew. George, our carer went with him, to tenderly maneuver him around a family and help him spoon Christmas pudding into his pouting mouth. Another guest was dressed to the nines. She did not look sick at all. Her terminal disease is hidden well until she gets so breathless that she doubles over and faints. She is scared to leave the safety of the lodge but she was also fearful of disappointing her family who expect her to come. There is still so much pressure to pretend that the world is not falling apart around her, but also so much joy that she was brave enough to attempt this outing. It gives us hope.

Later on Christmas day, a friend phoned me. She was boarding a flight from George, leaving her family in Plett. Her stable-hand was desperately ill and the doctors were not responding to her phone calls. She flew home to keep vigil at his bedside, in a private hospital she funded, to wait for the doctor and hear what was wrong with her worker, Harry. Later that day he was discharged with the dire news that he has days to live. They arrived at us, broken and raw, reeling from this news. Harry is only 38 and his children and family far away in a neighbouring country. My friend curled up in the lazyboy next to Harry where they talked and cried. Other friends arrived and gathered in his room. I could sense old money by their mannerisms and style (they smelled like heaven too). When I checked on Harry he introduced me to the lovely men, saying, “These are the people with whom I ride.” A gentle hand was placed on Harry’s leg, and he was told, “No Harry, we are your friends.” I catch my breath at the privilege to be in this moment, when nothing matters except relationships. In a space where there should be so much division, our humanity triumphs. The blatantly obvious divides of wealth, colour, race, nationality, language and traditions are bridged. All that counts is that we are all there together, authentically in this moment. On the edge of the abyss, we are allowed to feel all our emotions so acutely and honestly that it leaves us grateful, depleted, horrified and filled with disbelief, but it also leaves us human, together.

Over a cup of tea, a freshly baked mince pie and Micheal Bublé humming in the background, I talked to a middle-aged guest healing from a nasty fall. I worry about her pain as she never asks for pain meds. She told me nothing can hurt more than the death of her son a few years ago. She misses him more on days like this and wishes that she knew on his last Christmas, that it would be his last Christmas. I have no words of wisdom. I offered her my silence.

I want to hold on to these thoughts: how we mourn, how we celebrate, how we are all the same, how we do not have to choose just one purpose, one emotion, one conclusion.

Life is so wonderfully complicated.

Life is so wonderfully simple.

Share this post