Tonight I made a century-old family recipe passed down from my great-great grandfather, written above for my Mom in 1977 by Grandma as a Christmas/Welcome to the Salcedos gift. It was for Lemon Bread and Lemon Curd— my father’s favorite baked good at Christmas. Throughout the years, Grandma would give jars of the curd and loaves of lemon bread at Christmas and my Dad would rave to us about it, as if we’d never heard of dessert before.
The baking started as a nice thing to do for my Dad, to remind him of her and how she’ll live on in our Christmas traditions. It became something else.
My Grandmother slipped into a coma almost two weeks ago, an aftershock of her last Alzheimer’s provoked stroke. I’d been at her bedside everyday since, watching the Christmas lights twinkle outside her window. The first day, her body was still restless, even while asleep. She moaned and flinched and coughed. But when my mother, sister and I sang “Silent Night,” she calmed down and her breathing became less strained. “Silent Night” was a favorite of hers.
I’ve always heard that losing someone at Christmas is harder than losing someone elsewhere in the year, but facing it now, I have to disagree. This is a beautiful time to say goodbye. Christmas has its religious meanings, or course, but its secular messages are just as holy and poignant. For all of us, regardless of creed, Christmas is a time to gather together with family and remember what we hold dear. It’s a time when we fight against hopelessness and our fast paced lives. It’s a time when we try to make the ordinary extraordinary. We hang lights, we don glitter, we throw tinsel. It’s a time when we are empowered to be reconcilers, healers, givers and beautifiers.
Losing someone at Christmas, when there is a natural pause in the pace of the year, when it’s naturally a time to reflect on what people mean to us, when it’s naturally a time when family gathers together, can help the heart heal faster if the heart allows the holiday to be celebrated while a loved one is being mourned.
My grandma left us with the vanishing snow last Friday evening. At the moment my Dad texted my Uncle, a power outage hit the area he was in—all light extinguished in the instant my Uncle read the words: “She’s gone.” Such was the power and drama my grandmother commanded. When she left, it was with signs and wonders.
My sisters and I arrived at the hospice, wept over Grandma, with each other, and we scattered rose petals over her with our parents, our aunt and uncle, each of us telling her one last time that we loved her.
The last month her face had been barely recognizable. The stroke left her in such pain and confusion, the fear of which constantly registered over her features.
But Friday night was the most beautiful I’ve ever seen her. She looked like pictures I’d seen of her from her youth. Wrinkles were diminished, and bruises vanished. She had a slight smile brushing up against the corner of her lips, like she had been ready, released into what’s next from the pain that had held her.
I’m still not ready, though. No time with a loved one is ever enough; love makes us too greedy.
Baking her recipe tonight was an act of mourning, a rite of remembrance. She had techniques in these recipes that I’d never used before, and every time I wished I could ask her for clarification on a direction, I was hit with the pain of losing her, the knowledge that I could never ask her anything again.
Everyone has their time, I know, but no one deserves Alzheimer’s, least of all her. I’m still not completely at peace with this, but I stand by what I said last week: If there is a time to say goodbye, let it be at Christmas. Let it be at a time when we can observe traditions that unite us with those we lost.
I felt so close to her as I baked tonight, reading her marginalia in the recipe, thinking of how she shaped my father and myself. I know I can keep her in my heart when I follow in her traditions, and I can almost hear her laughter as I smell the Meyers lemons wafting up from the loaves as they cool.
Sarah Salcedo Samudre writes, draws, designs and films. Her work can be read in Pacifica Literary Review, on her blog She Writes and Draws and her first novel is currently seeking a home. She and her husband are currently at work on their first feature documentary, Promised Land, a San Francisco Film Society fiscally-sponsored film and together, they co-run a digital media production company, Samudre Media, working with authors developing their websites, book trailers, social media, and branding, as well as with non-profits, corporations and other great clients in the Pacific Northwest.
Hedgebrook supports visionary women writers whose stories and ideas shape our culture now and for generations to come. The opinions expressed here are not necessarily representative of the opinions of Hedgebrook, its staff or board members.