Ruth Fitzmaurice: Is this Christmas? It hurts
Ruth Fitzmaurice contemplates another Christmas with her five children but without her late husband, film-maker Simon Fitzmaurice, who died from motor neurone disease in 2017
Ruth Fitzmaurice: “Grief rates should be capped for kids by some kind of Government body. The five of them were robbed of a dad and that’s enough.” Photograph: Nick Bradshaw
There’s a hole in my pocket and I seem to have lost Christmas. It’s dark in there, so maybe it fell out. How careless of me. I’m sure it’s around here somewhere. Dig deep, I demanded of myself, but it was gone. Silly girl, you’re always losing things, said a little drummer voice that patrolled my head with a proverbial beat. Pa rum pum pum. Pull yourself together. You’ll have to fake it until you make it, because the children will know. Put your game face on to play family board games. For the sake of five small people, say a prayer to St Anthony, search high and low, retrace your steps. When do you remember having it last and what does it look like? Too much has happened; I can’t pinpoint a thing and I don’t rightly recall. A lot of things needed doing and so I did those instead. Stop pestering me about Christmas.
It’s the most wonderful time of the year. I put the tree up, slap on a smile, pour a large glass of wine and engage the children in some Trivial Pursuit. But dammit, my kids prefer Monopoly, only a proper take over will do, full acquisition of my motherly soul. They command more meaning, sense my distraction. I gulp too much wine nervously. Five pairs of eyebrows raise simultaneously as my overzealous jazz hands knock the glass. Wine soaks the game and nobody wins. Small eyes bore into me as the board of colourful chips bleeds red. My heart is full of thorns. This won’t do at all, reflects my muggy head. I’d better start looking.
Christmas where are you? Like a twinkly light on a shaft of tinsel, some part of me recalls it was sparkly, so I follow the lights to a magical shopping place my kids call Dumdum. Dear God! the noise. What is this madness? I feel overheated and empty. Visions of sugar plums used to dance in my head. Parcels sit perched here under plastic trees. We’re surrounded. Incoming snowmen divebomb us from overhead.They are polystyrene plump. I yearn for something softer, a broad face and a little round belly. You know the kind, like a bowl full of jelly. Am I swaying? Deck the halls in this brightly lit hell, ‘tis the season to sell! sell! sell!’ I used to love the bustle of Christmas Eve, the scramble for presents. I hear a carnal lowing from among the crowd and realise it’s my own throat. Hark! Candy canes have her growling, but no crying she makes. Panpipe music hits in waves. They seem to come in sets of seven, a holy number. I scream an anguished Quasimodo “the bells!”. Get me out of here before I melt.
“Who’s your favourite dead person?” my six-year-old twins have a heated debate while munching krispies. “Mine’s either Dadda, or one of the animals.” Dead things shadow my thoughts. The loved ones not here, stitched tight around my heart, make it two sizes too small. Maybe stitches loosen over time.
“I don’t do Christmas.” Some folk shrug these words out and seem to live by them. I sound the words around my mouth, just to try them on for size. Hand on hip, they could be my new best armour. Go live in a cave while the glitter storms rage. It could never work. The kids would track me down when they got hungry.
If this story had any decency at all, then Christmas would find me, save me, teach me some valuable lesson. Where are you Christmas? We’re Scrooged. I decide to look for it in seasonal films. Baby It’s Cold Outside, sings Elf. Ghosts of Christmas past rattle me like Jacob Marley’s chains. There’s trouble at the Nakatomi building for barefoot Bruce Willis. Broken Christmas baubles bloody his Die Hard feet to ribbons. A boy is Home Alone, scared of the furnace in the basement and an old man with a shovel. Charlie Brown weeps over a drooping tree, the Snowman is reduced to a puddle, Bill Murray wants to glue antlers on to a mouse and Edward has scissors for hands. Loneliness is an awful thing. It can put years on you, the need to be touched. Put away the Christmas movies.
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We watch a film about colourful Trolls instead, but all it takes is one sad grey one. “I went grey when Dadda died,” sobs my daughter as they sing True Colours. “I’ve got the grief,” says my pale lethargic nine-year-old, like a cold that’s catching, with a hacking cough.
Damn you grief for making my children feel bad. It makes me Clark Griswold sort of mad. I want to look you straight in the eye and tell you what a “cheap, lying, no-good, rotten, four-flushing, low-life, snake-licking, dirt-eating, inbred, overstuffed, ignorant, blood-sucking, dog-kissing, brainless, dickless, hopeless, heartless, fat-ass, bug-eyed.” A light bulb pops, mid Yuletide rant. I might require back-up. It’s Christmas after all and we need more family.
First we have Christmas plays to attend, the five school-goers and I. We will find a Christmas glow here among innocents in angel wings and home-made sheets. Lanky tots still chubby of cheek will shout their lines and sing out their hearts. The twins take to the stage and the rest of us huddle to watch. I grin over the tops of their heads. Look at what’s left of our radioactive anti-nuclear family. My fingers itch to ruffle their hair, a forbidden act in this place of uniformed peers. “Try and act normal Momma,” I’m warned. “Don’t embarrass us.”
The twins fidget through songs, big spirits bottled in tiny bodies. I turn for a shared parent smile with their dad, forgetting in the moment that he’s not there beside me. Of course he’s not, just three sons who look remarkably like him. The singing starts and my insides crumble, stirred from that collective singing togetherness. There’s something in my eye and I’m shallow-breathing. Is this Christmas? It hurts.
The moment is short-lived because my boy on stage has tripped over the baby Jesus and everybody laughs. He turns his back on the audience and refuses to say his lines. His sister, engaged in her own performance reverie, darts an eye towards him between verses. “Say your line!” she hisses, but he’s shrinking, going, going, gone. She continues to split herself diligently between a scold and her own song. He sees out the rest of the play staring at some spot in the middle distance, sunk into the floorboards while standing stock still, a remarkable achievement in itself. It’s the best disappearing boy act I have ever witnessed. I sink with him. Suffer little children, but not this much. It’s not fair. Grief rates should be capped for kids by some kind of Government body. The five of them were robbed of a dad and that’s enough.
Twenty-two souls, 11 adults and grandchildren apiece. This is it. Christmas, I have found you, with plenty of hands to grasp. Between good food, lethal Irish coffees, sibling banter and utter madness, surely Christmas means family? Be grateful, the day is not the same without children, I’m told. Stockings hung by the chimney with care, little ones nestled all snug in their beds. The laughter, the childlike joy, you can’t bottle it. I bow my head because I know we are blessed. Give thanks – but then they all get the vomiting bug.
Catatonic kids can’t even cope with Chitty Chitty Bang Bang from the couch. The scant adults still standing do a remarkable job of maintaining their childlike spirit. What’s in this coffee? I’m dazzled by our collective festive jumpers, my cup spilleth over with silliness, but packaging alone won’t unwrap Christmas. When the dust settles, I wander around the house and marvel at kept treasures. Decorations sit on the tree from my mother’s childhood. A snow scene passed down from her mother has figures so worn they look like melted blobs a dog might have chewed. Then I remember that several probably did.
The dead still hang in the air but now they are whispering. I recall seeing my own dad, eyes damp by the record player, crying quietly in the half light by the fire, as Verdi’s Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves chanted incantations that reduced him to tears. I had never seen my dad cry. As a child, I understood perfectly to leave him alone, that he had turned to smile at somebody who wasn’t there anymore and now he missed them – his own father.
And there it was. Christmas hit me like the Hallelujah Chorus. A human fellowship of the living, the dead, the mostly dead, the vibrantly alive, the newly born. I welcomed a full choir of voices in my ears, as I stood heart to heart and hand to hand, with all that is past, present and future. Candles flicker, our mortal bones glow, we soar on nostalgia spirit wings. This uncomfortable pull on the heartstrings particular to Christmas. I had to be somewhere safe to find it. I could lose it for years, shunned, misplaced, left for dead. What a surprise to stumble upon. I’ll take it back while my pocket has room. Briefly, because there’s still a hole, you see. Suddenly my heart didn’t feel quite so tight. It might have grown three sizes that day. I could say with real meaning, HAPPY CHRISTMAS TO ALL AND TO ALL A GOOD NIGHT.
I Found My Tribe by Ruth Fitzmaurice is published by Chatto & Windus