On Christmas Eve, In the Morning

Frieda stared out the window of the bus at the snow falling from the grey sky, white fields outlined by grey fenceposts and occasional groves of leafless grey trees. The bus made a green and silver cocoon which protected her from the cold damp weather and the news she feared, but not from the questions she kept asking herself. Has my mother gone mad in this illness? Has Christmas suddenly become more important to her because she’s in the intensive care unit? Does she really think she’s going to die on Christmas day? What if she is already dead?

Tears rose in Frieda’s eyes. She blinked them away and tried to stop more from forming by pressing her eyelids together. At the same time she suppressed the sob she could feel tightening her throat. She was thankful that the bus wasn’t crowded; she would have hated having a cheerful and chatty seatmate. She needed to think, to let the fearsome questions come to her mind, and to test her answers.

Maybe the nurse, to whom Frieda had spoken last night, was making her mother’s condition sound more serious and trying to make Frieda feel guilty. Maybe the nurse was staging a melodrama in which Frieda was playing a part the nurse had created for her: taking the first bus in the morning on Christmas Eve and travelling alone in the belief that she was fulfilling her mother’s dying request to see her daughter once more before Christmas. The nurse had completed her own part in the drama when she transmitted the message to Frieda.

Frieda hadn’t met the nurse who had relayed the message and had no idea what the woman was like. Maybe she was hysterical. None of the other nurses had commented on Frieda’s not coming the very day of the heart attack. This one had.

Frieda’s mother had survived the first critical day after the heart attack and she’d survived the stroke that quickly followed. Last week when Frieda saw her mother for the first time after her heart attack, her speech had been affected by her stroke. The resident had grabbed Frieda as she walked into the intensive care unit and explained why her mother would sound odd. His urgency had terrified Frieda, made her think that her mother had died.

Frieda had stayed through the next crisis, peaking blood pressure. All she’d been able to do was to sit beside her mother and hold whichever hand had fewer tubes attached to the top of it. Her mother was a bleeder, and at the best of times they had trouble finding the veins in her arms.

The nurses tried to be as upbeat as possible by decorating the intravenous equipment with bows and the windows of each room in the unit with red and green Christmas designs.

The nurses tried to be as upbeat as possible by decorating the intravenous equipment with bows and the windows of each room in the unit with red and green Christmas designs. The medicine for the blood pressure had to be kept from light; the intravenous tube and bottle were wrapped in aluminum foil so that it appeared that her mother was receiving an elixir imported from space.

Frieda was thankful when her mother’s speech returned. It was slower and duller but she was able to make herself understood. Frieda had hoped her parents would be granted their wishes–to die gracefully. Her father hadn’t got his wish because the drugs prescribed for his illness had jumbled parts of his brain. He’d had days when he was incoherent, had paranoid episodes, and embarassed her mother and himself.

The worst of last week’s succession of ordeals had been those hours when her ordinarily bright and gregarious mother wasn’t able to construct sentences. The prospect of her mother being locked inside herself by garbled speech had rattled Frieda. Luckily, the episode hadn’t lasted long enough for her mother to realize how distorted her speech had been.

The danger from the stroke must be gone now, but there could be other complications.

For each of the forty years which Frieda could remember, her mother complained about celebrating Christmas. She’d always wanted their tiny family to be together and to share a special meal. That was all. Because they moved frequently, they had been isolated from the other members of their own families and they were never well known enough in the communities where they lived to be asked to share Christmas with friends.

Why would her mother ask to see her before Christmas? Her mother never cared about Christmas. Had they told her she had only hours to live? They wouldn’t tell her that and not phone her daughter. Not likely they’d tell a sick person that at all.

Did a message arrive yesterday at the office from a doctor, a message which Frieda never received? It was possible, but if any of the secretaries who knew her had taken it they would have realized it was about her mother and have made sure she got it. More likely four or five people would have made sure she got it. Bad news was treated with great respect in the office, travelling quicker than any other kind of news. And everyone shared in the tragedy.

Her mother must be doing worse than Frieda thought. If her mother was O.K., she wouldn’t have asked Frieda to come before Christmas.

Her mother must be doing worse than Frieda thought. If her mother was O.K., she wouldn’t have asked Frieda to come before Christmas. Her mother knew Frieda was planning to come on Christmas Day when she and Helen could travel together. Usually her mother understood Frieda’s preference for travelling with her partner and her need to attend to her work as long as possible. This time her mother knew she planned to arrive the next day and she knew that Helen had to work until late on Christmas Eve. Her mother must feel at death’s door. She’d never asked Frieda to come before. Even when they called from the hospital last week to tell Frieda about the heart attack, and she’d asked to speak to her mother, she’d said, “Come when you can. I’ll be O.K. You don’t need to come today.”

Frieda had sat in her office after she got the message that she was to phone the hospital in Ottawa. She had stared at the papers on her desk, while she tried to gather the energy to face another one of her mother’s critical illnesses. Frieda had lost count. Last time, the doctor had told her to come, but he didn’t actually say her mother was in danger of dying and in fact Frieda had taken some minutes to comprehend the message the doctor’s phonecall was intended to convey. That time her mother had an old fashioned illness which sounded like something out of the First World War, septicemia. Frieda had found it hard to believe that people actually might die of it in the nineteen eighties.

During that illness, her mother was conscious of her own ravings and felt embarassed by what she might have told the doctors and nurses. Frieda had assured her they’d heard worse, no matter what she’d said. That time, when Frieda arrived, her mother was one hundred per cent better.

Frieda leaned against the wall of the bus. The cold was comforting, numbing. The driver was one she recognized, and in whom she had confidence. Some of the men who worked the route drove too fast and if one of them had been driving she would have found it necessary to watch the road to keep from worrying about each lurch of the bus. With this driver, she could stare out the side window without tension.

None of the passengers were talking; the quiet before the biggest holiday of the year was eerie. Frieda thought that some of the people on the bus must want to share their excitement about the festivities but she was grateful for the peace that meant she could be alone with her thoughts.

Through the window, she watched white ground and grey sky. She felt another sob gathering in her throat. She willed it to stop even though she was wondering what would happen if she went to the hospital and her mother was dead.

She decided to go to her mother’s apartment first, drop off her suitcase, and phone the hospital. What if her mother had died? Would they tell Frieda over the phone? Would the switchboard have a record? Would they put her through to a doctor? So many questions. She would phone the hospital. If they said her mother’s condition was fair, good, or even critical, she wouldn’t be dead. But, how long did it take for the person giving out information to get it? Could her mother have died since the last report?

She’d phone anyway. Phoning would make the drive from the apartment to the hospital easier. She didn’t want to phone her cousins. They probably wouldn’t know any more than she did. It would be early afternoon when she reached the city and her cousins always visited the hospital in the evening. Frieda had the conversation with the nurse after visiting hours ended the night before. What if the hospital had phoned her cousins to say her mother had died. The hospital wouldn’t do that, would they? Not when the daughter was coming. “The Daughter.” Blood relation.

Blood. All this to do with blood, clotted blood, clogged veins and arteries. She and her mother shared their unusual blood type, thought it a sign of distinction. Silly, but she didn’t know anyone else with that blood type, not that she went around asking people. In biology labs, she’d been the only one. The only one. That was something else she and her mother shared; they were both only children. Lonely onlies. How true that was! Frieda was The Daughter today, had been for the last ten days and would be. Yes, would be. She didn’t feel as if her mother had died. Surely she’d know. Something that important she’d know. She’d feel different if her mother wasn’t alive in that distant city.

Where were they? She stared out the window until she recognized a crossroad. She’d taken this bus ride so many times that she could find her bearings quite quickly. Still snowing. It would have been foolish to try to get a flight when it was snowing heavily on Christmas Eve. Flying cost much more than the bus, and took almost as long once you counted in the time to and from airports. She wouldn’t change anything by being there an hour earlier. Her mother was dead or alive. If she was alive, she was better or worse. Frieda could do nothing.

No displays of temper, no interference by doctor friends from university days would improve the care her mother was getting. The hospital had one of the best, if not the best, cardiac care units in the country. It was the place the prime minister, the governor general or the chief justice would be treated–even the Queen if she took ill while visiting the capital.

Frieda had brought along the presents she had for her mother. The necklace, a string of carnelians, was something she could give her mother in the hospital.

Frieda had brought along the presents she had for her mother. The necklace, a string of carnelians, was something she could give her mother in the hospital. Frieda was sure her mother would love it since the stones were a change from pearls and the colour was right to go with many of her clothes. Frieda enjoyed being able to give her mother special things. Doing that was one benefit of earning a good salary. Her mother often said, “Your father would be so proud of you.” Frieda had tried to please them. She still wanted to please her mother. That was why she was sitting in this bus.

What difference could twenty-four hours make? Even if it made none, she had to respond because her mother had asked to see her and she’d never asked before. The nurse had made such a fuss, telling her which entrance to use after hours, where to find the night bell, and what to say to the security guard. The summons must be serious, deadly serious.

Frieda remembered times when her father had performed funeral services during the holidays. Memories of the death changed Christmas for those families for several years. Glumly, she thought no matter when mother dies, the season will be spoiled for years.

How was she going to cope with no mother? Blood is thicker than water. Not a blood image! She thought of her mother’s blood, too thick, stuck in her veins. Or was it her arteries? Frieda had forgotten much of her biology and was embarassed to admit she didn’t know which vessel. And this was her mother’s third heart attack.

What had she been thinking before she got off on biology? Oh yes, home is where the heart is. No, not a heart image. You can always go home. Not after mother dies. Anyway the place where she lives now isn’t really home. We never lived there together.

Her mother always loved her no matter what happened. She always took Frieda’s side. Tears came to her eyes again.

She told herself to try to read the book she had in her bag, but a book was impossible. At the bus depot, she’d bought a magazine she hoped would distract her. She opened it, glanced at one set of pictures and then laid it on her lap and stared out the window.

They were driving beside a river not yet frozen, its black waters tumbling over the rocks in its bed. The weather was still fairly mild. Supposed to be colder tomorrow. It was always colder in the nation’s capital.

Her mother was going to die in that city. She hadn’t even wanted to return there when her husband retired. How sad! Frieda’s parents had lived there for years before she was born, but her mother claimed the city held no happy associations.

Her mother preferred Vancouver and Frieda thought she should have tried to take her there, at least for a visit. She wouldn’t be able to go now that she’d had a major coronary. She’d almost died from the last one and they’d never called it “major”. This time she’d had a stroke right after the heart attack and then a serious crisis with her blood pressure. Frieda was reminded of the light sensitive medicine that was shielded by foil and administered by the drop. The nurses said they hated administering the drug because of all its peculiarities. They were taking good care of her mother; they were young and strong. They had to be to lift burly men like the purple-faced man who worked at the office and who’d been in one of those units. He must have weighed three hundred pounds and he’d been very sick. Frieda found it hard to tell how big her mother’s companions were. She didn’t want to stare at them, propped up in their beds with their faces turned toward the glass walls of their rooms to allow the nurses to observe them.

How much longer? What was she going to find? Months ago her mother had asked if she should make her own funeral arrangements. Frieda had told her she found that practice macabre. Dealing with the undertaker would be the least of it. She’d known several undertakers when she was a child and once, when she was fifteen she’d gone, with her father, to an undertakers’ convention where a famous psychiatrist had spoken about grieving. Frieda, who at that time had wanted to be a doctor, had filed away some of the psychiatrist’s suggestions for use when she had to deal with a grieving family for the first time. She was glad she hadn’t pursued that career. She’d understand her mother’s illness better, but she’d still be making only an educated guess about the prognosis.

Prognosis, diagnosis. Why didn’t they teach Greek in school? It was just as important as Latin. Maybe someday she’d learn it.

Frieda’s eyes stopped registering only grey and white blur and focussed on a red brick farmhouse. At the same instant, her mind seized on her last thought. How could she be thinking of learning Greek someday when her mother might be dead?

It would be like her mother to die at Christmas. She hated the season with an emotion Frieda didn’t understand. Perhaps the contrast between her father’s busy Christmas work schedule and their lonely and quiet private life had bothered her mother. Parishioners would have been shocked to know that the minister’s wife hated Christmas.

Darkest time of the year. Christmas lights were, even the snow was, a boon–anything to brighten the long, depressing nights.

Darkest time of the year. Christmas lights were, even the snow was, a boon–anything to brighten the long, depressing nights. Interesting that her mother had been sick several times before this, at Christmas. Frieda had read somewhere that at certain times of the year more people die, but she didn’t think winter solstice was one of the times. Where had she read that anyway?

The road widened as they drew close to the city. She recited to herself: go over the routine once more; get to the bus depot; go to the apartment; phone the hospital. Then, then what?

If her mother were alive, Frieda would go to the hospital. She wouldn’t think of the other alternative. Maybe she could keep it at bay. Even though she had tears streaming down her cheeks, she didn’t believe that her mother was dead. Something would tell her, even at a long distance. She recalled her native friend telling of that kind of experience: hearing the owl call. Frieda didn’t expect to hear an owl call, but she thought she’d know all the same. Maybe she’d missed the sign. No, she wouldn’t miss that. There hadn’t been any sign. What she’d experienced in the past fifteen hours was anxiety, premature grief, and the fear of becoming a motherless child.

She’d found herself praying for the umpteenth time, “Please let her be O.K.” She asked herself why she was praying. She didn’t believe in it anymore, but she’d found herself doing it at critical times. Those times all related to death and travel. Someone’s gone and I’m wondering if they’ll come back. Gone into sickness this time. Will she come back? Please God. I’m too young to be a motherless child.

That was a joke! Some people lost their mothers–well, some lost them when they were born. She could have lost hers then; they both nearly had died. Such gloomy thoughts.

The sun was coming out. She hadn’t noticed when it had stopped snowing. Wasn’t that amusing? The snowy capital was going to be sunny. Please, let this be an omen. Here she was, the scientist, praying and looking for omens. She didn’t make any pretence of being a scientist anymore; she still remembered some things, but she hadn’t kept up.

The centre of the highway was bare, partly because of the heavier traffic near the city. White puffy clouds still hung in parts of the sky, but sunlight reflected brightly off the snow. Soon they’d be whizzing by the hospital. She’d have to travel half way across the city before she came back to it. Her mother must be all right. That nurse was being hysterical or sentimental or something. My mother wouldn’t have asked. The nurse thought The Daughter should be at her mother’s bedside. She probably didn’t know The Daughter had to work, had responsibilities at her job, deadlines to meet. The nurse was indulging in daughter stereotypes, assuming that The Daughter was sitting at home and waiting for her husband to bring her to visit her mother.

As they drove by the hospital, she noticed she felt more cheerful. Was it just the sunshine or was she actually feeling better? She found it hard to know how much effect the clearing sky was having on her, but she was sure she felt much more at ease. Her mother must be O.K.

Frieda wished the bus would hurry. She could hear the tires hissing as they rolled over the wet pavement. Slush filled the gutters. The ploughs were just starting to clear the sidestreets.

Her mother must be all right, improving, holding her own. They were turning into the bus terminal. She’d grab her suitcase and run for a cab. As long as one was waiting, taking a cab would save time. Since the bus wasn’t full, she might be first to the taxi stand. She could see several cabs.

After she gave the address to the driver and settled into the backseat of the cab, she could imagine her mother’s voice saying, “Life goes on.” Frieda realized that the cab driver didn’t know that her mother might be dead at that very moment. That’s what her mother meant when she said, “Life goes on.” The driver told her how cold the weather was supposed to turn that night. She shivered at the thought. She didn’t want to pay to take a cab each time she visited the hospital, so she’d have to stand on the sidewalks or in shelters waiting for buses that were infrequent because of holiday schedules.

As she drove along Bank Street in the cab, she noticed queues of shoppers laden with bags and parcels at each of the city bus stops.

As she drove along Bank Street in the cab, she noticed queues of shoppers laden with bags and parcels at each of the city bus stops. Frieda hoped she wouldn’t see any of her mother’s friends in the apartment building until she knew more than they did.

Once the taxi was stopped in the driveway, Frieda paid the cab driver and tipped him well because of the season. As she looked up at her mother’s apartment, she whispered, “Please let Christmas be happy.” She couldn’t believe she’d feel as well if her mother were dead. A good sign. She hurried through the lobby and up the side stairs. When she got into the apartment, she phoned directly to the ICU because, even though calling there was terrifying, it was more reliable than phoning the general number of the hospital.

The nurse who answered told her, “Your mother’s been transferred to the regular ward. Call general information for her room number.”

Oh joy! She’s O.K. Not worse. The only possibility now is that the stroke affected her more than it seemed last week. Was it the silly nurse’s own idea to have me come a day earlier? Mother must be better or they wouldn’t have moved her. She may still be very sick, but she doesn’t need to be watched every minute. We can both visit her at one time, and stay longer than twenty minutes, and we won’t have to wait in the lounge where all the conversations are about hearts and circulation.

She told herself to take time to make a sandwich so that she could stay all afternoon. She thought of calling her mother directly, but decided she’d rather see her first. Frieda was afraid that she might get the wrong impression from talking to her mother on the phone since she was bound to be weak.

She was going to see her mother’s smile again. Thank God. Yes, she had prayed, and now she must be thankful.

She checked the city bus schedule and found she had just five minutes to wait before going outside.

The fresh air felt good. It wasn’t too cold yet and she could stand in the sun. The bus pulled up. As the passengers climbed in, each one exchanged cheerful greetings with the driver as he watched them deposit their fares or show their passes. The anticipation of Christmas made people jolly.

The bus wound its way along the city streets to the hospital. The information operator had told Frieda which entrance to use. She walked in and pressed the elevator call button. Should she inquire at the nurse’s station? No, they weren’t usually very helpful. They’d just look at her oddly. She might as well find the room. It was at the far end of the hall. She was conscious of the sound of her boots clumping against the hard tile floor. She unfastened her coat and her sweater by the time she reached the door marked with the correct number.

When she walked into the room, her mother looked up right away. “Hi, I thought you weren’t coming until tomorrow.” She was teary-eyed but smiling, weak but coherent.

Frieda didn’t trouble her mother with the story of the nurse’s summons. Sometime later, she’d tell her. Maybe she’d forgotten that she had asked to have her daughter come before Christmas.

“How did you find me?” Her mother asked.

“I phoned first.”

“I just got moved at lunchtime. They told you the room number?”

“Yes.” Frieda wasn’t able to say more. She slipped down into the easy chair beside the bed. They sat silently, holding hands.

After a few moments, her mother sat up, glanced around the room, and leaned toward her as if she wanted to whisper a confidence. She gestured toward the woman who was lying in the other bed. “Don’t mind her. Poor dear. She’s deaf and a little confused.”

Frieda laughed.

For an instant her mother looked startled, but then she smiled and chuckled.

She was all right. They all were going to have a quiet and happy Christmas.