“We’re here, aren’t we?”

That was the response from a nurse when I asked her in the hallway how her Christmas was going. Neither one of us was at home that day and it made me realize the holidays aren’t always about parties, food, and presents.

My mother, who is affectionately known as Millie Pete, is 86 years old and has enjoyed great health the majority of her years. I can’t remember Mom ever being sick when I was growing up, and she has only experienced a couple of medical setbacks in her elder years. When she admitted to me in December she wasn’t feeling well and needed to see someone, I knew something must really be wrong. My son and I had both been battling colds at the time and were on antibiotics, so I assumed our trip to the doctor would result in similar medications for her too. Little did I know when I picked her up that it would be a month before she’d be able to go back home.

During the appointment I noticed Millie Pete wasn’t able to take in a breath, let alone a deep breath, while the doctor had her stethoscope on her back. The doctor noticed it too, and while Mom was being escorted down the hall to get a chest x-ray, the doctor closed the door to strongly suggest to me that I take Mom to the hospital immediately. Following her instructions, I noticed as we checked out that written on Mom’s receipt were the words, “Potential Life-Threatening Condition.”

The hospital determined that Mom had pneumonia. For an 86-year-old this is a life-threatening condition, and she was placed in intensive care unit for monitoring until the following day. Uncomfortably tied to machines and unable to catch her breath, she tried to keep her complaining to a minimum as they determined the right course of action for her age and condition. Millie Pete remained in the hospital for another week, then was moved into a rehab facility for two more, which meant she would spend Christmas and New Year’s away from home.

We never lost sight of how grateful we were that Mom was improving, since her condition could have gone in a very different direction. However, there was a sense of melancholy that hung in the air for all of us. My older sister came to stay with Mom a few days, and had to return home to work over Christmas weekend. My brother came to visit several days before Christmas, but left on Christmas Eve to go back and spend Christmas with our sister. This was also the first year I didn’t have my son on Christmas Day, per my agreement with his other mother, so when December 25th arrived it wasn’t the most festive day. When I ran into that nurse in the hallway of Mom’s facility to ask her how her Christmas was going, her response made me realize she too wasn’t feeling in the spirit of the season.

Illness doesn’t observe the holidays. Those who are sick and those who serve them, especially our elders and their caretakers, tend to be forgotten on Christmas Day by the outside world. I guess my gift this year was to experience that side of our city and to make sure I don’t lose sight of what else goes on while families gather and carols are sung again.

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