I see it every year. It starts around the first week of November and it lasts through the middle of January. The holiday blues. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve actually slowed down enough to think about trends in my practice. Sure there is an actual diagnosis of seasonal affective disorder, but this is different. This is deeper. This is hard.
And here’s how I see it every day for two months straight in my exam rooms:
Me: Hey Mrs. Jones - it is so good to see you. I know we had to zoom for our last visit. What’s new in your life? Are you ready for Christmas? Do you have to cook for Thanksgiving? Are y’all going anywhere?
Mrs Jones: oh you know, I will be cooking for the family for Thanksgiving. And the children and the grandchildren may stop by for Christmas. No... I don’t go anywhere. I’m ready as I’ll ever be. Blank stare. Obvious reflection. Anyway how are your boys? Are they ready for Christmas? Do you have to cook for Thanksgiving?
Me: oh yes I will be making my Mammaw’s dressing, sweet potato casserole from an old Birmingham recipe from one of my mother’s friend’s mothers, my layered salad that a nurse I used to work with taught me how to make. Gosh that was over 25 years ago now. Blank stare. Obvious reflection. Daddy will fry the turkey and my husband will fix the ham and a peanut butter pie. Mama will make the deviled eggs and the Waldorf salad. I will make my mother-in-law‘s corn bean casserole and some homemade mashed potatoes. Of course we will have rolls and cranberry sauce. Another blank stare. I haven’t seen my mother-in-law in over five years.
The boys? Oh yes, they are more than ready for Christmas. We got them a matchbox Advent calendar they can’t wait to get started on. They’re growing up so fast. Blank stare. Obvious reflection. The oldest will be home from the Air Force. He and his girlfriend will be together the whole time I’m sure. I smile. But I’m nearly in tears. What is going on?
And we sit for a moment. Two women born of different decades and sometimes different skin colors who have lived two very different lives at the outsider’s glance, but are so alike on the inside that it’s haunting. Her daughter is sitting beside her. They look and act so much alike it makes me smile from the inside out. I’m sure that’s what people say when they see me with my mother. I don’t have a daughter. Will my boys take care of me?
Alright, get it together Amy.
We finish out our actual medical visit and say our go-to goodbyes: Happy Holidays. Y’all be safe. Call me if you need me.
And now, after ALL these years, I often hear “you know I love you.” And I believe it’s true. It’s not forced. It’s been earned. Is it against the rules? No, not my rules it’s not. Truth be told, I love her too. Maybe because I see myself in her and I’m cheering for myself in my old age. I’m giving myself a head start and saving myself a seat.
I’ve practiced in Kentucky and in Georgia. I worked in a nursing home for six years and then made rounds as a nurse practitioner in that very same nursing home. I’m an old soul myself so I think I draw my elderly patients in and they stick. I stick to them too, and I think they know it.
I’ve had so many Mrs. Jones over my 17 years. I’ve had Mr. Jones and Little Johnny Jones or Little Sally Jones as well, but I am so connected to Mrs. Jones that I can almost finish her sentence.
Now I’m driving home and this 2 Lane Highway surrounded by trees and cows and horses makes me feel like I could be in any of the four states I’ve lived. It’s familiar and so are these thoughts.
I’m a little girl in my childhood home with my brother and my parents and we just came home from candlelight Christmas Eve service and mama made lasagna. I haven’t really been hurt yet. I don’t know what it feels like to love somebody besides my family. I feel safe and secure and like I can do anything in this world. How did Mrs. Jones feel at this age? How did you feel at 10 years old?
Now I’m driving home from Tuscaloosa with Delta Zeta on my back windshield. My finals are over. I get to see my boyfriend. I’m taking pre-med classes as well as a full nursing load, but I’ve been hurt by now. I’ve been disappointed and lied to by some people I trusted. But it’s the holidays you see, and I still feel like I’ve got a handle on things. I wonder what Mrs. Jones was doing at 20 years old? Had you been hurt by then?
Oh wow. I didn’t really see this coming. Or did I? I’m sitting alone in my first marital home. Half my furniture is gone. Someone I love deeply told me I don't really need a Christmas tree this year because "it's just you." Am I not enough for a tree? Who am I by myself anyway? I’m driving to Georgia for Christmas. I don’t think I’ve ever been this sad in my life. I wonder what Mrs. Jones was doing when she was 30 years old? Was her heart broken like mine? Was yours?
Gather around now. It’s time to eat. My baby boy is four years old and can’t seem to stop smiling. God gave him to me for sure. The first one I carried is six and almost as smart as I am. The one I didn’t carry but I’ve fed and loved now for seven years is sitting right next to me. Is he thinking about his mama? Will he ever see her again? Tiny pieces of my heart crumble for him.
I just started taking prednisone for an incurable autoimmune disease I had to look up on the Internet. Lord have mercy and I really do mean "please Lord have some mercy." I’m only about 3 1/2 weeks into a lifelong diagnosis and I don’t know what the future holds. I’m scared. I’m sad. Merry Christmas y’all. It’s the holidays, right? I wonder how old Mrs. Jones was when she first questioned her mortality? How old were you? Were you 40 years old like me with a child in pre-K, one in first grade, and one silently falling apart right in front of you?
You see that’s what the holiday blues are. They are every heartbreak and broken promise. They are all the fears and all the lost relationships. They are that empty seat at the table. The phone that barely rings. They are the one that got away and the one that stayed too long. They are your mother, your father, and your children. They are every husband you’ve ever had. How can they not be? We can’t erase our memories.
I don’t have a cure for the holiday blues. I think they’re part of life. Mrs. Jones might tell me they get better with each decade or she might tell me they grow and take up more space than we should allow. I’m scared to ask her. None of us even talk about it really. We just say Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays, y’all be safe.
So this is my letter to you at age 45. Some heartaches of mine have healed and some are still there. I don’t think we should only remember the good times because that’s not what made us. It’s certainly not what made me today sitting right here baring my soul and giving you the permission to bare yours.
Acknowledge the things that built you.
This goes out to every Mrs. Jones that has ever allowed me to know her. She is me and I am her. And I thank God for that.