If getting older is leaving childish things behind, and if Christmas is one of those things, this year is about the furthest point I’ve ever been from childhood. Of course every year we’re older. But isn’t that partly the point of holidays, to keep us moored to our younger selves? A box of ornaments we move from our parents’ home to our first apartment, to apartment, to house, to a storage space, to another house. Hanging up a faded glass Santa, you circle back to check in with who you were and how far you’ve come. Having kids you get to rev the whole time machine up again.
But some years are for throwing off the red and green paper chains of Christmas past and just going with what is. You’re unmoored. This year is one of those. Eric and I are in England, the most Christmas-y of places, but his mother is in the hospital and so it’s been Christmas behind glass in our travels back and forth to visit her, glimpses of other people in festive sweaters raising holiday pints through pub windows or hustling along dressed-up sidewalks with packages in their arms.
We arrived last week fully intending to buy gifts, put up a tree and make a nice dinner with Dorothy, Eric’s mum. She’s been in and out of the hospital so much from falls and just being frail, we thought it’d simply be a matter of showing up and taking her home from the hospital. It took about a day for it to sink in she wasn’t coming home any time soon or at all.
So this holiday has been sitting with her talking about things real and imaginary, and trying to figure out what her future is. It’s good we came over – no gigs like the last three out of four Decembers – we need to be here. We get to visit Eric’s daughter and grandkids too, and that is wonderful. My mother died years ago and my dad is hale and hearty so I’ve never been through this and I don’t know how to help Eric work his way through it except to be here.
Did I mention our rental car is candy apple red – with a spoiler?
Every day we drive to Worthing (well, Eric drives – I have yet to work out manual right hand driving) and park in the ridiculously tight hospital car park. Eric parks in the same spot out of superstition. Our hideous red car in that spot holds everything together. We walk past the car park pay station and the hospital restaurant which was called Shoreline (Worthing is right on the sea) when we previously visited Dorothy here, but has now been renamed insultingly ‘the spice of life’.
“Ha ha ha,” I said the first time we saw the new sign. “That would really be the end of all hope wouldn’t it, having to eat a meal in ‘the spice of life’.
Eric promptly renamed it The Bland of Death.
The Bland Of Death became a marker in our twice daily visits to the hospital as we tried to get Dorothy to hold on to the idea that we hadn’t come to spring her and that the hospital staff weren’t likely to bring us all a tray of sandwiches no matter how nicely she instructed them to, as Christmas got closer and Eric and I made a pact with each other we’d get festive another time.
Christmas Day we showed up later than we had the previous few days and one of the nurses said sharply “She was asking for you all morning!” making us feel extra guilty for finally succumbing to jet lag and just sleeping as late as we needed. There were nurses in antlers and they gave the patients a nice Christmas lunch. Eventually we went out for a walk at the beach, which gave new meaning to the word ‘brisk’ – I have never experienced strong winds like that. It wasn’t cold, just punishingly intense. I think we enjoyed being pummeled.
Of course it made me hungry.
“Eric, we need to find a sandwich or something before we go back to the hospital. There’s a BP Station-“
“We’re not having petrol station sandwiches for Christmas! Let’s try to find something better.”
“There’s an Indian restaurant there.” It looked grim.
“What about the Harvester pub?”
“I’m not eating in the Harvester pub.” Understood.
“I hate to say it but – there’s a Toby Carvery over there,” I said, not holding out much hope as I know how Eric feels about the words “gastropub” and “carvery”.
He didn’t disappoint: “We are not going to a Toby fucking Carvery!”
I can’t even have the satisfaction of being mad at him because I know he’s right. Imagine the dullest Denny’s at four AM on some desolate stretch of highway in Indiana or even Wyoming and you’re talking more joy.
Another grim Indian and a promising looking lit-up Co-op Supermarket that was in fact closed and surrounded by tempting food donations brought us back to the vicinity of Worthing Hospital. We pulled the glaring red car into our usual spot in the car park (Free Parking Christmas Day!) and it was unspoken or maybe one of us had to say the inevitable: we were aiming to eat Christmas dinner or at least lunch in the Bland of Death.
“Oh please let it be open, please let it be open,” I prayed. I said that I thought I might cry if we couldn’t have something to eat in the Bland of Death, and I kind of meant it.
It was four thirty in the afternoon. The cafe had closed at four.
I didn’t cry, I laughed weakly. We ended up driving back to Dorothy’s house, where she’ll probably never live again, to cook our Christmas duck breasts (they cook fast and were delicious) and then drove back to the hospital.
Dorothy was happy to see us. The woman two beds down threw her special Christmas sausage rolls across the floor. Edna in the next bed cried out endlessly for a pair of knickers lost sometime in the 1940’s. Through the darkness we could see our red rental car across the car park, across from the parking arm raised high, waving FREE PARKING FOR CHRISTMAS.
“I imagine you wish you had a different mother-in-law,” Eric’s mother said in a lucid moment.
No I don’t.