Jingle Singles: Day 6. River. 

Christmas is jolly. Christmas is sad.

I was doing my last few bits of Christmas shopping this week, and was ticking people off in my head. Sudden panic: I haven’t got anything for Mummy!


I’ve written a bit before about Christmasses when I was growing up. Overcrowded, overcatered. Always with my mum at the heart of it, frazzled and refusing all offers of help, somehow pulling off the most spectacular feast. 

It was clear that something was very, very wrong when I arrived at the house in France on Christmas Eve and she was in bed because she wasn’t feeling well. I’d never known anything to keep her from the Christmas kitchen; this was serious.

She didn’t get up the next morning. She didn’t get up at all. We called an ambulance halfway through lunch. 

That evening, when we’d left her to the care of the staff in the hospital, we tried to steam the Christmas pudding she’d made weeks before. Maybe her slowly-failing fingers had meant she hadn’t tied it right; maybe we weren’t concentrating properly. Whatever the reason, we wrecked it. It was waterlogged and horrible. I have never liked Christmas pudding, but I was devastated that we’d rendered it inedible. 

Over the next few days, we went to visit her in various combinations in a succession of hospital rooms. She rallied and relapsed by the hour. 

Then the last day, the last room. She was lucid but incoherent, mixing stories of long-forgotten relatives and cats and Miss Marple – all with an overriding conviction that the doctors were trying to kill her. (They were trying really, really hard to keep her alive, but they were fighting a losing battle).

I say “last day”. It was ours, not hers. She hung on for several more, but we each had responsibilities which called us home.

As I said goodbye, I knew it was the last time. That I’d missed the last time, in fact. She was there but she was gone. 

I sat on the Eurostar not knowing whether getting on it had been the right thing to do. I flicked numbly through my MP3 player, trying to find some music to catch my mood. I landed on Joni Mitchell.

Joni gets heartbreak. She embraces ambiguity. She speaks plainly and deeply, and with a tinge of melancholy. She was exactly what I needed.

River’s not exactly a Christmas song, though the haunting jingle bells piano refrain makes that debatable. 

It captures how I felt that year – and I suspect I’ll always feel a bit the same when the 25th comes around. 

Christmas is jolly. 

Christmas is sad. 

In the best of times and the worst of times, grief runs through us like a river through a city. Ever flowing, ever changing. 

Oh, I wish I had a river so long I could teach my feet to fly.


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