The Ghost of Christmas Past
It was a Thursday afternoon, December 17, 1964, when Mom died of a ruptured brain aneurysm. She was only 34. I was 14 and my little brother Jerry’s 7th birthday was the day we saw our Mom laying in her casket at the funeral home. She was wearing a pretty blue dress and her hair obviously been done by someone who did not know how she usually wore it. Our baby brother, Randy, was barely three. He reached out to Mom crying “Mommy” as if she were just asleep.
Memories of Christmases’ past faded quickly that Christmas. Colored lights, a Christmas tree and Santa Claus—were all frozen in a teenager’s mind. The four decades following Mom’s death were marked with depression in December and ruined the holiday for my wife and after our divorce for my partner.
Mental illness stigma in the 1960’s was the same, if not worse than it is today. My Dad should have taken me to a psychologist or psychiatrist for treatment for my depressions after Mom died, but in his mind “no son of mine will be called ‘crazy’”! Mom’s death was the loss of unconditional love. Her last words I overheard her tell the physician were “Tell Tommy I forgive him”. It was in connection with property damage I caused in a juvenile prank with my friends. It drove up her blood pressure, which contributed to a burst aneurysm that took her life. Guilt haunted me for decades as if the normal grief of a parent’s death wasn’t enough.
I was eventually treated for major depressions after graduate school, but it was the wrong diagnosis. Bipolar disorder ran in the family, but never acknowledged or treated because of fear of stigma. My untreated illness destroyed my marriage and ended by college teaching career. I got the diagnosis a year after my brother Jerry’s suicide. He, too, had bipolar but was too ashamed and fearful of stigma reinforced by our Dad to get professional help. He was 35.
It was my grief over the sudden end of a long-term relationship that coincided with the 40th anniversary of Mom’s death. I met a grief counselor by chance. I never heard of that specialty in psychotherapy. Grief counselors aim to help people cope with grief and mourning the death of loved ones, or with major life changes that trigger feelings of grief. He said he often advises his clients to write a letter to their deceased loved one. “Go somewhere to be alone,” he said, “and read your letter aloud and then it.” I decided to try the ritual on December 17, 2004. I was 54.
My letter to Mom was based on the last words I heard her say. “Tell Tommy I forgive him,” she told Dr. Hathcock that terrible December afternoon in Batesville, Arkansas. I am asking her forgiveness now for holding onto my grief for 40 years and letting it affect all of my intimate relationships. I told Mom how sorry I was for causing her distress when she learned I helped chop down a neighbor’s pine tree when I was 13.
Pacifica, CA is a beach town just south of San Francisco on Highway 1 toward Half Moon Bay. I often went there to walk along the beach and up the side of a high cliff overlooking the ocean. I chose the top of that cliff as the place where I would read my letter to Mom. I cried as I read aloud the words I wrote, visualizing every moment of December 17, 1964, the saddest day of my life matched only by Jerry’s suicide. The wind off the ocean kept me from lighting my cigarette lighter. Fortunately, I had lit a cigar before climbing the cliff and used it to ignite the two-page letter. I watched the wind scatter the ashes into the bright December Sunday afternoon sky. I never had another Christmas depression.
“Give sorrow words; the grief that does not speak knits up the o-er wrought heart and bids it break.”
? Shakespeare, Macbeth
Tom Roberts is a mental health speaker and writer living in Huntington Beach, CA. He is the author of ” Escape from Myself: A Manic-Depressive’s Journey to Nowhere”. It will be available in January 2016.
Tom speaks to his audiences about his experience living with a devastating mental illness. He was diagnosed with bipolar disorder in 1993—too late to save his marriage and college faculty position. Tom speaks out,too,against mental illness stigma because fear of stigma keeps many people in desperate need of treatment from getting professional help. Two of them were his brother and sister both of whom committed suicide.
Tom earned his Master’s degree in Radio-Television-Film from the University of Kansas. He worked for several years as a broadcast journalist for local stations and freelanced for National Public Radio’s popular news program “All Things Considered,” the Voice of America and ABC Radio News.
He was Assistant Professor of Broadcasting at John Brown University in Siloam Springs, Arkansas and later taught Technical Communication for the University of California – Berkeley School of Engineering Extension.
Tom has been a professional actor on stage, screen and television and currently does voice-over work in the Los Angeles area.
Tom was diagnosed this year (2015) with Multiple Sclerosis, which left him partially blind. He and his wife, Noha, have four children and seven grandchildren.
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