It has been many years since I read Jennifer Johnston’s works – The Captains and The Kings and How Many Miles to Babylon? stand out in my mind. A couple of weeks ago I picked up The Christmas Tree (1981), which I had not previously read in a local bookshop.

When choosing a book to read, I realised some time ago that I gravitate towards titles where I hope to find myself within the text. This really struck me while reading The Christmas Tree – the central character Constance frequently reminded me of me.

A slight read in terms of length (183 pages), the book unfolds as Constance’s narrative, where she shares both her feelings about dying from leukaemia and her recent and long past memories. Constance is not old – her baby is nine months – but she has decided to face death without embarking on what she sees as futile treatment. This choice – a freedom of sorts – is resolute and critical, although Constance also realises how insignificant this personal sense of control ultimately is in the face of imminent death.

‘If only it were possible to choose your time to die, I thought, this would be a good moment. A time to be born and a time to die. Only you hadn’t the right to choose. All the other choices that you had fought to be allowed to make, were all irrelevant in the end. Someone else made this choice.’

Constance realises that this will be her last Christmas, and the book opens with a memory from her childhood.

‘It was always a great day when the Christmas tree was brought into the house.’

Constance’s sister Bibi hovers throughout, desperately hoping that she will change her mind and agree to a hospital admission. Bibi refuses to acknowledge the fact that Constance is dying. The sisters love each other, as siblings do even when there is little else to connect them.

Constance: ‘We have a lot of genes and some memories in common. That’s all.’

Constance left Ireland, for London, many years earlier, only now returning to Dublin to die. Bibi remained in Ireland, looking after their parents, particularly the protracted care of the slowly dying mother. Constance disagreed with Bibi’s desperate need to keep their mother alive at all costs, which undoubtedly contributed to her own decision to avoid such a fate.

‘I saw an old woman who should have been dead being kept alive and tormented by the whole process just to make you and all the doctors and nurses feel good.’

Constance also muses on ‘the road not taken’, particularly her decision many years earlier not to marry Bill, a local boy and now her GP, and friend, in her dying days.

‘Suppose I had married Bill and we had gone to Connemara and had six children, would we have been better people? Happier? Would I have comprehended more in that isolation than I succeeded in doing in the isolation I created for myself?  Would I have been able to write, in those circumstances, the books that I wanted so much to write? Damn fool questions with no answers.’

Constance is resigned to the process of dying, and what it necessarily, or so she believes, entails. She remembers the pains of labour – just months earlier – and how it had a pattern, a rhythm.

‘It didn’t frighten me, even when the pauses became inadequate for me to collect my equilibrium.’

But now is different.

‘I am frightened now. There is no rhythm now. I get no warning. It is like being eaten by some animal that tears at me until its hunger is temporarily satisfied and then it sleeps uneasily until the hunger starts again.’

‘I smell of death these days… It creeps out through my pores again and clings to my clothes contaminating anything I touch. It depresses me almost more than the pain.’

The ending is predictable, but not tragic. In fact, there is something hopeful and redemptive as Constance’s baby daughter appears and reminds us that our lives and stories can continue without our physical presence. We are all of us born into the middle of someone else’s story. These narrative threads, like silver linings, extend without us, and beyond.

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