Christmas Remembered

The techno tree stood on a maple table in front of the windows in the den. An unlikely hero, it was less than two feet tall counting the motorized revolving base. Forest green branches stuck out from its black metal trunk, short and spikey at the top, longer toward the bottom, giving it the approximate shape of a fir tree. A Christmas tree, unadorned save for fiberoptic lights that, at the flip of a switch, glowed in changing colors from the tip of each branch.

My sister gave the tree to my parents in the hope it would brighten this holiday dimmed by Alzheimer’s. But my father had little faith anything could penetrate Mom’s darkness.  Thanksgiving had passed like any other day, and the weeks that followed carried no promises of Christmas cheer. As I made daily trips from my home to theirs to help him care for her, I saw no signs this year would be better than last.

A year ago Dad and I made cookies, wrapped gifts, lit lights and hung ornaments on a small, fragrant fir tree. I draped a white sheet over a side table and there, on 250 thread count snow, I arranged the old figures around the shaggy stable. Joseph, bound by human devotion to a task of divine magnitude, held a pottery lantern in his upraised hand. Mary, all fear erased from her scratched peach face, gazed upon her sleeping Son. Even the donkey and the sad-eyed cow looked to the manger where Jesus, Light of the world, dozed in the flickering rays of Joseph’s paint-chipped lantern.

But Mom had forgotten about the stable and the Baby, and though she ate most of the cookies, she professed to like “those regular ones” better. As for the gifts, they evoked so many questions, repeated hour after hour, day after day, eventually I put them out of sight.

So I understood Dad’s doubts. This year, until the gift of the funky little tree, we made no Christmas preparations. Twelve months had stolen so much more from Mom and filled the empty spaces with new fears, more confusion. The good days were rarer; the bad ones, worse.

Almost forgotten, the tree sat dark until late evening on one of the difficult days. As Mom sat at the kitchen table with Dad and me, her face still wore vestiges of the anger that had propelled her through the day. She perched crooked and stiff on the edge of the chair. Her feet shuffled like children who couldn’t be still. Our spirits were brittle with fatigue; the house, chill with despair.

Perhaps it was desperation that turned Dad’s gaze out of the kitchen, away from the heaviness that shrouded the table. Then his feet followed his eyes into the den.

“Where are you going?  What are you doing?” Mom’s voice was hoarse and hard.

christmas-treeI watched with her as Dad walked to the table where the metal tree with the bottle-brush boughs stood almost invisible against the heavy drapes behind it. He said nothing, only bent down and flipped the switch on the tree’s plastic base. From the fiberoptic branches tiny beams of color, delicate as starlight, shone on the curtains and ventured out across the room.

With a tiny hum, the tree turned ever so slowly. And ever so slowly, Mom relaxed. Her feet were still. Her shoulders sagged into the back of the chair.

“It’s a Christmas tree, honey.” Dad’s voice was low and soft, like the muted sound of church bells traveling over snow. “Do you like it?  It’s a Christmas tree.”

Just as softly, I began to sing.  “O Christmas tree, O Christmas tree, how lovely are thy branches….”

The old German carol. Mom’s favorite. In the time of my childhood when the first strains of Christmas music opened my heart like a jewelry box ready to receive all the bright treasures of the season, I waited each year with great anticipation for my mother to hear “her” carol playing on the radio. When she did, she would stop what she was doing and sing along. My sister and I watched her, smiling in wonder at the change in her face.  Every feature softened as she lifted her chin and raised her eyes to a long ago past. We could feel the room grow warmer as she sang. When the music ended, she always said the same words: “We learned that song in school.”

It was like a story to us, Mom’s singing and her words. Most of the story was told in the look on her face and the emotion in her voice, with the outcome always the same:  love for the fair fir tree.

Peace. Happiness. That was Christmas, she taught us, using only her memories and the words of her favorite carol.

Now, in the December of her life, all unaware, Mom reminded Dad and me what the season was about. Apparently not even Alzheimer’s could steal that remembrance from her. Somehow, evoked by the techno tree with its sweet hypnotic light, the melody of the old carol had survived in her memory, like a gift still wrapped in bright hope, the paper unwrinkled by age, the ribbons unfaded by the experiences of a lifetime.

“O fir tree dark, O fir tree fair…” I sang on to her. Then at the end, “You learned that song in school, right?”

And once again the gift unwrapped itself on Mom’s face. Anxious lines opened into softness and, subtle as candlelight, her eyes flickered in recognition of…what?

Peace, the heart of the Christmas story. A tree, a Gift. The sweetest story.  The oldest, the eternal carol.

“Glory in the highest!”

And she brought forth her firstborn Son, and wrapped Him in swaddling cloths, and laid Him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying: “Glory to God in the highest, And on earth peace, goodwill toward men!”  (Luke 2:7,13-14 NKJV)

Dear Jesus, help us to care for our loved ones in this joyful season. Send us Your joy, Your love, Your peace.

Advertisements

Tissues in Your Pocket

Most Alzheimer’s caregivers realize early on that we have little control over what any day will bring. Planning each day in advance may give us a sense of control, but so much of Alzheimer’s is unpredictable. Based on my experience, caregivers spend at least as much time reacting as acting.

are-you-ready

One of my mom’s major goals in life was to be prepared for anything that might happen to her or her family. I remember her purse was both tool box and first aid kit, containing a screwdriver, bandages, string, scissors, various nuts and bolts she had found on streets and sidewalks—once I even saw a fish stringer in there. But the things we used most often were the tissues she always carried. She stuffed her already bulging purse with them and stashed them in every pocket on any piece of clothing she wore, “just in case.”

“Just in case.” That phrase covers a lot of territory for caregivers. We can’t predict what might happen in the next few minutes, much less the next few hours. But…unpredictable doesn’t have to mean unprepared.

For caregivers, being prepared is a state of mind.

I wish I had seen that truth earlier. Instead, of all the emotions that rolled over me during my first weeks of caring for Mom, fear was predominant.

be-prepared1

Fear hung around long after shock left. I spent only a couple of weeks being surprised at things like Mom putting Dad’s shoes in the trash, or telling me how lovely the artificial flowers smelled at the grocery store, or accusing the neighbors of peeking into the windows. I soon learned such things were simply to be expected.

Anger lasted longer. I was angry at the disease, at my father for hiding it for so long, at myself for missing the signs, and, yes, sometimes at my mother who often seemed to enjoy the chaos she created. But after a while, anger became a motivator. My frustrations prodded me to look harder for cause and effect relationships I could use to smooth the rough road we traveled each day.

For example: I learned I didn’t always have to explain to Mom what I was going to do. Announcing I was about to brush her hair or help with her shoes often resulted in a barrage of “No’s,” maybe because she felt I was telling her what to do. So I began to say less and simply do what had to be done. When my actions were a surprise to Mom, it took a minute or two for her to puzzle them out. By that time the job was usually finished. Using the disease against itself lessened my anger and fueled my confidence.

Still, fear of catastrophe stuck around for a long time. I was afraid the time would come when I couldn’t control Mom’s anger and she or someone else would get hurt. Would I be able to get her to take her medications every day? What if I couldn’t make her get into the car? Or out of it?state-of-emergency

Adding to the pressure of my fear was the feeling I absolutely had to make things work. I had stepped into caregiving of my own accord. No one asked me to. Dad couldn’t do it alone, and he refused to allow a nurse or professional into their home. So, ignorant of what I would be facing, I just jumped in. But after only a few weeks, I began to question whether I could manage Alzheimer’s alone. I started each day with dread, praying for help, praying for a miracle.

And you know what? Miracles came. Not the sudden cure I hoped for, but miracles nonetheless. Little ones I almost didn’t notice at first, like a close-in parking space when we were running late to an appointment. There were big ones, too, huge ones like the doctor who finally found that Alzheimer’s wasn’t the only danger Mom faced: He diagnosed her severe depression and prescribed the medication that gave her, for a while, more good days than bad.

miracles-ahead

In fact, so many miracles came my way, I began to expect them. On some otherwise-impossible days, Mom would at least agree to take her meds. When we were out of the house, I realized people seemed to sense her instability. I learned how to steer her away from situations that, I knew from experience, might provoke her anger. If she refused to get in the car, I postponed the errands and rescheduled the doctor’s appointments. If she refused to get out, I sat with her until she got tired of saying no.

Although some of the solutions worked pretty reliably over time, I knew no amount of advance planning could ever address the daily challenges of Alzheimer’s. But I was freed from paralyzing fear because I began to expect an answer in difficult situations. And because my trust was based, not on my power, but on the power and faithfulness of God, I stopped imagining disaster. Because I believed  the Giver of all good gifts, the Maker of all miracles,was on my side, I could think more quickly and clearly, come up with a way, find one more miracle.

As the Alzheimer’s progressed, Mom continued to pick up her tissues and put them in the pockets of the old green cardigan she wore every day. I took a few out every now and then, secretly of course, so she’d have room to add more. The day came, though, when it no longer occurred to her to pick them up. So Dad and I did it for her. Putting a fresh tissue, carefully folded, into her sweater pocket made us feel a bit more powerful in the face of Alzheimer’s. “Now, Mama,” I’d say. “Now we’re ready for anything.”

ok-symbol

For me, the miracles that carried us down the rocky roads of Alzheimer’s are like tissues I saved in the pocket of my spirit. There were so many problems, but so many more miracles. And each problem solved was a promise of more solutions to come.

I pray you fill your own pockets with confidence. Begin to expect miracles. Watch for them. And in the hardest times, remember the ones God has already sent. Each one carries His assurance: He is with you, to help you. He will never leave you alone.

With a pocket full of faith, we’re ready for anything.

***********************

You will not need to fight in this battle. Position yourselves, stand still and see the salvation of the Lord, who is with you….Do not fear or be dismayed… for the Lord is with you.     (2 Chronicles 20:17   NKJV)

Loving Father, we know You are on our side. We know You can do all things. We know You want us to come to You with our fears and our needs. Thank You for fighting on our behalf. Even in the face of Alzheimer’s, Your constant love casts out our fear.