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

Christmas Every Day

Why can’t every day be like Christmas?

It can be. In fact, for caregivers, it already is.

duskIt’s hard to be a caregiver on any day. But I found it especially difficult during the Christmas season. It had to do with the things that change during the holidays. And the things that don’t.

One huge change: the gaiety is relentless. Wherever you go, everyone seems friendlier. Smiles seem more sincere. And greetings abound, from people you see in line at the grocery store, trudging through a crowded mall, hiking across a parking lot, sitting behind you on the bus.

And music—it’s constant: on the radio, on TV, in every store, even singing out from speakers nestled under the neighbor’s eaves. The newest tunes demand that we forget our pain and rejoice in all the merriest of ways, while the old songs open our hearts to the timeless themes of love and forgiveness.

starsThe scenery is another drastic change. Ribbons, red and green and gold and silver, hang from street signs and light poles. Real or artificial, evergreen is everywhere. Tiny lights shine up from the trunks of trees out to the smallest, highest branches. Lights march in straight lines around rooftops, drip into bright icicles, and fall in dazzling clusters. The lawns that in summer craved water and shade now turn into snowy scenes of Santa’s workshop or lush forests filled with glittering rabbits and deer.

even brighterOr, sweetest of all, maybe Bethlehem rises from the grass, with a stable where Mary and Joseph, shepherds and kings, angels and animals stand or kneel as if frozen, gazing in awe at the Baby sleeping in the manger.

Yet…in many houses, it appears nothing has changed. Just as it did in spring and summer and fall, illness works to darken the rooms. It tries to still the music. It threatens to silence the greetings and dim the smiles.

one starCaregiving becomes even harder, it seems. We do our best to savor the holy holiday, while our loved ones with Alzheimer’s remain largely unaware.

But think about it. Isn’t this the battle we caregivers face daily? We fight to brighten every day. We struggle to hold on to beauty whenever and wherever we can find it—in music, nature, laughter, smiles, companionship. We offer those gifts every day to our loved ones. We try to help them see and hear and feel the joy of being alive. We do our best to keep life from slipping out of their hands.

And we do it with the help of the Babe in the manger. He himself told us his very reason for coming was to bring us life, “abundant life,” and He promised to be with us always.

Which brings us to an amazing conclusion. A sweet and undeniable truth:

For caregivers and their loved ones, every day is indeed Christmas.

With the help of a King who gave Himself so that we might truly live, we give the best of ourselves to bring more life to those we love. Every day. That’s what caregivers do. And that’s Christmas.

christmasI pray your holidays bring you a rebirth of love and strength and joy.

  I have come that they may have life, and that they may have it more abundantly.” (John 10:10  NIV)

Sweet Jesus, thank You for coming to us. Thank you for helping us celebrate Your birth. Please make us humble like You, and strong like You, and loving like You. Be with us as we do our best to serve You by serving each other, every day.

‘Tis the Season

Holidays—Christmas, in particular—are the source of many of our sweetest memories. But in a house where Alzheimer’s lives, can Christmas bring any more happy memories?

Absolutely.Yes, our celebrations will change, in small ways or large, because of Alzheimer’s. But the love of family and friends will not change. And love is the most important ingredient in our sweetest memories.

goodiesAs we look forward to holiday gatherings, it’s important for caregivers to know where our focus should be: Our goal is to make those we care for comfortable.

Of course, it would be nice to see our loved ones looking and acting happy. Nice, but not necessary. Comfort is necessary. Comfort is what will keep our loved ones with us, participating as best they can in the pleasures unique to Christmas-time.

Here are a few suggestions for making an Alzheimer’s patient comfortable at holiday gatherings:

Plan small gatherings. A crowded room with lots of people talking at once can make someone with Alzheimer’s very anxious. So consider entertaining just a few family members and close friends. There’s a chance your loved one will surprise you by remembering some of your guests—by face or voice, if not by name. But it’s virtually certain he will be unsettled, maybe extremely so, if he’s in a crowd.

b&w gatheringIf possible, hold the party at the place where your loved one lives. Those are the surroundings most familiar to him, so he should be more comfortable there than anywhere else. In addition, if he would rather not participate or if he gets tired, he’ll be able to retreat to another room, close by, where you can watch and care for him without leaving the party. If it’s not possible to have the party where your loved one lives, be sure you have a plan in place in case he insists on leaving.

Be prepared to stay close by your loved one and bring an extra store of patience. There will probably be lots of questions—about the decorations, the food, the music, the people, everything.

b&w decoratingTry not to talk around your loved one with Alzheimer’s. Include him in conversations in any way possible. Even if he can’t or won’t speak, you can acknowledge him with direct eye contact, perhaps a smile or a nod. And if he does decide to get in on the discussion, let him. If his words might make no sense, it doesn’t matter. He’s participating! What if you think he’s talking too long? Just handle it the same way you handle his conversations with the pharmacist or the cashier or the neighbor who comes for a visit.

Make sure there’s something at the party your loved one likes to eat. REALLY likes. Obviously, having him eat something nutritious before the party would be best; still, he may want to eat again if he sees others snacking. Of course you should also be prepared for him to reject whatever you offer. Remember: the focus is on comfort.b&w dinnerConsider bringing out old photos. Even if your loved one looks at some of them every day, chances are they will provide an opportunity for him to interact with your guests.

Music sometimes helps those with Alzheimer’s to relax, especially their musical favorites from the past. Christmas carols may bring a smile to your loved one’s face; he might even hum or sing along. Just remember to keep it soft. Loud music won’t help. Even Christmas music isn’t good if it’s too loud.

christmas carolsWhat about gifts? If there’s something you know your loved one enjoys (family pictures, coins to count, puzzles, towels to fold, etc.) go for it! The gift needn’t be new; the idea is simply to have something for him to unwrap. But—another reminder of how few things are predictable in a life lived with Alzheimer’s—don’t be offended if he doesn’t like or even unwrap anything you give, no matter how “perfect” you think it is.

Relax. You have invited family and close friends. These are people you know well, people who understand the challenges you face every day. Trust your guests to understand.b&w friendsLook for miracles. They happen every day in the life of an Alzheimer’s patient, so watch for them—expect them—here also. Small things, like a smile, or bigger ones, like wanting to dance or sing, wanting to talk to people, enjoying a gift. And even if your loved one’s reactions are not all that you hope for, you will have kept him present in an important family gathering, present in his life.

Finally, remember to do all you can to enjoy your Christmas season, also. You need some free time. Get help—day care or home care from a volunteer or professional. Perhaps you’ll go out for coffee with a friend. Or bake. Or walk through the mall to enjoy the decorations. Or maybe you’ll take the opportunity to sit quietly and ponder the blessings that flowed from the manger of that cold stable, a manger filled with scratchy straw on which lay a King.Babe in mangerDear caregivers, you will pour out your lives with love on Christmas Day, as you do every day, for those you care for. Love makes memories, so do not doubt: you will make more good memories this Christmas. Lovely and sweet and lasting, they will comfort you in Christmases to come.

Sweet Lord, You came to be with us so that one day we might be with You. Help us, please, to see Your grace and truth. Help us to show Your love to those we care for in this season that celebrates Your birth.

And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld His glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth.  (John 1:14 NKJV)

Christmas Carols

The techno tree stood on a maple table 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 spiky at the top, longer toward the bottom, giving it the approximate shape of a fir tree. A Christmas tree. Totally unadorned save for fiber-optic 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 hopes it would brighten a holiday dimmed by Alzheimer’s. Dad had little faith anything could penetrate my mom’s darkness, and I had to agree. 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.  I draped a white sheet over a small table and there, on 250 thread count snow, I arranged the old figures around the shaggy stable.  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.  The bright gifts evoked so many questions, repeated hour after hour, day after day, eventually I put them out of sight.

So 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 vacuum 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 those bad days.  As she sat at the kitchen table with Dad and me, Mom’s face still wore vestiges of the anger that had propelled her through the afternoon.  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, here, there, 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 growled as he walked toward the tree.

Dad said nothing, only reached down to flip the switch on the plastic base.  From the fiber-optic branches tiny beams of color, delicate as starlight, ventured out across the room.  Green, blue, violet snowflakes floating into the grey air, across the brown carpet, dancing on the furniture.

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 said, almost whispered, afraid, as I was, to break the sudden calm.  “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.  My mother’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 Mom to hear “her” carol playing on the radio.  Because when she did, she would stop what she was doing and sing along, while my sister and I watched and smiled in wonder at the change in her face.  Every feature would soften as she lifted her chin and raised her eyes to a long ago past.  I could feel the room grow warmer as she sang.  And then always the same ending: “We learned that song in school.”

It was like a story to us, Mom’s singing and her words, “We learned that song in school.”  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.

Apparently not even Alzheimer’s could steal that remembrance from Mom.  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.

“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 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.

Thank You, Father, for Your miracles of love, given at Christmas, given all year long. You gave us life, and You gave us Your Son. Your Son gave us new life, and He gave us His Spirit.

And when we cannot even imagine the magnitude of those gifts, You say, “Look here, Child. Look at Christmas. This Christmas. This evening. A tree that broke the hold of dementia. A song that opened a mind and a heart. Light and melody that brought peace and joy. That is how much I love you. Believe it: that is how much I love you.”

I believe, Father. Thank You.

“My soul glorifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior….For the mighty One has done great things for me—holy is His name” (Luke 1:46-47,49  NIV).