Christmas Remembered

A repeat of last year’s Christmas post. I hope it makes you smile. All caregivers need extra smiles at this time of year. Blessings to you, alleluia, and glory in the highest!

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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!”

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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)

Welcome, LORD Jesus. You are our Glad Tidings. You know all our joys and our sorrows.  Prince of our peace, hold us while we sing a lullaby, to You and to our loved ones.

 

A Different Kind of Gratitude

Thankfulness that  what-might-have-been  wasn’t  is a different kind of gratitude.

Most of us express it from time to time. Something bad happens and we say, “Oh thank goodness! It could have been so much worse!”  Nothing good has occurred, but we’re thankful anyway.

Relief in the face of difficulty is still relief. Ask any Alzheimer’s caregiver.

But first give us time to regain our balance. A diagnosis of Alzheimer’s is like a punch in the stomach. It knocks the breath out of patient and caregiver alike. The shadowy present turns dark and the future fades to black.

Yet, life goes on. We adjust our vision to what is. We alter our expectations for the future. We adapt to a new normal, because we must.

a wayLife goes on, and with the help of our faith and our friends, we begin again to be grateful for it. Nothing changes for the better…except our perspective.

Our loved ones need us in ways neither we nor they ever imagined, but we’re able to help them.
Conversation becomes more one-sided, but we learn how to reassure and comfort both our loved ones and ourselves with our words.
We sometimes feel overwhelmed with the weight of caregiving, but we learn to ask for help and to accept the help we’re offered.
Smiles from our loved ones are fewer, but those smiles—the ones on their lips and the ones we see in their eyes—bring us more joy.
We mourn that we can’t restore our loved ones to the lives they once lived, but when they can no longer anticipate the new life they are moving toward, we anticipate for them for them, we prepare, and we grow. We, in ourselves…we grow.

joy&gratitudeRelief in the face of difficulty is still relief.

For the help we can give loved ones and the care we can take;
For the words still between us, spoken and unspoken;
For the smiles we can give and the ones we can see and the ones we only feel but believe in nonetheless;
For the growth we experience through helping our loved ones;
For softer hearts and stronger hands, deeper faith and truer hope and love received through giving love;
Lord, make us truly thankful.

“We give You thanks, O Lord God Almighty,
The One who is and who was and who is to come,
Because You have taken Your great power and reigned.”  (Rev. 11:17  NIV)

Father, there may be different kinds of gratitude, but You are the one Source of all blessings. Give us the faith and wisdom to recognize Your good gifts in all their forms and disguises, and remind us always to thank You.

For What We Have Received…

Caregivers realize better than anyone else what Alzheimer’s steals from our loved ones.

Though all too aware we cannot succeed, we keep fierce watch, fighting to keep the disease at bay. Yet day by day we see it snatch away not only memory, but activity, relationship, expression—all the things that define our loved ones as the unique people they are.

But there’s another kind of watch caregivers keep, another kind of awareness we are specially equipped to maintain: the awareness of what remains. If we watch our loved ones with eyes focused on signs of their well-being, we’re blessed with glimpses of pleasure others might miss—like a simple conversation, enjoyment of a favorite meal, or the look in a loved one’s eyes that says “I see you” or “I like that.”

As caregivers, we sense the things that make those we care for happy. The things that give them peace. The things they’re grateful for.

So…we give thanks. On their behalf, and on our own.

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He’s allowed to touch Mom when no one else can. On the very worst days, when everything inside her rebels against our efforts to help, she will stop fighting and sit with him—for hours. And he, expecting nothing, can eventually gain all that we hope for: her calm, her cooperation, her comfort.  The wonder-worker is Charley-Dog, a silver miniature poodle, handsomely groomed about four times a year, the rest of the time as scruffy as Mom. He sleeps at her feet and when she stirs, the jangle of his collar alerts us. When Mom refuses to eat, the prospect of feeding Charley from her plate can induce her to accept a few bites herself. She always knows his name, never shouts at him, never turns away his affection. And she often tells him important things she won’t tell us, like where she hurts or what she wants or why she’s scared. Thank the Lord for Charley-Dog.

Potato chips are Mom’s favorite food. Even Charley doesn’t get a share of her chips. Too salty, too greasy, with insufficient nutritional value, they’re still a life-saver when she’s refused everything else all day. They’re also the ultimate distraction from imagined offenses I’ve committed. And they’re salty too, so Mom drinks more water when she eats them. If she could, Mom would thank You, Lord, for potato chips.

A smooth wooden rail is attached to the wall on Mom’s side of the bed. At least once a week, she calls it to my attention. At bedtime I walk at her side and she grips the rail, stopping a couple of times in the short, queen-size distance to run her finger along the grain of the oak. “See this, Child?” she asks me, looking intently at the rail. Then, turning her head to look just as intently at me, she says, “It’s new. Daddy made it for me. I love it.” At the last three words, her eyes smile, and sometimes her face does, too. I admire Dad’s handiwork anew each time, and thank the Lord Mom has noticed, she has explained, she has smiled one more time.

“Daddy.” Since my sister and I were born, that’s what Mom has called my father. I heard her use his given name only on the rare occasions when they argued in front of us. But now, even when she’s angry, if she calls Dad anything, she calls him “Daddy.” Maybe she doesn’t remember his name. But by the grace of God, she’s never forgotten him. She appears to understand that he belongs in the house, that he won’t hurt her, that she can trust him. When everything else in Mom’s world seems to be going awry, she reaches for Charley and calls for Daddy. And he’s always there. Always. To him she will always be beautiful, his best friend, his love. He will fight for her health, fight to make her happy, fight to keep her with him. Alzheimer’s has a formidable enemy in Daddy. Thank You, Lord, that he is her defender and she knows it.

Finally, Lord, I believe if she could Mom would thank You for me. On an almost daily basis, she shouts at me, ignores me, tells me to leave. But she also makes sure I see the birds on the birdfeeder, saves part of her cookie for me, and lets me bathe her every month or so. She never calls me by name anymore, but on some sweet nights after I’ve helped her to bed, she smiles up at me and says, “Child, I don’t know what I’d do without you.” And I answer, “Well, you never need to worry about that, Mama, ‘cause I’ll always be right here.” The look on her face tells me she believes me.

For that look and for Mom’s smiles, for all the things that still bring her comfort,  and for showing me and Dad how to recognize her pleasure, I thank You, Father.

…Lord, make us truly thankful.

 “Now, our God, we give you thanks, and praise your glorious name.”

(1 Chronicles 29:13    NIV)