Childhood Christmas traditions were as quirky as my family: cans of soup in our stockings, regifting used candles, gift tags that rhymed.
Today, in lockstep with Alzheimers’ relentless march, my mother enjoys simple Christmas traditions. Gingerbread and eggnog. Cards and carols.
On the way to church this morning, we sang along to Rudolph and Silent Night. She knew all the words.
Yet, as I’ve learned in dementia caregiving, memories are excruciatingly arbitrary.
“We MUST get a Christmas tree!” she declared, over coffee and donuts after church. We’d already put one up weeks ago and although she didn’t recognize any of the ornaments from past family Christmases, it’s a comforting symbol of the season.
When we returned to her care home, she noticed the little tree, tinsel twinkling amidst tiny white lights. “Oh, for heaven’s sake!” she said. “Is it Christmas already?”
“They’re hacking my brain!” she exclaimed. “There’s a camera in the ceiling fan recording me. They follow me everywhere!”
You probably think this is about how Alzheimer’s has hijacked my mother’s brain.
But this is a story about my step-daughter.
My mother’s had her share of delusions. The man in the closet wearing her high heels. Being held prisoner in the cellar with illegal immigrants. She’s never owned heels. Her memory care home has one level.
Both women have a brain disease. Last week, one chose to end her life. The disease became too real: sanity was elusive; treatment refused.
She’s losing her ability to write. She’s losing her ability to read. She’s losing words and lipsticks and jackets and purses.
And I’m losing it.
“They’re stealing clothes from my room,” my mother laments. “And they throw out my magazine when I’m not looking.”
I wanted to believe her, but I know this is just another way Alzheimer’s robs my mother of rational thinking. “Let me take a look,” I say, and give her a hug. Over the years, I’ve become a stand-in for Saint Anthony in finding mom’s lost objects. The religious magazine she’s talking about is stashed at the back of her nightstand. Again.
At a workshop I attended last week, dementia expert Teepa Snow told us this: “If the same thing is missing three times in a row, it’s usually because it’s causing fear.”
Suddenly, I realized mom was hiding that magazine because the words had become terrifying.
I made copies of the articles she likes, and now, while she holds her magazine, I read it aloud. She may not comprehend the words, but reading still brings her comfort. And together, it’s not so scary.