The ghosts of holidays past

by mymothersbrain

Mom and yours truly in the mid-1990s, when she was well.

For the past several years we’ve been faced with how to include Mom in the holiday celebrations when she doesn’t know what Thanksgiving and Christmas mean anymore. Last year, John and I deposited our guinea pig at a friend’s house, hired a sitter to care for our reptiles, loaded up the dogs in the car and traveled to El Paso where we spent two weeks with Mom. This year I will be traveling all of December — first to relieve my sister for a week early in the month, then bringing Mom back home with me for a bit so we can get a few repairs done to her house, then driving her back home for Christmas.

That’s actually the easy part. The harder part for me is coping with the ghosts of holidays past. Though the images of family meals and candle-lit sanctuaries at Christmas mass are long faded, I still feel sad when looking back at how Mom used to be and the things we were able to do together. When I’d visit, she used to come outside to her gate the second I pulled up into the driveway so that she could hug me tight before helping me unload luggage. Now, I am greeted at the door by a caregiver, and I’ll find Mom sitting on her couch where she’s coloring or cutting up junk mail. She will ask who I am, and a flash of surprise and joy will cross her face briefly when I tell her that I’ve come from Dallas to visit her, and then she will go back to whatever she’s doing. That’s her reality now, and I’m trying to meet here there.

I just wrote for The Dallas Morning News about coping with dementia over the holidays:

In the story, experts offer practical tips for simplifying family celebrations so that you can include your loved one and keep him or her safe and stable. The noise, the lights, the laughter, and the multiple conversations can be confusing and agitating for someone with dementia. The shift in schedules to accommodate a traditional meal throws them off their much-needed routine, and they don’t know why there are suddenly 20 strangers in the house for dinner asking them, “Do you remember me?”

Our own holidays are simple affairs now. We might visit a cousin’s house, but we will come home early. We don’t go to midnight mass, and our gifts to Mom are simple — an inexpensive watch that catches her eye, warm winter pants, or a framed family photo she can keep on a table or shelf. I’m learning to appreciate the fact that while Mom doesn’t know why the houses on her block are decorated with thousands of lights, she likes looking at them. She may not know why I’m at her house for weeks on end, but she’s appreciative when I cook her a dinner she likes, when I take her for a walk, or when we shop at the grocery store where the cashiers all know her and treat her with great care and affection. Slowly, I’m finding that this is enough. Isn’t that the real meaning of the holidays — to spend meaningful time with those we love?