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?”
Yesterday, we went for a walk, my mother and I. We had just finished lunch in the main dining room of the senior home, one of her favorite things to do.
“This is a horrible place,” my mother says, the chocolate cake from moments ago long forgotten. “You can’t imagine what happens here.”
I’ve heard this almost as many times as I’ve heard what a wonderful place it is. And I’ve learned over the years to nod, smile and redirect when she experiences the extreme emotions of Alzheimer’s.
“Look at the beautiful marigold bush!” I point to the purple sage on the xeriscaped lawn. These days, we call most flowers “marigolds,” regardless of hue. The familiar memory erases her distress as swiftly as she shifts between reality and dementia.
Today, when I visit, the residents are listing famous heroes on the white board. We take a walk, my mother and I. She picks a few pink oleanders.
“What beautiful marigolds!” she says. “I love this place!”
When we return, we begin a new white board game with her friends, listing all the things they love about living here.
“Chocolate cake!” my mother yells out. “We haven’t had that in years!”
Home. More than a place, it’s the state of living in blissful gratitude—a luxury after decades as a road warrior, where home was an airport, hotel room, rental car.
And even as life later pulled me along its bungee cord of obligation, caring for my mother in the island house of my childhood never felt like home.
Now, having moved her near me, I’ve found my home. I have a routine. I’ve said this before, but it’s been a lie. This time I’m different.
I write at dawn. Run the dogs. Take mom shopping. Spend time with my husband. Volunteer. Hike with friends. On evening strolls, I breathe in muted cheers of a softball game in the park, the thick mesquite of a neighbor’s firepit.
The rhythm of routine seeps into my soul. My soundtrack: the breath of home.