Dec 23, 2012

Christmas Memories Past and Present

My heartfelt thoughts are with all of the caregivers, families and friends of anyone with Alzheimer's as you approach the present Christmas and also for those, like me, who have already lost someone and have only memories of Christmases past.

By Elaine C. Pereira
Alzheimer's Reading Room

Christmas Memories Past and Present

Although it gets better every year, I still harbor a little love/hate relationship with Christmas.

I love Christmas music but not at Halloween.

I like gift giving but not the incessant television commercialism.

I like having friends and family together but miss mine, mostly my mom.

But even before she died in 2011 from Alzheimer's, past Christmases had been rough for both of us.

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As I approach the present Christmas, my second, without her, I remember Christmases past with Mom, all memorable, but not without drama. Last year my motto was "anywhere but home." I couldn't fathom decorating our fifteen-foot tree and not breaking down repeatedly in a puddle of tears as I unwrapped all of the too-numerous-to-count, hand made ornaments Mom had cross-stitched, sewn, beaded, adorned and crafted over the years and years of Christmases past.

I avoided hanging the Christmas stockings she had also bejeweled with her exquisite craftswomanship including silk ribbon embroidery detailing.

I especially recall my mom's bizarre, dementia induced behaviors of Christmas Day 2009. Mom was at my house along with one of my daughters' and step-sons' families.

After dinner and dessert, we gathered back in the living room on Christmas evening. My mom was sitting on the couch next to her granddaughter Christie. Mom was rifling through her purse “looking for something” that she couldn’t identify. I watched her somewhat disorganized and purposeless searching. She took her wallet out and then put it back in. She took it out again, set it in her lap, and then drove her hand back into the black purse like a child grabbing for a handful of candy. Next, she took out her checkbook, opened it, stared at it, and put it back in her purse. When she took out a clearly used Kleenex and put it back in, I walked over to intervene.

“How are you doing, Mom? Have you had a nice day?” I asked. “I’m glad you’re here with us.” I carefully confiscated the dirty tissue and cupped it in my hand to dispose of later.

“I’m looking for my checkbook,” she said. “I can’t find it.” She was definitely frustrated and moving her hands more quickly but randomly.

“I think it’s in your purse. Is that it?” I offered as I pointed directly at the edge of her lavender checkbook cover embossed with Garfield and Odie.

She didn’t answer me as she removed it for a second time and opened it up. I noticed that there were two checkbook packs but no check register. I sat on the armrest of the couch while she ruffled through the pages so I could see clearly.

“Did you send a check to Angie (my daughter/her her granddaughter) this year? I know you don’t really shop much anymore.”

“Yes. Well, no. I don’t think so. I’m going to.” Her reply was choppy. “I didn’t write one for you and Joe either.”

“You don’t have to give us a check, Mom. We’re just glad you came,” I said as she pulled out a pen and attempted to start writing a check to us anyway.

“What’s the date?” she asked, seriously unable to recall it. I suppressed an inappropriate chuckle.

“December 25,” I answered.

She smiled as she looked up at me and said sheepishly, “Of course,” as she shook her head.

Well, I thought, at least that piece is intact.

Christie was watching her grandmother as intently as I was. Mom had pulled a blank Christmas card from her purse. I thought it was fortuitous that she had planned ahead to bring cards. She tried over and over to address the card with Christie’s name.

First, she spelled it with a K. She scratched that out and wrote it with a y ending rather than an ie. I could see Christie’s furled brow and soft pout reflect how sad she felt inside to see her grandma struggling. I rested my chin in my hand, fanned my fingers apart to camouflage my own facial expressions of disappointment.

Mom put the card down and stared at her checkbook, poring over it as if she was hoping for some inspiration and direction on what to do next. She apparently attempted to write numbers, but they were indecipherable, resembling random scratch marks.

Cautiously, I asked, “Would you like me to look through your checkbook? Maybe I could help straighten it out a little?”

Her previously stressed expression melted away as she smiled and looked up at me, almost with puppy-dog eyes, and said “Yes. I would like that.”

It was a disaster. She had two checkbooks with a smattering of checks missing, some checks partially made out and no check register. The woman who had handled all of my parent's finances for decades and taught high school calculus couldn't retrieve even enough long term memory any more to write out a simple check.

* * *

I'm skipping out on this intense emotional drama this Christmas too, but I am starting to feel nostalgic and managed to hang up Mom's elegantly made stockings without falling apart. Perhaps by next Christmas 2013 I'll smile when I open the boxes and boxes and boxes of precious ornaments made with her beautiful, small but strong hands! I wish they were here now to hold me tight as I would her.

My heartfelt thoughts are with all of the caregivers, families and friends of anyone with Alzheimer's as you approach the present Christmas and also for those, like me, who have already lost someone and have only memories of Christmases past.

Elaine C. Pereira is a retired school occupational therapist who worked with special needs children. She earned her bachelor’s degree in occupational therapy from Wayne State University and later completed her master’s degree. Pereira and her husband live in Michigan. Elaine is the author of - I Will Never Forget: A Daughter's Story of Her Mother's Arduous and Humorous Journey Through Dementia

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Original content Bob DeMarco, the Alzheimer's Reading Room